What is more luxurious than a pool of perfectly smooth, perfectly ready-to-do-your-bidding chocolate? One that will coat whatever you want, and harden almost instantly to a shiny, firm-to-the-touch surface that snaps when you break it?

A baker stirring a bowl of melted chocolate over a double boiler Jenn Bakos
Tempering chocolate can seem intimidating at first, but once you know the basics, you'll be on your way to becoming a chocolate master.

Our love affair with chocolate is never-ending, but as in all good relationships, there are some things that work and some that just... don't. The wise person knows all they can about their true love, and accepts that certain behaviors get better results. That's why knowing about tempering chocolate is important.

Sure, you can melt chocolate chips or those melting discs you see at the store and coat things, but the flavor and texture aren't quite what true chocolate apprecianados are looking for. Kind of like dating the brother of the guy you're really interested in.

The part of chocolate that allows it to melt so sumptuously in your mouth is cocoa butter, and it's made of a family of crystals (six types altogether). What makes working with chocolate tricky is each type of crystal forms or sets at a different temperature, and some of those forms aren't very stable; they can change over time and in storage.

Chocolate wafers that have bloomed and look dusty next to chocolate still in temper that looks shiny Jenn Bakos
The chocolate wafers on the right have bloomed while the wafers on the left are in temper.

When chocolate gets too warm, but not warm enough to melt, some of the cocoa butter crystals can migrate to the surface; this dusty-looking chocolate has "bloomed." It's fine to eat or bake with, but it's no longer "in temper."

A small tray of melted chocolate that has bloomed Jenn Bakos
A chalky, dusty coating or a mottled appearance are key indicators that chocolate has bloomed. Remember: still tasty, just not as shiny or snappy as chocolate in temper.

Real chocolate vs. candy coating

Before we get to tempering, we need to explain what is and isn't chocolate.

Three small piles of chocolate including candy melts, chocolate chips, and couveture chocolate Jenn Bakos
Don't be fooled by what is and isn't chocolate. Picture from left to right are candy melts, chocolate chips, and couverture chocolate. (Only the latter two are real chocolate.)
  • Candy coating/candy melts/summer coating are made of sugar, milk solids, vegetable oils, flavorings and colors; for "chocolate" flavors, you'll also find some cocoa powder. The great virtue of these things is their convenience. Melt, dip whatever (cake pops come to mind), let them set at room temperature. Their almost bulletproof usability is offset by a waxy feel in the mouth, and as for flavor? Meh. Kids like them, partly because you'll find them in a wide range of colors. But they're not chocolate, and therefore, not for me.
  • Chocolate chips are chocolate that has soy lecithin added to it to raise its melting temperature, so the chips hold their shape when baked. This increase in melting temperature makes them a little trickier to coat things with, which is why we use them to make the next type of chocolate ...
  • Dipping chocolate usually chocolate chips with some shortening added, we've used this many times to coat things in our recipes. Ratio: 1 tablespoon shortening for each cup (170g) of chips. This formula doesn't set as firmly as tempered chocolate will, and on a hot day you may need to put whatever you've dipped into the fridge for a bit, but it's perfectly serviceable for coating those pretzels, Oreos, or snack cakes.

What are the percents on chocolate labels?

To quote Chef Peter Greweling, CMB, from his excellent book Chocolates & Confections, "Simply put, the percentage listed on a label describes the portion of the chocolate that came from the cacao tree. The percentage of chocolate represents the combination of chocolate liquor [chocolate (cacao) solids] and cocoa butter, but fails to differentiate between them. As a result, two chocolates, each of them labeled 65%, can be radically different from each other."

Which brings us to: 

  • Couverture. For dipping and coating, this is the stuff you're after. Our couverture chocolates are from Guittard (semi-sweet disks, 61%); Valhrona (bittersweet discs, 62%) and Belcolade (bittersweet disks, 57.8%). As Chef Greweling states above, the percent indicates cacao mass; for couvertures, the ratio of cocoa to cocoa butter favors the latter. More cocoa butter means the chocolate will be thinner when melted, and therefore coat or drape more easily. You can temper and coat with most any chocolate, including semisweet, milk, or white; they just need slightly different handling, mostly regarding temperatures.

Methods for tempering chocolate

There's more than one way to temper chocolate. One of them is called tabling. 

chocolate on marble

Chocolatiers like this method because it's efficient, and they get an immediate feel for how the chocolate is behaving. An amount of chocolate is melted, then 2/3 of it is spread on a clean marble slab and moved around to cool it until it starts to thicken. This paste is added back to the remaining melted chocolate to "seed" it; once tempered it's held between 86°F and 90°F and ready to use. Tabling is a wonderful method to use, provided you have lots of space and a large block of marble hanging around. Moving it around is kind of hypnotic.

There's also an approach typically reserved for those with lots of experience working with chocolate: it's called the direct melt method. By very carefully melting and stirring the chocolate and keeping it within specific temperature ranges, chocolate can be kept in temper the whole time. It's tricky to do, and takes some practice.

For many home bakers though, the most practical method of tempering chocolate is a process called seeding. Even the renowned pastry chef Roland Mesnier joked about the tabling method, saying "Who has time for that these days?" He used the seeding method when teaching a class at our Baking School, too, so don't think this method is inferior in the least.

Seeding is simple once you know the basic tenets and temperatures to guide your work. Let's dive in. 

A baker dipping a stick of shortbread into tempered chocolate Kristin Teig
After tempering chocolate a few times, you'll be tempted to dip desserts of all kinds (including shortbread) into the dreamy confection.

What tools do you need to temper chocolate by seeding?

An accurate digital thermometer is important.

A bowl, a spatula to stir with, a saucepan with an inch of water in it, or a microwave to melt the chocolate. Parchment paper to place your cooling chocolates on. Depending on your project, you may want dipping tools, molds, parchment paper cones (for writing with melted chocolate), or an offset spatula for spreading tempered chocolate on the back of a baking sheet or transfer sheet.

In a nutshell, seeding can be shown and explained in just a few pictures and steps. The short version: Get the chocolate hot (but not too hot) and melted. Add chunks of unmelted chocolate. This is the seeding part. Stir and cool, take out the unmelted leftovers, test to see if it sets properly, then dip, dip, dip. The real key, though is in the details of the temperatures you need to achieve. For a full chart on specific melting temperatures for different kinds of chocolate, see our chocolate tempering temperatures table.

A mix of different kinds of chocolate on a table including chocolate chips, chopped chocolate, and chocolate bars Jenn Bakos
Since the chocolate will be melted, you can combine different forms (chips, chunks, chopped chocolate) as long as they're around the same cocoa percentage.

Melt the chocolate: Chop the chocolate with a knife or chocolate chipper. Or, use our disks, which are already in an easy-to-melt shape and don't need any chopping at all. It's best to have a pretty healthy amount: at least a pound to start with. Two is better. The more volume you have, the better it will hold the temperature where you need it to stay to be workable.

Chocolate wafers in a bowl of a double boiler about to be melted Jenn Bakos
Starting with a small amount of chocolate (less than 10 ounces) is a good place to start if you're new to tempering chocolate. Smaller batches are easier to control and monitor.

It's typical for chocolatiers to work with 10-pound batches at a time. Tempering a movie-size bar of Special Dark is possible, but it's going to be tricky, because its temperature is going to fluctuate wildly and, frankly, in this process, every single degree counts. There's not enough thermal mass in that small an amount to stay at one temperature for seconds, much less the minutes you'll want for working with it.

Place the chocolate in a bowl and put it over simmering water, or microwave it at half power in short (30-second) bursts, stirring in between. There will come a point where your chocolate is partly melted, with shiny-looking chunks that haven't lost their shape. That's about as far as you want to go, because you can melt it the rest of the way just by stirring. Your goal is to get all the different types of crystals melted and the chocolate to smooth liquid, with no lumps. Take the chocolate's temperature.

  • For bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, your goal is 122°F/50°C on the first melt.
  • For milk or white chocolate, your goal is 105°F/40°C on the first melt.
Chocolate wafers in a double boiler that have started to melt Jenn Bakos
Melting chocolate over a double boiler is a practice in patience. Don't leave your post!

Two important things to avoid: Scorching (microwave); and getting any water in the chocolate (simmering water). Both of these things will ruin your chocolate and you'll have to start over. Water in melted chocolate "seizes" it, causing instant recrystallization –  not in a good way. The chocolate will be unworkable.

Seeding: Once your chocolate has reached the specified temperature, add a good-sized chunk of chocolate ("block seeding") or some more chopped chocolate to your lovely pool of melted chocolate. The stable crystals in this new addition encourage stable crystal formations in the melted chocolate. Stirring becomes very important here, because agitating the chocolate ensures smaller crystals will form and stay in suspension.

A baker adding seed chocolate to melted chocolate over a double boiler Jenn Bakos
Adding about 25% unmelted chocolate (or "seed chocolate") by weight to the melted chocolate will help bring the whole mixture into temper.

Cool: Stir continuously until the chocolate is at or below 90°F/32°C; as low as 86°F/30°C for dark chocolate or 84°F/28.9°C for milk or white. Every chocolate has its own "sweet spot" for this, and you almost have to learn the personality of individual brands and types. I'll tell you right now, it takes longer than you want it to. You have to be at peace with the process because it takes what it takes.

A baker testing the temperature of a bowl of melted chocolate; it reads 86 degrees. Jenn Bakos
Chocolate doesn't need to be piping hot to stay in temper; a mere 86°F will do.

Test: Dip a knife, spoon, or spatula into the chocolate and set it down at cool room temperature (65°F to 70°F). If the chocolate is in temper it will harden quite quickly (within 3 to 5 minutes) and become firm and shiny. If you touch it, your finger will come away clean.

A baker holding two offset spatulas that are being used to test chocolate in temper Jenn Bakos
The offset spatula on the top was dipped into chocolate that was melted and then allowed to cool; it's dull and not properly tempered. The spatula on the bottom was dipped into chocolate that was carefully melted and then seeded with more chocolate, so it remains shiny even once cool.

If the chocolate is too cool or out of temper, it will often set in streaks or look lumpy, like this:

Two spoons dipped into chocolate, one that's shiny and in temper and one that's dull and not properly tempered Jenn Bakos
The spoon on the top was dipped into untempered chocolate; the bottom is dipped in tempered chocolate.

Hold at working temperature and dip away: Most chocolate is easiest to work with between 88°F to 90°F. You can put your bowl over another bowl of warm water, put it on a folded towel over a very low heating pad, or even try using a mug warmer. As you work with it, the chocolate may cool down; to bring it back up to a better working temperature, try grabbing your hair dryer and warming the chocolate with it, stirring the whole time. You'll have the best results if whatever you're dipping is close to the temperature of your working chocolate. As chocolate sets it contracts – which is one reason it pops out of molds easily.

A baker using a hair dryer to warm chocolate and keep it in temper Jenn Bakos
A hair dryer can be a handy tool in the kitchen! It's perfect for gently rewarming a bowl of chocolate in temper.

Think of what you can do with your lovely, tempered chocolate. Envelop berries in a coat of dark chocolate.

Strawberries on a baking sheet dipped into dark chocolate Liz Neily
Strawberries dipped in tempered chocolate have a lovely shine.

Tempered chocolate can also be used to coat all kinds of cookies, including flaky, pastry-like rye palmiers.

Rye palmiers partially dipped into tempered chocolate Liz Neily
The nutty flavors of rye are a complementary match for the bittersweet notes of chocolate.

It can also be used to dress up everyday cookies, like peanut butter chocolate chip

Peanut butter chocolate chip cookies that have been dipped into tempering chocolate, resting on a cooling rack Mary Lagier
Ordinary cookies can be made extra-special with a quick dip into a bowl of tempered chocolate.

Or use tempered chocolate to take an already decadent dessert over the top. Dunk chocolate desserts (like these Chocolate Peppermint Dips) into tempered chocolate to ensure a seal of approval from everyone.

Chocolate and peppermint sandwich cookies that have been partially dipped into tempered chocolate Mary Lagier
Is there such a thing as too much chocolate? Not if you ask us!

Tempering tips to remember

When the chocolate is right and it's performing its miracle in front of your eyes, it's just the greatest feeling. If you're fascinated and want to give this a go, here are a few things to remember.

  • The chocolate wins. Always. You need to work on its terms, not yours. Dry, cool days are good for your first try.
  • Don't try to rush; make sure you have a few hours to devote to the task.
  • The leftover chocolate can turned into ganache or sauce, chopped to put in cookies or brownies, or re-tempered and used to make homemade candy bars or chocolate bark.
A baker using an offset spatula to spread tempered chocolate on a small baking sheet Jenn Bakos
Tempered chocolate can be poured onto a baking sheet or mini sheet pan and garnished with ingredients like toasted nuts, freeze-dried fruit, or flaky sea salt.

The next time you're gazing longingly at the case in a chocolate shop, give a nod to the patience, talent, and dedication of the people who made each of those beautiful chocolates by hand.

Do you have more questions about tempering chocolate? Ask away in the comments below! 

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About Susan Reid

Susan Reid is a chef, baker, teacher, writer, and swimmer. She’s been cooking since her mother drafted her to make appetizers for family dinner parties at the age of 12. Like most liberal arts majors (Bates College), she ran away from home after graduating. After landing in Chicago, she backed into ...
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