Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Most Demanding Food Goddess of All: Chocolate

Don't get me wrong, I love chocolate. I adore chocolate. I offer a silent prayer of thanks to the Mesoamericans who first came across the lovely cacao pod, Theobroma cacao, every time I encounter a new or really good type of chocolate. How else could the lowly pod have gotten its name, which means "food of the gods?"


My worshipful demeanor often turns ugly when I'm working with chocolate, instead of eating it. Like any goddess worth her robes, chocolate can be a fickle, unpredictable mistress, reducing even the best pastry chefs to tears. It doesn't take kitchen expertise to know this. How many of us have burnt chocolate while trying to melt it? Or had a bit of liquid get into a bowl and turn it into a seized up mess? Or have it separate into oily and grainy layers that seem impossible to bring together again? And let's not think back on all the chocolate desserts we've slaved, hoped, and yes, prayed over, wanting a beautiful, delicious result - but what we got was a waxy or grainy texture, or an underwhelming chocolate taste. How could our goddess desert us, after all our praises and offerings unto her?

And my lamentations above don't address her greatest challenge: tempering chocolate. You think you've prostrated yourself before this goddess? Grasshopper, you haven't begun to suffer if you haven't tried to temper her. This most marvelous molecule, luscious as it is, harbors chemical secrets that make working with it as much art as it is science. But over the past few months of doing a lot of tempering of this difficult goddess, and reading even more about how easy/hard it is to temper chocolate and other people's instructions and hints, I think I'm getting the hang of it. I'm not an expert at all, and if there's one thing I've learned it's that just about everybody has developed a process that works for her - but might not work for somebody else. I've got my own method, but while finding it I learned a lot that I hope will help others minimize their time cursing the goddess Theobroma, and instead sing her praises.

I don't intend this to be a complete tutorial, but before I start talking about tempering chocolate I have to say a few things about types of chocolate. Chocolate making is a complex process, beginning with growing the trees. Different varieties have different characteristics, and when grown in different conditions can have various flavor signatures. Cacao undergoes roasting, conching, sometimes blending, and often, having other ingredients added to it in the process of turning pods into what we know as chocolate. All these things influence the taste, and of course the price. I do think that there's an increasing amount of chocolate snobbery going on lately, as more people discover some of the subtle taste differences, but that doesn't mean that Valrhona or Lindt are just overpriced Hershey's. Or for a more fair comparison, eat a Hershey's kiss and then a Dove chocolate, and tell me you can't taste or feel any difference. Quality cacao pods and careful handling make a much better product, and it will cost more for them. How much should you spend for good chocolate? Well, that depends on you. If it's just going into chocolate chip cookies for your kids, then Nestle's Toll House chips are probably fine. But if you're making a lavish dessert for an important dinner party, or for an intimate meal with the love of your life, then splurging on the best chocolate you can find will reward you. Anytime you need the deep, rich taste of chocolate to come through, get real chocolate, not the "chocolate chips" or "chocolate morsels" stuff that's had some of the cocoa butter removed and replaced with other fats. That changes the chocolate flavor, and it changes how the chocolate behaves. streaky, incompletely tempered chocolate

Most importantly for now, those chocolate-like food substances can't be tempered. Tempering chocolate is the process of making the molecules align a certain way. When they're aligned in that configuration, the chocolate hardens very quickly, it takes on a shiny, smooth look, and it gets a characteristic snap that you can hear and feel when you break into tempered chocolate. The problem is, chocolate molecules can align in several different ways, and only one yields beautifully tempered chocolate. So it takes some work to get our goddess to behave for us. The picture above shows a cascade of semi-tempered chocolate in a bowl. The streaks come out as the chocolate hardened and the cocoa butter "bloomed" out of some of it. Streaky chocolate like this almost always means that the chocolate hasn't been stirred enough. You see, this caressing of our goddess improves her mood, and causes the beta crystals - the alignment that's commonly known as tempered chocolate - to encourage other molecules to fall into step with them.

But stirring isn't enough to make the molecules swing into step. It takes careful manipulation of temperature too. And this is where things start to get tricky. If you've looked at procedures for tempering chocolate, you have seen different ranges of temperatures and probably pulled your hair out in frustration. Which one is right?

They all might be.

The precise temperature at which chocolate will temper depends on lots of things. Generally, white and milk chocolates come into temper at lower temperatures, usually around 84-86°F, and the darker the chocolate, the higher the temperature - dark or bittersweet chocolate tempers around 88°F. But different brands and varieties of "milk" or "bittersweet" chocolate have different amounts of chocolate liquor and cocoa butter in them, so any temperature is best thought of as a very rough guide.

And we're not on the home stretch yet. The chocolate needs to be heated higher than this, then cooled to where the beta crystals begin forming. There are lots of ways to do this, and I've tried a few. For me, the marble slab technique works best. It's the fastest and most consistent method I've found. Here's the general procedure.

Heat the chocolate to be tempered up to 115°F and hold it there for 3-4 minutes. I do this by using the microwave in brief bursts, and stirring it in between each burst (to make sure I don't burn the chocolate).

Then I pour about 2/3 of the chocolate onto a clean, absolutely dry marble slab and spread it around, to get it to cool quickly. Let it sit until the temperature reads 92°F or lower. Then you begin moving the chocolate around to further cool it, and so that the beta crystals get well mixed into the chocolate when they start to form. I like to use my bench knife for this, I've seen other people use thin metal spatulas or even good plastic scrapers. When the chocolate starts to come into temper you'll start to see a line of thickened chocolate building up on your edge. When your chocolate gets into the appropriate temperature range listed above, pour it back into the bowl and mix well so that the beta crystals are seeded throughout all the chocolate. Check the temperature and once the chocolate's at the suggested temperature, test for temper by putting a test drop out somewhere - on your marble or parchment paper work surface. If it's hard within 5 minutes, your chocolate is tempered and ready to use. Never trust your thermometer, ALWAYS test your chocolate for temper before working with it!

clump of tempered chocolate floating in untempered chocolate Stir the chocolate frequently while you're working with it, taking care not to add a lot of air to it. If you don't finish your work before the chocolate starts to set up, you can warm it up a bit. As long as you don't warm it above 92°F, it will stay in temper. Remember to stir and test after you warm it - depending on how much chocolate you're working with and the power of your microwave oven, 5-15 seconds will probably be enough without heating it too much. Check the temperature after each warming and test for temper before continuing your work. In the picture at the left, I was lazy about stirring the chocolate....so I got a small island of tempered chocolate that was surrounded by liquid chocolate. After taking that picture, I left the bowl in a cool spot in my kitchen, and an hour later, remembered it. The untempered chocolate was still very liquid!

I know lots of people are nervous about using the microwave for heating chocolate. It takes care and attention, but it can work really well. Obviously you can't use metal bowls, but they're not really good for tempering chocolate anyway because metals conduct heat too easily. So does glass. I have a big, cheap plastic bowl that I use only for tempering chocolate, and it works splendidly. I don't like to use the double boiler method because if water gets into the chocolate, it can ruin the entire batch as far as tempering goes. (It's still fine to use in recipes, especially ones that have added liquids - like ganaches, mousse, souffles, etc.)

Tempering chocolate isn't an activity that tolerates lots of interruptions. The goddess loves your attention to be focused on her, after all. But if you're going to go through the effort of making homemade candy, doesn't it make sense to use the best ingredients possible, and to give your all to creating gorgeous, delicious morsels? If you're going to do all that, it just makes sense to coat all that with the best chocolate you can buy, and treat that goddess right. Temper her carefully, and enrobe your centers in her lovely brown beauty. Then keep your gems cool and separated so that shiny surface doesn't get marred before you serve them. And be prepared to receive lots of adulation yourself from the lucky people who get to enjoy them!

Great post KQ! I have bookmarked it for future use!
Great post, I am too scared to even attempt to temper chocolate so I try to avoid it altogether...someday I think i'll have the courage to stand up to this goddess
you have a very imaginative way of writing, i absolutely loved this post! chocolate is one of my favourite things but i never mess with it...i will drive to Belgium and let them mess with it, they always seem to know what they're doing over there and it always turns out deliciously :)
Thanks, everybody. Jenjen, like any other god, Theobroma can smell your fear....so don't let it show! Tell her, and you, that you can do it and you will. But it might take a while, because it can be tricky. If I can learn it anybody can!

Catesa, I think even if I could drive to Belgium, I'd still be silly enough to play with chocolate myself. It's fun, interesting, and even if the results aren't picture perfect, they're tasty.
Wow, a super, informative post, and wonderfully written (I love all the goddess comparisons, and especially giving her her proper name, Theobroma! ha!). You really are a Queen of the Kitchen!
I've been thinking I'd like to try this--very helpful. I too have bookmarked it. (Plus, it made me drool.)
I'm bookmarking this for fall, when I might contemplate heating the kitchen enough to temper chocolate. (are you in some hidden, cool part of Washington? the rest of us are melting without benefit of tempering!) This might even save me from buying my friend's used tempering machine...although it's such a cool kitchen toy!
Hi kitchenmage, thanks for commenting! I am in a cool part of Washington, but this item was written back in June, when it was cooler. I have more to say on tempering chocolate, and that will include tempering machines, but I was thinking of waiting to do that until fall. Basically, tempering machines are good tools IF you do a lot of work that requires tempered chocolate. But they're expensive, and they do NOT substitute for knowing how to temper chocolate. Theobroma will not tolerate being automated!
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