Baking cookies from scratch is a culinary rite of passage. Many of us remember tying on an apron and standing (on tiptoes, maybe) at the kitchen counter, learning to bake a batch of chocolate chip cookies alongside our parents. But making chocolate candies at home? Few of us can say we've ever given it a go.
In most cases, shaping and baking cookies is not so much quicker or easier than forming and dipping chocolates. I'm convinced that the difference in popularity is explained in one step: tempering chocolate. Something about the word "tempering" is intimidating, and it puts many of us off ever trying it. But honestly, it's a lot of fun, and once you understand the process, it's worth spending an afternoon creating a bunch of hand-dipped chocolates, or a few sheets of professional-looking chocolate bark in your own kitchen. But first, you need to understand what the term tempering means.
What Is Tempering?
It's not that the technique is difficult, but it is more science than art. Simply put, tempering makes a substance stronger, and more consistently smooth throughout, by heating and then cooling it evenly. Take tempered glass, for example. It behaves more predictably than standard glass, breaking into more even pieces (and thus, reducing the risk of cutting yourself with large, dangerous shards). Similarly, tempered chocolate breaks evenly, with the same texture throughout and a more pronounced snap when you break it in half (or better yet, bite into it). It has a glossy sheen, and it melts more pleasantly on the tongue than chocolate that's been simply melted, poured, and cooled.
Why Bother with Tempering?
If you've ever tried to make chocolates without tempering, you'll know that the surface looks dull, with whitish, dusty-looking spots in places. This is similar to the "bloom" you might see on a bar of chocolate that has been stored for a long time. The discoloration results from fluctuations in temperature that occur during storage. As the chocolate heats and cools, some of the moisture (namely, the fat in the cocoa butter) evaporates, causing those unsightly spots on the exterior. The chocolate should still taste fine (unless it's been stored for a really long time), but its appearance and texture make it unappealing, no matter how fierce your craving for it.
So, when you're making chocolate candies from scratch, you will end up with dull, dusty surfaces unless you control the temperature from start to finish. Sound complicated? It really isn't, although the process of tempering is enough to scare off all but the most ambitious home cooks.
Truffles Are the Exception
It's worth noting that chocolate truffles are an exception to the tempering rule, since they are made from chilled ganache (chocolate and cream, plus optional flavorings like liqueurs or extracts) rolled into balls and then coated in cocoa powder (or chopped nuts, cocoa nibs, crushed candies, and such). That's why you're likely to see recipes for truffles much more often than for true chocolate candies. Again, it's the fear factor, but it's easy to conquer.
Ways to Temper
The easiest way to temper chocolate is to use a tempering machine. It simplifies the science, eliminating any guesswork as it maintains the temperature for you. But the machines aren't cheap, and unless you're really into single-use kitchen gadgets, or plan to start an artisanal chocolate business, you probably don't need to invest in one.
The more traditional method involves melting chopped chocolate in a bowl set over a pot of very gently simmering (never boiling) water until it reaches a specific temperature, depending on the type of chocolate. (For milk chocolate, that's about 113°F, and for bittersweet chocolate, it's 118°F. If in doubt, you should find the exact temperature on the packaging; if not, check the manufacturer's website.) Once it reaches the correct temperature, you remove the bowl from the heat and add room temperature chocolate to the melted chocolate, stirring just until it cools to another specific temperature (again, this will depend on the type). Next, it's usually placed back over the warm water to heat up again, but only a few degrees this time. Techniques differ a bit here, but not too drastically. Our founder, Martha Stewart, and our Kitchen Conundrums expert Thomas Joseph like to keep the second portion of chocolate in one large piece and then remove it once the temperature is reached; others stir finely chopped chocolate into the melted chocolate in that second step. Chef and chocolatier Jacques Torres relies on an interesting method that requires an immersion blender.
Tips for Tempering Success
Regardless of the technique you choose, remember that the most important factor is consistency. We have a few tips will help ensure success, even on your first try. More than anything, keep any water from getting into the chocolate, which will compromise the moisture content. If you've melted the chocolate over a bowl of simmering water (as opposed to the microwave), place it on a kitchen towel when you transfer it to the counter. The towel will absorb any moisture, and also act as insulation to keep the temperature somewhat steady as it cools.
Don't use a wooden spoon to stir; a flexible spatula is best. For the most accurate temperature reading, keep the thermometer tip from touching the bottom of the bowl. Avoid trying to temper too much chocolate at once. Keep the quantities on the smaller side (3/4 to one pound is as much as you probably want to go). Use chocolate as soon as it's tempered. You can't work ahead when tempering chocolate, since temperature is everything. If you are covering a large quantity of candies, try breaking the tempering into more manageable batches.
Keep the method known as faux tempering in mind when you are pressed for time, or are not looking for an ultra professional finish. And unlike truly tempered chocolates, with their smoothly glossy exteriors, faux tempered ones have to be refrigerated after they're finished. To faux temper, first bring a saucepan with two inches of water to a simmer. Turn off the heat, and place a heatproof bowl with 3/4 pound finely chopped bittersweet chocolate over the saucepan, stirring just until chocolate melts. Remove the bowl from saucepan, and stir in 1 tablespoon vegetable oil or shortening. Use the chocolate right away, transferring the candies to a parchment-lined sheet to harden. Refrigerate them until ready to serve.
About a year ago, I tried my hand at tempering for the first time, with a batch of chocolate-covered peppermints from a recipe in a vintage cookbook. I was delighted with the results, as was my family. The appearance was indeed smooth and even, but I was especially taken with the snap. It was crisp and definitely audible, and the candies were much more fun to bite into than just another batch of chocolate chip cookies. I haven't tempered anything since, but it's nice to know that I can tackle the technique at home. And I'm sure I'll give it a try again some time relatively soon. And when I do, I've got my eye on these Chocolate Caramallows.