“What kind of a pastry chef doesn’t know how to temper chocolate?”
A cook asked me this question recently, after meeting a high level pastry chef who didn’t posess this fundamental skill. Her confusion is understandable. It is assumed pastry chefs earn their title after mastering basic techniques and honing them over years in professional kitchens.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. There is no obstacle course-like list of requirements to become a pastry chef. You don’t have to muck through tempering chocolates, wade through ice cream bases, climb over a wall of laminated doughs, dodge smoldering caramels, and tumble across a finish line that earns you the “pastry chef” title. The only thing a pastry chef position requires is that someone hires you to be a pastry chef.
In truth, it’s very easy to climb the ranks without having mastered fundamental techniques. If you have creative control, you can design a menu that avoids your weaknesses. Haven’t tempered chocolate since pastry school? No problem: make truffles instead of bonbons. Don’t remember how to laminate dough? Easy: serve your fruit and cream in a sucre shell instead of a vol-au-vent—or better yet, just buy the stuff. Never went to pastry school? That’s fine too: make modern desserts with fluid gels, maltodextrin powders, and Pacotized ice creams. With only four or five dishes on a dessert menu at a time, it’s quite possible to advance in your career with holes in your repertoire.
I would know: I myself did it for years. I employed the fake-it-till-you-temper-it mentality all the way to Alinea—and could have skirted through that restaurnt too had the only dessert that required tempering not fallen on me. I’m glad it did. I was responsible for the “birthday cake”: a hollow demisphere of tempered chocolate that was filled with birthday cake puree and a tiny cake crouton. I had no choice but to learn.
I wish I could give you a recipe for tempered chocolate. However, stripped of poetry and hand holding, it would read like this.
- Melt chocolate to the temperature reccomended by the manufacturer.
- Temper chocolate.
- Use tempered chocolate immediately.
The thing is, tempering chocolate requires a working knowledge of the technique. And working knowledge requires…working. A lot. Over and over again. I could tell you which temperature to melt your chocolate to; describe a spreading-and-scraping motion used in table tempering chocolate; and suggest the use of a microwave. But until your eyes see the chocolate thicken and crystallize, until your hands feel the change in viscosity, and you watch the end results both succeed and fail—until you know these subtle boundaries—everything I say is meaningless.
But here’s the beautiful thing about chocolate: it’s incredibly forgiving. If it isn’t tempered correctly, melt it down and try again. The chocolate will always behave the exactly the same way, so make subtle variations to your technique each time and keep trying. You don’t have to work at Alinea to learn that lesson.
A recipe for tempered chocolate
- Find a metal bowl twice the size of the amount of chocolate you are tempering. Put all the chocolate in this bowl and set it aside.
- Find a pot just with a mouth just a little smaller than the bowl you are using, and tall enough to nestle the bowl over the mouth of the pot with about 4 inches of space between the bottom of the pot and the bottom of the bowl.
- Fill the pot with 2 inches of water, and place it over a high flame. Cook until the water comes to a simmer, then reduce the heat to medium low, just enough to keep the water barely simmering and steamy.
- Place the bowl of chocolate over the pot of water and leave it alone for a few minutes, until you notice half the chocolate around the edges has melted and become quite fluid, but the chocolate it the middle is solid like a raft of ice cubes in a punch bowl. At this point, begin to stir the chocolate gently, and with intention, like the wax-on, wax-off strokes of the Karate Kid. You don’t want to add any air bubbles to the chocolate, just assist in the even melting of the chocolate.
- Take the temperature of the chocolate with a digital thermometer while stirring the last of the unmelted chocolate into the melted chocolate. The temperature should read at or just above the recommended melting temperature given by the manufacturer. Chocolate purchased publicly in a grocery store probably won’t give you this information, so use these temperatures as a rule of thumb……. 115 degrees F/ 50 degrees C for dark chocolate.
- By melting the chocolate above this temperature, you are eliminating every single cocoa butter crystal in the chocolate. There are a handful of different ones, and they all melt at different temperatures. By melting the chocolate to or slightly above the prescribed temperature, you are eradicating the presence of every kind of crystal swiming around in your brown goo.
- Now, you can start crystalizing the chocolate, rebuilding a motley crew of cocoa butter crystals. My friend Amber calls this “building your army” the more soldiers you have, the stronger your temper will be. I like to recrystallize my chocolate by tabling it. I am not in the majority, most pastry chefs and chocolatiers like to seed their chocolate. I prefer to watch the crystals build on the marble, It’s just my thing.
- To table-temper the chocolate, pour 2/3 of the chocolate into a puddle on a clean marble. Make sure the bottom of the bowl is wiped clean of any clingy water droplets, if they drop from your bowl into the chocolate you pour from it they can do some serious damage.
- Place a long metal spatula in your dominate hand and use it to spread the chocolate out until it’s about ¼ inch thick. With a bench knife in your non dominate hand, use it to scrape the chocolate back into the same puddle it first formed. Between each stroke, keep the long spatula hovering over the center of the chocolate, and use it to scrape clean any chocolate coating the bench scraper.
- Continue expanding and contracting the chocolate out in this manner, until the chocolate begins to thicken slightly. Depending on the ambient temperature and the amount of chocolate on your table, this can take anywhere from 4 to a lot of contractions. Take the temperature of the chocolate, and stop this process when the chocolate falls to the crystalizing temperature recommended by the manufacturer, or these basic temperatures…… 85 degrees F / 28 degrees C.
- As with Golem’s precious, there is one crystal to rule them all. You’re army is now strong in numbers, but you need to give it real strength by systematically weeding out the weak. We do this by increasing the temperature, thus melting away all crystals with lower melting points. Immediately scrape the crystalized chocolate from your table back into the bowl with the1/3 of melted chocolate. The residual heat from the melted chocolate will be enough to increase the temperature of the chocolate by a couple two-three degrees, back up to it’s manufacturer recommended working temperature, or 90 degrees F/31 degrees C. If it’s not, place the bowl over the same pot you melted it in, in 15 second intervals, stiring and taking the temperature.
- Stir, stir, stir, just as intentionally gentle as when you were melting it, thoroughly mixing the chocolate, forcing all weaklings into oblivion, eliminating the possibility of “streaking”.
- Now, if done right, only one chocolate crystal remains, one that is strong enough to hold a “snap” when it hardens, that doesn’t melt at room temperature, and shines like darth vaders helmet.
- Before you throw caution to the wind, dip a tiny corner of a piece of paper into the chocolate and let it sit in a cool place at room temperature for a minute or two. If it is in temper, it will begin to curl the paper, and solidify. If your chocolate melts on contact when tapped with your fingertip, start over. If it doesn’t solidify, start over.
- If the chocolate is firm to the touch, doesn’t melt when met with your finger tip, and firms up quickly and snappy, then let your heart be free and use your tempered chocolate as you wish. Congratulate yourself, you dodged a bullet. My earliest success rate was about 1 in 6.-