I started to make chocolates at home when I was about 8. To my shame, my first endeavours were with ‘cooking chocolate’; a very stable and easy medium to work with – mostly because it’s not really chocolate. It contains vegetable fats instead of cocoa butter, and still tastes a bit chocolatey but the texture is rough and greasy. I soon moved on!
The real stuff, and the couverture we use at Davenport’s Chocolates is a much more glorious concoction. But real chocolate, as you may have found can be tricky to work with, and it is the properties of cocoa butter that you need to master to create smooth and glistening chocolates at home. I’m going to share some tips and tricks to help make your chocolatering pursuits easier.
Firstly you need to understand your chocolate. The cocoa butter within the chocolate is what makes it ‘set’. And the cocoa butter is made up of crystals that all bind together. When the chocolate gets too hot, all these bonds are destroyed, and chocolate has no way of binding together properly. So you get white, streaky, sugar or fat crystals all setting slowly and separately. It looks and tastes gritty and flavourless (though it is not mouldy). This is why temperature is so critical in chocolate making. It is all to do with creating the best conditions for the crystals to set quickly and strongly, so that they bind all the particles together into smooth, unctuous chocolate that will melt in the mouth.
There are different types of crystals within chocolate, and the process of getting them to set perfectly is called tempering (because the temperature is so critical!). I’m not going to cover all the technicalities of tempering here but I really want to give you the best tips to give you the best results without complicating it too much. (Come and do a workshop with me and I’ll show you in more depth!)
Here are some fail safe ways of melting and using chocolate that shines beautifully, whether you are using it to pipe, mould or sculpt with.
If you melt chocolate slowly enough, you will be able to stop heating it before the bonds are destroyed. You can either heat the chocolate over a bain marie, or use a microwave. But the secret is to take it off the heat when only half of it has just dissolved. If you then give it a good stir, the melted parts might be warm enough to melt the unmelted parts. If not, give it a little more heat (20 seconds on a bain marie, or 5 seconds in a microwave) and stir again. Repeat until your chocolate is only just melted. This should then have retained the bonds to help it set quickly and with a great shine! Practice will help you work out how quickly chocolate melts, and when to just stir in the lumps. But start off slowly, as overheating the chocolate is the common mistake.
If you are feeling like you want to delve into the world of chocolate regularly, invest in a good digital thermometer. And don’t let the chocolate exceed a temperature of 32’C. Test the set – get a knife and dip it in the chocolate, tap off the excess and then leave it to set. If you have correctly tempered chocolate, it should set within a minute. If not, the chocolate has probably got too hot. But all is not lost! You still have a few options to redeem it.
Finely chop about a third more chocolate, and stir into your melted bowl of chocolate. This will help to ‘seed’ the correct crystals into the melted chocolate and spread it through the mix. (I am leaving the amount approximate here, as the amount you will need to add depends on how warm your chocolate has become).
Tip about half of your mixture into a large bowl, and stir it around to encourage it to cool and thicken (Movement and cooling are both ways of creating the correct crystal bonds to grow). Then add this back to the warm bowl of chocolate and test again.
Change of plan, Decide that you didn’t want melted chocolate anyway, and that you’d really like a chocolate sauce instead. You can easily turn melted chocolate into a ganache by adding about a third of boiled cream (or melt a large knob of butter into some boiled milk). Stir it into your chocolate for a glossy unctuous chocolate ganache. This will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks, and is wonderful on icecream or spread over a chocolate cake.
I’ve been working professionally for 15 years now, and I can usually tell the temperature of the chocolate almost just by looking at it. My senses have become attuned to the behaviour of chocolate, and I often temper chocolate intuitively rather than using measurements (much to the chagrin of those I am trying to train!) It is much easier to follow rules, and this should always be the starting point with chocolate work. Learn the principles of tempering and you will lay a good foundation for working with chocolate.
If this has whetted your appetite, come and take part one of my chocolate master classes. One of which, of course covers the fundemental building block of tempering!
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