We use chocolate in everything from cakes and brownies to sauce and homemade candies, but when is it best to simply use melted chocolate and when should we use tempered chocolate? And what's actually the difference between melting and tempering?
The Difference Between Melting and Tempering Chocolate
While the processes for melting and tempering both use heat to transform chocolate, the specifics of each are quite different. But the main thing that distinguishes melted and tempered chocolate is the stability of the crystal structure of the chocolate, which ultimately affects both the appearance and texture of the chocolate. Melted chocolate is made up of a network of unstable crystals, while tempered chocolate is composed of a network of stable crystals.
More About Melting Chocolate
The process of melting chocolate uses heat to transform it from a solid to liquid state. This can be done on the stovetop, in the microwave, with a double boiler, or with a water bath. It also isn't necessary to use a thermometer when melting chocolate.
While cookies, candies, and any other treats coated with a melted and cooled chocolate shell will taste just fine, the most noticeable difference from using melted instead of tempered chocolate takes place in the appearance and texture of the chocolate. Melted chocolate can take on a flat, dull, mottled, or even streaky appearance, with a texture that's soft instead of crisp.
When chocolate is used in a sauce, as a glaze, or as an ingredient that's mixed into the batter for baked goods, there's no need to temper the chocolate; it's okay to just stick with simple melted chocolate.
More About Tempering Chocolate
While the process of tempering does involve melting chocolate, there's a bit more to it. I talked to Alice Medrich, who pointed out that there are three important components to tempering chocolate (it's not just heat). She says that properly tempering chocolate relies on the combination of temperature, time, and stirring, and results in chocolate with a glossy sheen, even texture, and a crisp snap when broken. Tempered chocolate is largely used in confections, like molded chocolates, chocolate decorations, and anything that gets dipped in chocolate.
When chocolate is melted, the molecules of fat separate. The process of tempering brings them back together, and when done properly, results in a network of stable crystals. This is what gives tempered chocolate its glossy, even tone throughout, and the noticeable snap when broken into pieces.
The process of tempering chocolate involves three steps: heating the chocolate to to melt the fat crystals (all the crystals are destroyed), cooling the chocolate to bring the temperature down (new beta-crystals are formed), and then carefully reheating it again. The exact temperatures vary slightly depending on the type of chocolate being tempered.
Tempering can be done on the stovetop with a double boiler, or in the microwave. But even with a good set of instructions, this is a tricky process to get right — especially if you haven't tried it before.
When to Melt and When to Temper
If you're making a batter, dough, sauce, or glaze that requires the addition of chocolate, it's okay to stick with melted. There's no need to temper chocolate when it's used as an ingredient.
Consider going the extra step and tempering chocolate when you're making confections, like molded chocolates, chocolate-covered truffles, homemade peanut butter cups, chocolate-dipped strawberries, or any cookies that get dipped in chocolate, especially if it's for a special occasion.