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When you examine a top-quality chocolate bar or a well-made dipped truffle, you'll see that the chocolate is shiny, firm enough to tap with your fingernail, and will break with a sharp snap. That's because it's tempered. Tempering is a process that encourages the cocoa butter in the chocolate to harden into a specific crystalline pattern, which maintains the sheen and texture for a long time.

When chocolate isn't tempered, it can have a number of problems: it may not ever set up hard at room temperature; it may become hard, but look dull and blotchy; the internal texture may be spongy rather than crisp; and it can be susceptible to fat bloom, meaning the fats will migrate to the surface and make whitish streaks and blotches.

Anytime you need chocolate to be firm at room temperature and to have a glossy sheen and a crisp texture--as you would with chocolate nut clusters, dipped candies or decorations like chocolate leaves or ruffles--you must temper the melted chocolate.

at least 1 pound of chocolate
accurate chocolate or instant-read thermometer
double boiler, or a bowl fitted on top of a saucepan
rubber spatula

1. Chop your chocolate. It is best to use at least 1 pound of chocolate, as it is easier to temper (and retain the temper) of larger amounts of chocolate. If this is more than you need, you can always save the extra for later use. Be sure that your chocolate is in block or bar form, not chocolate chips. The chips have additives that allow them to retain their shape at higher temperatures, and so they will not temper properly.

2. Melt 2/3 of your chocolate. Place it in the top of a double boiler, set over simmering water. Securely clip a chocolate or instant-read thermometer to the side of the boiler to monitor the chocolate’s temperature.

3. Stir gently but steadily as the chocolate melts and heats up. Use a rubber spatula, not a wooden or metal spoon.

4. Bring the chocolate to 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46 C) for dark chocolate or 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 C) for milk or white chocolate. Do not allow the chocolate to exceed its recommended temperature. When it is at the right temperature, remove it from the heat, wipe the bottom of the bowl, and set it on a heat-proof surface.

5. Add the remaining chunks of chocolate and stir gently to incorporate. The warm chocolate will melt the chopped chocolate, and the newly added chocolate will bring down the temperature of the warm chocolate.

6. Cool the chocolate. Once the chocolate gets below 84 degrees F (29 C), remove the remaining chunks of chocolate. They can be cooled, wrapped in plastic wrap, and saved for another use.

7. Reheat the chocolate briefly.Place the chocolate bowl over the warm water in the double boiler for 5-10 seconds, remove it and stir, and repeat, until the temperature reaches 88-89 degrees F (31 C), or 87 F (30 C) for milk and white chocolate. Do not leave the chocolate over the hot water, or allow it to exceed 91 degrees.

8. Your chocolate should now be tempered! To make sure it has been done properly, do a spot test: spread a spoonful thinly over an area of waxed paper and allow it to cool. If the chocolate is shiny and smooth, it is properly tempered. If it is dull or streaky, it has not been tempered correctly.

Tips:

To use tempered chocolate, you must keep it warm but not hot, ideally in the 85-88 F degree range (86 degrees for milk and white chocolate)v. You can either keep it over a pan of warm (but not simmering) water, stirring occasionally, or try placing it on an electric heating pad set to “low.” Whichever method you choose, it’s important to stir often so that the chocolate remains a uniform temperature throughout.