Get Started

Tips From a Chocolatier

A friend recently called in distress. “I’m trying to make pumpkin truffles, but I had no idea how complicated this was going to be. I’m supposed to heat the chocolate up to between something like 97.3 and 97.5 degrees, and then really precisely cool and heat it over and over again. And if it’s off by a few degrees it’s ruined. I had no idea tempering was so complicated.”

I’d never even heard of tempering before this conversation, and I was surprised to learn that you didn’t just throw some chocolate bars in a double boiler and go to town. I clearly had a lot to learn.

So I talked with Rachel Insler, Lot18’s resident chocolatier, to try to learn more about this confection. Rachel was the proprietress of Bespoke Chocolates in New York’s East Village, which specialized in small batches of single-origin chocolates and truffles made with local ingredients.

So I asked her about this tempering thing. A former neuroscientist, she lead with “chocolate has a crystalline structure.” I pictured examining a truffle under a microscope. “Tempering is heating, cooling and agitating those crystals to get them to line up properly. It’s manipulating the fats and sugars, which gives the chocolate snap and shine. And though chocolate melts at body temperature, tempering keeps it from turning instantly soft to the touch.”

As it turns out, she’d started as a pastry chef, but moved on to “much more complicated” chocolate.

“See, pastry is complicated too, but there are basic things you can just throw in the oven – just about anyone can bake a cake.  Chocolate, though, is extremely volatile and incredibly finicky. It takes a lot of experience to get it right. In my shop, I had my assistant come in every day and just temper.”

But what makes it so difficult to work with?

“Chocolate is very sensitive to temperature and humidity. You’ve seen bloom – that white discoloration on the surface? That’s sugar or fat coming out of temper. And while it might taste the same, it will seriously change the texture for the worse. And if you’re having a hot, cold or humid day, it can mess everything up and sometimes even bring chocolate out of temper. There were days in my shop where I’d pour the melted chocolate on my granite work surface, it would solidify immediately and I’d have to start over.”

Living in New York, how are you supposed to store chocolate properly?

“Well, ideal is around 65 degrees, with 45-55% humidity. Don’t leave it in the fridge, it’s too humid. That said, if you’re in a Manhattan apartment, a little humidity is better than a lot of heat. But make sure that when you’re ready to eat it, you let it sit out and get back up to room temperature. It’s like cheese – you won’t taste or smell it properly if it’s cold.”

So, what can my distraught friend do?

“She should not stress out; making chocolate at home should be fun! For starters; don’t worry about using tempered chocolate.  If you want to make truffles, just follow a basic ganache recipe, chill it until it is firm, scoop it into little balls, then chill again. Then simply melt your chocolate slowly (being careful not to burn it) dip your chilled truffles in it, then roll those truffles in cocoa powder to finish them. Choose high-quality ingredients and they’ll look and taste superb. ”