Working with Chocolate

Chocolate is not the easiest substance to work with, but knowing a little about it before you begin will save you a big headache later on.  If you are a beginner I recommend working with Candy Melts first and moving on to real chocolate as you progress.  (Scroll down for more information on Candy Melts.)

 A Little About Working with Chocolate
Chocolate that you buy in a store has been "tempered".  This means it has been heated and cooled a number of times to very precise temperature ranges to create cocoa butter crystals.  These crystals are what give the chocolate a  firm set and a shiny look. Tempered chocolate has a good "snap" when broken.  Because of this hardness, it can be wrapped and kept at room temperature without melting or leaving chocolate residue on its packaging. Almost all chocolate bars you buy at the grocery store have been tempered. Chocolate will differ in "hardness" based on brand and purpose for use.  Good quality chips like Guittard are usually softer than chocolate bars (they usually contain wax or other additives to keep their shape instead of tempering), and thus they are less ideal for chocolate dipping.  You want to use the "hardest" tempered chocolate you can find as it will give you the best set. This chocolate is usually found in the candy aisle by the fancy bar chocolates, or sometimes in the baking aisle.

Melting chocolate can cause it to lose it's temper.  This is where most people run into difficulties when chocolate-dipping at home.  This results in a product that is not hard at room temperature; touching it will leave fingerprints, thus it cannot be wrapped, and is incredibly messy to eat.  This is what you want to avoid when dipping chocolate.

You can re-temper chocolate at home, but it a very complicated process.  I do not temper my own chocolate, but instead attempt to "keep" the crystals (and the temper) that comes in pre-tempered bar chocolate from the store.  To "keep" the crystals you'll need to avoid heating the chocolate at high temperatures, as heat destroys the crystals.  The hotter your chocolate gets as you melt it, the more crystals you are destroying, and the softer your set will be.  

In summary, you want to choose a chocolate with a firm temper and keep it tempered for best results when dipping chocolate.

A Few General Rules for Working With Chocolate

These are a few tips that will help you as you work with chocolate, particularly if you have never worked with it before.  These rules apply to "real" chocolate and not Candy Melts (which contain no cocoa butter and thus do not need to be tempered, and do not seize as easily).

#1-*Never* combine it with water.

Water "seizes" chocolate.  If even a drop or two gets into your bowl, or you use a damp spoon right out of the dishwasher-  you can seize an entire bowl of melted chocolate.  You will know if it has seized.  Your mixture will get thick and clumpy and grainy.  It is nearly always impossible to salvage.  You will not be able to use it for dipping, although if you add about a Tbsp of vegetable oil or shortening and mix until smooth, most of the time this chocolate can still be used in other recipes that call for melted chocolate, like brownies, cookies, or syrups.

This water rule includes coloring and flavorings that contain water.  If you would like to color or flavor your chocolate you need to use Candy coloring or flavoring.  These can be found at Hobby Lobby or other craft stores, and specifically say "Candy" on the package.  If you look at the ingredient list they will contain oils and not water.

#2-Melt at the lowest heat possible.  

Overheated chocolate will seize even if no water has gotten into your bowl.  This is one of the reasons it is important to melt chocolate at the lowest possible heat until smooth.  You can use a double boiler to melt your chocolate, which usually keeps the temperature low.  Essentially you place an inch or so of water in the pot of a double boiler, place it over low heat, and place the pan on top where you will place your chocolate.  Your chocolate should never touch the water.  This method can be tricky, however.  The boiler pot can produce quite a bit of steam and water droplets, which can easily seize your chocolate, and you must constantly be checking that the water is not boiling and the bottom of your chocolate bowl is dry.  This method is also very slow.  Recently I have found it to be much more trouble than it is worth.

I typically prefer to melt my chocolate in the microwave.  Each microwave is different so you really need to pay attention to your machine and always err on the side of caution.  For me, it works best to microwave at 50% power, stirring my chocolate every 30 seconds or so.  Most of my chocolate melts in about a minute and a half total.  If your chocolate is nearly melted, it is a good idea not to put it back in the microwave for another round, but to stir until the small chunks have been melted by the hot chocolate.  This will keep the chocolate from overheating and losing it's temper and will also ensure you don't seize your chocolate.  If your chocolate is nearly melted but you really need to put it in the microwave for another round- try only 15 seconds or so at 50% power.

After the initial 30 second round, you may look at your chocolate and think, "This doesn't look melted at all.  It doesn't need to be stirred.".  It *does* need to be stirred.  Even if none of your chocolate is melted, parts of it have trapped heat, and the uneven heating of a microwave has concentrated it in certain areas.  If you don't stir it, it is very likely you will scorch or seize your chocolate.

If your chocolate has seized as a result of overheating, you can try adding a Tbsp or so of vegetable oil or shortening to it.  If you can mix it smooth, you may still be able to use it for dipping (although it may set "soft").  If not, you can still use this chocolate for other projects, like cookies and brownies as mentioned above.

If your chocolate has not seized, but you are afraid you have overheated it (if the bowl burns you it has probably gotten too hot!), you can try to salvage the temper by using the seed method.  Add a handful or so of solid (unmelted) chocolate to your bowl and stir until the temperature of the chocolate mixture has come down and the chocolate chunks are completely melted. Essentially you are adding more "seeds" or "crystals" to your chocolate since you have likely lost most of yours (and thus your temper) by overheating. If you have access to large blocks of chocolate, it is sometimes easiest to add a large chunk and stir it in until it will not melt any longer.  Then you can just remove what is left of the chunk and not have to worry about having small unmelted bits in  your mixture that end up needing another round in the microwave.  (Do not mix different brands of chocolate however; if you want to do this, make sure you use this same chocolate initially.)

If you dip something in chocolate and it never sets at room temperature, you have overheated your chocolate and lost it's temper.  Try melting at a lower heat next time.

#3 Get the hardest possible set.
Getting a hard set is really important if you want to wrap your treats or give them away.  If you do not care, you can use untempered chocolate (Guittard milk chocolate chips are delicious) and just keep your treats in the refrigerator until right before eating.  But usually you will probably want a firm set for your treats.

The trick is a combination of things we've already discussed.  Use a hard-tempered chocolate.  It should snap when broken.  It should not be a soft chocolate.  Melt it at the lowest possible temperature, and stir in an extra square or two after melting the rest of your mixture to ensure your chocolate has lots of crystals. (It is okay if your square doesn't completely melt and you need to remove it.)

So What About Candy Melts?

Candy melts are a type of "pseudo-chocolate" used often in candy making.  They are usually disc shaped and found in the baking aisle of craft stores and sometimes even Walmart.  They come in a multitude of colors.  These are best for beginners to work with, because they melt like a dream and set up very hard.  They are very runny when melted so they dip easily and beautifully.  Candy melts do not have cocoa butter in them, so they do not need to be tempered.  In this sense they are not a "true" chocolate although the brown ones do contain cocoa powder which makes them taste a bit like real chocolate. 

The con to using candy melts is that they don't taste very good.  I actually quite like the white candy melts that are sold at Hobby Lobby (Make-n-Mold brand), but I have yet to find an impressive brown chocolate candy melt.  I typically tint my own chocolate so I don't usually buy colored melts and cannot make recommendations there.  In my experience the Wilton brand melts are the most widely available, but also my least favorite.  I do not care for them.

When buying candy melts, look for melts that are not discolored or dotted with white.  Old melts can seize and do not melt very well.  Unfortunately it is not uncommon for stores to sell melts that are up to 5 years old!  If it doesn't look right, don't buy it.

Candy melts are great for painting into candy molds and making "chocolate" suckers.  They are also great for drizzling, and piping hearts, skeletons, or words, for topping cupcakes or cakes. 

So... Chocolate or Candy Melts? 

This is a personal decision. Some people only use real chocolate for dipping, while others use Candy Melts for nearly everything. My rule is if I am going primarily for taste- I use real chocolate for dipping.  If I am going primarily for looks- I use candy melts for dipping.  (Particularly if you are wrapping up your goodies or serving them as a party- because the melts will guarantee you a hard set and not a gooey mess!) 

If you would like some tips for the actual process of dipping treats, please click on my other tab Chocolate Dipping Tips.
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