Ask the Alchemist #165


Level: Novice

Read time: 3 minutes

I am confused about the issue of “burning” or “scorching” chocolate. It is widely advised that when melting chocolate for tempering, one should not let it get above 120º F or else the chocolate will be irreparably damaged and will not be able to be tempered.  However, while grinding in the melanger the chocolate gets up to 140º F to 160º F (the hotter being advised as a conching temperature). How come it is not damaged at this point but it will be if reheated/remelted later? I see some people talk about tempering straight from the melanger – which means essentially cooling from >140º F straight down to 84º F or so. Is there something about the chocolate cooling and “curing” after grinding, after which point it should not be brought above 120º but if tempered from these higher temperatures right away (without cooling first) it is OK?  Any insight into this discrepancy would be appreciated.  Thanks.

Nice observations.  When faced with contradictory facts, the key is to tease apart which fact actually isn’t one.

In short this is a false fact from the days before home chocolate melting when people really didn’t know or believe they should gently heat chocolate.   And what exactly it meant to heat chocolate gently.  It seems like many people would put the chocolate in a pan, put the pan on the stove (on low of course) and proceed to burn the chocolate.  How?

The issue wasn’t so much that the chocolate got to 120 F or 140 F or even 180 F, it was that the surface of the pan got much hotter.  As in 400-500 F.  And that is more than hot enough to burn chocolate.  Now, if you constantly stirred, and mixed and kept that heat distributed, there wouldn’t be an issue.  But people don’t tend to do that.  They let it set….and burn that layer of chocolate that is setting on the bottom of the pan.

This is why it is pretty universally suggested that you melt chocolate in a double boiler.  There is nothing magical here.  It’s just that 212 F, the boiling point of water, is below the temperature at which chocolate will burn.

So feel free to heat your chocolate up.  You can go beyond 120 F….if you do with properly.  In a water bath.  A warm oven does well too since the warm air has so little heat capacity.  I often set my oven to 150-170 F and put much chocolate in there.  It never burns and I don’t have to fret over water being near my chocolate.

That said, a variation of this is that you MUST heat your chocolate up to 120 F when tempering.  This too is also untrue.  It won’t hurt anything but it isn’t necessary.  The though is that you have to take it that hot to destroy all the crystals in the chocolate do you get a good temper.  As anyone who has messed up tempering by going to the mid 90’s know, all your crystals are fully melted at 100 F. Anything above that is just wasting time and energy.

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