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Crazy from the Heat: The Art of Melting Chocolate

by Stephanie Zonis

I have read that the only sure things in life are life, death, and taxes. To that list, I would add the e-mail that inevitably, invariably pops up in my inbox at periodic intervals, asking about the best way to melt chocolate, or telling me about an attempt to melt chocolate gone very wrong indeed and asking for advice on the matter. We all know that the “food of the gods” is temperamental, finicky, and must be handled with care. But is there a best way to melt chocolate? Can you use the microwave? And can you still use melted chocolate that’s been overheated?

If you only remember one phrase when thinking about melting chocolate, it should be “low and slow”. Low heat is the only way to proceed, as far as I’m concerned, and that low heat will, naturally, result in a slower melt. I am not the world’s most patient individual, but if experience has taught me nothing else, it has assured me that melting chocolate via high heat just isn’t a good practice. So if I’m melting only chocolate (as opposed to chocolate in combination with something else, like butter), I’ll do so in one of two ways. But before I do any melting, I chop the chocolate finely. Greater surface area and smaller pieces of chocolate mean that less heat is required for melting, and less heat means less risk of overheating. The exceptions to this are chocolate chips, which are effectively already “chopped”, or a thin bar that can be broken into sections or small pieces. 

Incidentally, I hope you’ll choose only good-quality chocolate for your melting, whether you’re baking a pan of brownies for the kids or an ultra-swanky chocolate torte from that prized recipe your French grandmother bequeathed to you. Good chocolate not only tastes better, it usually melts better, too. And chocolate that isn’t smooth in solid form won’t be smooth when melted, which means it won’t be smooth in your end product.

Most often, I use the microwave to melt chocolate. Yes, you still have to be careful when doing so, but, despite some sources who indicate you should never do this, I’ve done it very successfully for years. What I do not do is use high (100%) power in the microwave. Place your chopped chocolate in a clean, dry, microwaveable bowl that can hold it comfortably, with room to spare. Microwave the chocolate at medium (50%) power. If you’re melting a small quantity, microwave it for 15 to 30 seconds initially; if you’re working with a lot of chocolate, microwave it for up to a minute or so. Once you’ve done that, stir the chocolate thoroughly. It will probably not be entirely melted---that’s fine. Continue to microwave at medium (50%) power for further, shorter intervals; make sure you stir thoroughly after each. Chocolate can be deceptive and will sometimes hold its shape when it’s already very soft; the only way to find out for certain is to stir it. Ideally, you’ll stop heating before all the pieces of chocolate are melted. Let the chocolate sit for a few minutes, stirring occasionally, and residual heat should melt any remaining bits.

Alternatively, you can use a stovetop method and your double boiler. Remember that the water you heat in the bottom half need not touch the bottom of the top half. Place your chopped chocolate (or chips, sections, etc.) into the clean, dry top half of the double boiler. I usually heat the water in the bottom half to a simmer, no matter what type of chocolate I’m melting. Fit the top half into the bottom half, and, again, watch the chocolate carefully. Keep the double boiler over low heat; if the water in the bottom half begins to boil hard, shut the heat off. Stir the chocolate frequently. When it’s mostly melted, remove the top half from the bottom half. Carefully, with a towel, dry off the bottom and sides of the top half (don’t get water into your chocolate) and let the chocolate stand, stirring often, until melted and smooth.  

If you’ve done any reading up on melting chocolate, or even if you’ve read the previous paragraph, you’ll have seen the warnings against getting any liquid (water or otherwise) into it. To a degree, those are accurate. It is possible to melt chocolate with liquid, but the proportions have to be correct. If you get a drop or two of water into your melting chocolate, it will very likely “seize” and separate/clump, just as you’ve read. Even if you’ve never run across this before, you’ll know if it happens! Can your chocolate be saved if this occurs? It depends upon what you’re making. If you can add water or cream or butter to the melted chocolate, and if you know what you’re doing, you may be able to rescue it or use it for another recipe. But if you need the melted chocolate as an ingredient on its own, I’m afraid you’re pretty much out of luck. If your recipe calls for melting chocolate with a liquid, such as cream, again, the proportions need to be right. Too little liquid, and your chocolate will separate and look horrible (this can usually be corrected by adding more liquid). If you have too much liquid and don’t add it slowly enough, however, you may end up with small particles of chocolate suspended in it. When culinary professionals describe chocolate as temperamental, this is part of the reason why!

Milk and white chocolate are even more persnickety than dark chocolate when melting is the issue. They are more prone to scorching and require lower temperatures for a good “melt”. Moreover, there are times when they are very stubborn. There are instances, even when you’re using fine-quality milk or white chocolate, even when you’ve chopped it finely, even when you’ve done everything else right, when some small bits of milk or white chocolate will refuse to melt. You’ll end up with a bowl of mostly melted chocolate that looks great---except for those few small bits. Should this happen, don’t continue to heat the chocolate. Instead, transfer it to the container of your food processor that’s been fitted with a chopping blade. “Pulse” the chocolate at high speed a few times, just until it’s completely smooth.

What about overheated chocolate? Spare yourself the gnashing of teeth down the line, and toss it. Using scorched chocolate for a recipe will ensure it comes out to no one’s satisfaction. If you’re not sure whether your chocolate is overheated but think there might be a problem, remove a small amount of melted chocolate from your bowl and set it aside to cool on a plate (DO NOT taste it hot! Melted chocolate can severely burn your tongue; guess how I know?). When the melted chocolate is at room temperature or just tepid, taste it. If it tastes burned or has an odd, “grainy” texture, get rid of it and start over. Your taste buds will thank you.

“Low and slow” isn’t a bad way to live your life, and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s the only way to melt your chocolate. If you’ve had trouble with this task in the past, try this approach. A few extra minutes in preparation time is a small price to pay for the smooth, perfectly-melted chocolate that’s required for so many recipes. 


Recipe of the Month:
White Chocolate Rum Raisin Ice Cream

Initially, I had set out to make a dark chocolate rum raisin ice cream, but I soon discovered that the ice cream overwhelmed even the most the rum-laden raisins. With a white chocolate ice cream, that’s much less of a problem. You can use either 8 or 9 ounces of white chocolate in the ice cream; use the higher amount if you like a sweeter ice cream with a more definite taste of white chocolate. However much white chocolate you use, make sure it’s REAL white chocolate, of the highest quality; do NOT use anything called “summer coating”!

The 1/4 cup rum called for here produces very “boozy” raisins; you might want to cut down the quantity of rum, but I wouldn’t suggest anything less than 2 tablespoons (you might also try using a white or light rum). If your raisins aren’t fresh and pliable from the box or package, get some new ones, and remember the raisins should macerate in the rum at least overnight before you use them (the ice cream base needs to chill well, too, and conveniently enough an overnight time period is ideal for this). I haven’t tried golden raisins in this recipe, but I can see no reason that they wouldn’t work here. Finally, you’ll need a candy thermometer, a fine strainer, and an ice cream churn. My churn is a Krups electric one-quart model that has served me beautifully for  years now. Remember to freeze the inner churning chamber for 24 hours if required! You’ll be able to serve this directly from the freezer; it doesn’t get too hard to scoop even after several days (it’s all that rum in the raisins).

1 cup soft, fresh, dark raisins
1/4 cup golden rum
1-1/3 cups whole milk
1-1/3 cups heavy cream, divided
Grated zest of 1 large lemon (no white pith, please)
8 to 9 ounces best-quality white chocolate, very finely chopped
4 egg yolks, from egg graded “large”
1/3 cup granulated sugar
Few grains of salt
2 tsp. vanilla

At least 12 hours (24 hours, preferably) before you want to use them, combine the raisins and rum in an airtight container. Seal tightly, shake to mix, and set aside at room temperature, shaking periodically so the raisins can absorb the rum on all surfaces.

In small, heavy-bottomed saucepan with tight-fitting lid, combine milk, 2/3 cup heavy cream (reserve remainder), and lemon zest. Heat over low heat, stirring often, until mixture comes to a simmer. Cover tightly. Remove from heat; allow to stand at room temperature for 15 to 20 minutes. (Alternatively, combine milk, 2/3 cup cream, and lemon zest in microwaveable container of at least 2-1/2 cup capacity. Heat on high power until steaming hot, stirring occasionally. Remove from microwave, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and allow to stand as above.)

Meanwhile, place very finely chopped white chocolate in heatproof bowl or pitcher of at least 6-cup capacity. In small saucepan, heat the remaining 2/3 cup cream over low heat, stirring frequently, until it begins to simmer. Remove from heat. Pour about half of hot cream into chocolate. Allow to stand for a minute or two, then gently whisk or stir white chocolate mixture until melted and smooth (alternatively, heat this cream in a microwave on high power until very hot, then follow above directions for melting white chocolate). Gradually, in about three additions, add remaining hot cream to white chocolate mixture, stirring after each addition until incorporated. Place a fine strainer over the bowl or pitcher containing this mixture, and make sure the whole assembly is near the stovetop.

Off the heat, in a heavy-bottomed, 1 quart pot, combine egg yolks, sugar, and salt. Mix well with slotted spoon or small whisk. When the lemon zest mixture has stood for 15 to 20 minutes, gradually add it to the egg yolk mixture, stirring the egg yolk mixture constantly as you do so. Place this pot over medium-low heat; cook and stir until the mixture registers 174 degrees F on a candy thermometer. Immediately remove from heat. Work quickly now. Pour about one-third of this custard through the fine strainer into the white chocolate mixture, and stir in until incorporated. Repeat with remaining hot custard, straining it into the white chocolate mixture in two or three further additions. Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl/pitcher with a heat-resistant rubber spatula two or three times to ensure thorough blending. Press down on the shreds of lemon zest in the strainer to extract all liquid from them. Add vanilla and stir in.

I like to transfer the custard to a pitcher of 4-cup capacity for ease in handling, and I do that now. Cool custard briefly, then chill until very cold, at least 6 hours or overnight. When cold, cover container with a circle of paper towel (slightly larger than top diameter of container) laid gently over the top, then cover the whole tightly with plastic wrap (if any condensation forms, this will prevent it from dripping into your ice cream base).

About an hour before you churn the ice cream, if you can remember, give the raisins one last shake and place them in the fridge to chill. At the same time, place a resealable plastic carton of about 1.2 quart capacity in the fridge or freezer to chill.

Churn ice cream, following manufacturer’s instructions. You’ll want to keep the white chocolate ice cream churning a bit longer than normal, as it ought to be fairly stiff when the raisins are added (this prevents them from sinking to the bottom of the container). When the ice cream is finished churning, unplug the churn; remove the cover (if any) and the churn or paddle. Work quickly now! Add the cold raisins and any leftover liquid in their container; stir in with a wooden spoon until evenly distributed. Pack ice cream into cold container and return to freezer to harden up and allow the flavor to “ripen”. This ice cream takes longer than others to harden, and I’d suggest a minimum of 6 hours between churning and serving.

Serve within about 5 days of churning.

About 1.2 quarts


Chocolate Find of the Month:

How do they do it? Every time I look at this website, it seems as though Chocosphere has added at least another brand or two to the already impressive roster of chocolates and chocolate products they carry. And when I say “impressive”, I mean both in number and quality. Here, you’ll find brands you know (or should know), such as Guittard, Bonnat, and Valrhona, and you’ll often be spoiled for choice within each individual brand. The website is child’s play to navigate, which is just as well, because once you’ve decided that you want to try, say, a bittersweet chocolate bar, it would be all too easy to while away a very pleasant hour or two trying to decide between a Chocolove Tanzania Bittersweet, an Amano Madagascar Single Origin Bittersweet, a Santander 70%, and many others (save yourself time; order one of each).

Another thing that impresses me about Chocosphere is that the delightful couple who owns the business runs it intelligently. They started slowly and built up gradually, which enabled them to survive the dot com bust. They are hands-on owners, concerned with every aspect of the business, and that especially includes customer service. They really do want you to be happy with your purchase. And pray forgive me if I have given you the impression that they only offer bars! You’ll also find fudge, drinking chocolates, cacao nibs, sauces, tempering machines, cookbooks, truffles, pralines, and more. This is the place to start a chocolate search, whether you’re looking for excellent baking chocolate or a nice gift (they’ve even got a Chocolate of the Month Club, and you’ve been so virtuous lately. Hmmm…). Surf on over to Chocosphere, at www.chocosphere.com. Bet you can’t leave without buying something!    


Stephanie (HandOverTheChocolate@comcast.net) has had a strong affinity for chocolate from a very early age. Family members claim that, as a child, she was able to hear chocolate being opened in the kitchen no matter where she was in the house. Stephanie was baking by the time she was 6 and ran a short-lived baking business out of her parents’ kitchen when she was in high school. She has a Master’s Degree in Foods from Virginia Tech but no formal training in cooking or baking. Consequently, she is a home cook, not a chef. Prior to beginning this column, she had written about chocolate for some 8 years.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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