What is the Best Thermometer to Use in Chocolate Making?
The one piece of equipment that is absolutely essential in chocolate work, particularly if you are tempering, is a thermometer. In fact, kitchen thermometers can perform miracles in the kitchen from making sure your meat is safe to eat, to helping to decide when your bread is done. At a restaurant, temperatures of food are taken regularly to make sure that cold foods stay cold and hot foods stay within the “safe” temperature. Looking online, you might become overwhelmed by all the thermometer choices. You can purchase one for about $10 on up to nearly a hundred dollars. Some are digitized while others have a dial, laser beams, or have a red-colored alcohol indicator.
Melting and tempering chocolate isn’t as big a deal as some would lead you to believe. Although there are several options, the most popular way to temper chocolate is to heat it to a specific temperature (122 °F for dark) and then add unmelted chocolate to the bowl (seeding) until the temperature drops to 83 °F (for dark).
(See article on tempering chocolate) Since this temperature is rather precise, it is necessary to have an accurate thermometer on hand-specifically one that lends itself to measuring your chocolate’s temperature. The most popular thermometer to use to temper chocolate is an instant-read digital thermometer.
Candy thermometers were introduced to the home cook in the early 1900’S. Previously, sugar was made into brittle or caramel depending on characteristics of sugar “stages”: thread, soft ball, hard ball, crack, and hard crack. A candy sample was placed into a glass of cold water where the sample was analyzed for firmness. Now, we have several types of thermometers to choose form. Pros and cons of each will be highlighted in the remainder of this article.
Recently I bumped into someone who signed up for my advanced chocolate construction class. I reminded her that she would need a thermometer for the upcoming class. She asked if the thermometer she uses to check her own temperature was good enough. I resisted the urge to kick her out of the class, or to do the snorting kind of laugh. Truth is, I might have thought the same thing when I was her age. Luckily, I have learned a few things along the lifelong road and can make some suggestions that will increase the positive outcome of your chocolate work. I once spent a weekend in an artisan chocolate making class where the instructor could tell the temperature of his chocolate just by putting a dab of melted chocolate on his chin. I don’t have this talent, but I can operate a thermometer!
The first crude thermometers were developed in the 1600’s. Those with a standard scale, usually fueled by mercury, came in 1724 and were introduced by Daniel Fahrenheit. Improvements were incrementally made and in the early 1900’s, a candy thermometer became available for the home cook. This was not exclusively for chocolate, but for candies such as lollipops, caramels, pralines, and fudge. Chocolate as we know it was still relatively new in America. Of course not everyone could afford the bulky $1.00 thermometer as so it was not immediately widely used. By the end of the 1900’s, several thermometer choices became available-and not just for food. By 1984, digital thermometers arrived on the scene but presented a problem of how to stir hot sugar, while holding the thermometer in the pot. Glass enclosed candy thermometers, as well as stainless steel candy and “fry” thermometers, offered a clip that adhered to the pan, allowing a free hand. As the years go by, these thermometers are less popular because the glass ones can break, they are bulky, and they take a bit of time to register the temperature. Also, they can be hard to read, especially if they get steamy. My chief complaint is, you need to have a fairly deep batch of sugar/chocolate for the thermometer to register, and you cannot place the thermometer in the middle of the pot to get the most accurate reading. Although I own one, it is not my go-to choice and shouldn’t be yours if you can help it.
Infrared thermometers are now found in many kitchens. They have been used for years as builders have utilized them to measure the temperatures of hard to reach pipes. They have become accurate, affordable, and popular, especially following Covid-19 protocols though they have been readily available since the early 2000’s. They are fun to play with, and pretty much look like a small laser gun. The downside to this thermometer is, it just measures the surface temperature of an object. You cannot decipher the internal temperature of your sugar or chocolate. However, you can get an “aboutski” reading and by aiming the laser in different parts of a pot or bowl, get a useful reading. This is particularly true if you are stirring your chocolate.
By far, instant read probe thermometers are the best choice when measuring the temperature of melted chocolate. They are easy to read, generally affordable, and accurate. Additionally, as the name implies, they are “quick” to register a reading, and can be used for other purposes as well. In fact, they can be used for both chocolate and chicken. A small, handheld model often has a handle and a probe. Some models have a countertop digital display which can be set to alert you of your target temperature, so you can step away from your bowl if need be. If that’s not enough, some are Bluetooth enabled and can be programmed to your phone. Unless you purchase a sub average probe, I can see very little cons in this choice.
At the end of the day, you might end up owning several cooking thermometers depending on your food choices and measuring needs. I like to start with the infrared as it is fast, handy, and fun. The instant read digital is perfect for my chocolate needs. But if I am going to make a chocolate dipped churro, I will most likely use my old stainless steel, clip-on fry thermometer for my oil and the instant read digital for my chocolate-until Santa Claus brings me my own tabletop tempering machine……
About THE AUTHOR
Lori has been a Culinary Arts instructor for twenty years. She has taught in the public school setting, at the collegiate level and through adult continuing education as well as running several cooking and baking camps for children. She has participated in several cooking, cake & chocolate contests and has been well recognized. She has raised thousands of dollars for charities using the byline “Saving the World one Cupcake at a Time”. Additionally, she has had several articles regarding food published in various magazines.Read More About Lori Gilmore