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Chocolate Ganache

Chocolate ganache (pronounced “ga-NOSH”) is a staple of dessert-making. It’s a simple chocolate sauce made with just two ingredients: dark chocolate and heavy cream. It can be used for a variety of purposes: icing a cake; chocolate-coating strawberries, cookies, and other small items; making chocolate truffles or molded chocolates candies; creating decorative elements such as chocolate lattices; and as a topping on ice cream, pie, or other desserts. Or throw a fondue party!

Part of the magic of chocolate is that it’s solid at room temperature but liquid at body temperature: it literally melts in your mouth. But chocolate also has a reputation for being difficult to work with, largely due to the fact that it “breaks” — it separates out into an oily mess — if overheated. There are lots of fancy techniques for getting chocolate to have a perfect shiny coat that involve carefully managing its temperature through specific ranges, but those issues are for another day. For the purposes of working with chocolate ganache, we need to remember two temperatures:

  • The approximate temperature at which it melts: 85 degrees F
  • The approximate temperature at which it breaks: 140 degrees F.

The magic and fun of working with ganache involves keeping it between these two temperatures while we pour, shape, and mold it — then cooling it down to create solid chocolate.

The one big choice we get to make with our ganache is the ratio of chocolate to cream. The standard middle-of-the-road, all-purpose recipe calls for a 1:1 ratio: 1 ounce (by weight) of dark chocolate to 1 ounce (by volume) of cream. A 1:1 ratio creates a lovely, thick-but-not-too-thick sauce that can be poured and shaped, and when cooled hardens into chocolate that’s solid but flexible at room temperature. But if we increase the cream we can create a ganache that’s more fluid, lighter in color, and less solid at room temperature. We can also go in the other direction and increase the chocolate, creating a ganache that’s darker and hardens up more at room temperature. You can make ganache that’s 2:1 cream to chocolate, 2:1 chocolate to cream, or anywhere in between, depending on what you want to use it for. As a pourable topping for ice cream, you’d probably want to go on the creamier side; but if you’re making truffles you will want to aim heavy on the chocolate. For icing a cake or dipping strawberries, the middle ground works fine, or perhaps a little heavier on the chocolate if you want a crisp, solid chocolate shell. A 1:1 ratio is a great place to start and learn what works; then modify it for future batches until you find the perfect recipe for your creations.

Chocolate is notoriously difficult to heat. It’s thick so heat doesn’t penetrate or spread quickly. To prevent some parts from getting too hot while others aren’t hot enough, we need to apply heat slowly and gently, stirring frequently. The most common method for directly melting chocolate is using a “double boiler”: a bowl sitting on top of a pot of boiling water. The steam rising from the water will heat the chocolate more slowly and to a lower maximum temperature, and stirring the chocolate constantly will help ensure even heating. Using a double-boiler isn’t fool-proof: steam has a temperature of over 212 degrees F, which is still above the breaking point of the chocolate, so it’s still possible to overheat the chocolate.

Another common approach to heating chocolate is to microwave it in small increments: heat for 20 seconds, stir it thoroughly, check the temperature, and repeat until it’s melted to the right temperature.

For making ganache, the best practice takes a different approach that is nearly fool-proof:

  1. Chop the chocolate into small flakes, and place it in a heat-proof bowl.
  2. Heat the cream to 180 degrees F. (you can do this on the stovetop or in the microwave, depending on how much cream you’re heating)
  3. Pour the cream over the chocolate, making sure that all of the chocolate is submerged.
  4. Let it sit for two minutes. Seriously, don’t touch it for two minutes; just let the chocolate melt.
  5. Stir until it comes together into a beautiful chocolate sauce.

I say this is “nearly” foolproof because you still need to pay attention to temperatures. The chocolate starts at room temperature, and the cream will be much hotter — and then as soon as you combine them they start to equalize each other to reach a temperature in between. We’re aiming for a temperature that is above 85 and below 140: melted, but not broken. If you’re using a 1:1 ratio of chocolate and cream, then starting with room-temperature chocolate and adding 180-degree cream will result in a ganache at around 95 degrees after it’s thoroughly mixed. But if you’re using less chocolate and hotter cream, you could end up with a mix that is hotter than 140 degrees. Or if you have more chocolate and cooler cream, the mix might not reach the chocolate’s melting point. So just pay attention to the temperatures as you’re deciding on your ratio of cream to chocolate. It’s not as hard as it might sound to successfully make ganache; that said, every cook messes it up from time to time, so if your chocolate breaks just know that you are in very good company.

Once you have a lovely, melted ganache you will want to use it right away, while it still pours easily and before it starts cooling and hardening.

Tips and ideas:

  • Filling a plastic squeeze bottle with ganache is an easy way to fill molds or make decorative patterns.
  • To make truffles: pour some into a bowl and stick it into the refrigerator or freezer for half an hour to harden. Then use a melon-ball scoop or a small spoon to scoop out truffle-sized balls. Roll them in your hands or on a flat surface to make them ball-shaped. You can drop them into a bowl of powdered sugar, cinnamon, or other toppings to finish them off.
  • Adding a small amount of butter to the ganache right after combining the chocolate and cream will give it an extra shine. Up to a tablespoon for every 8 ounces of chocolate.
  • If the ganache cools off too much and won’t easily pour, you can reheat it in a double-boiler or in the microwave. Just go slowly and gently, stir thoroughly and often, and check the temperature frequently — and stop well before you get to 140 degrees.
  • Avoid adding any water. Exposing melted chocolate to water will cause it to seize up into ugly clumps. Don’t cover it when you’re heating it (steam could condense into water drops and drip back down).
  • If you would like to flavor your ganache, the best way is to infuse flavor agents into the cream while it is heating. This method works great with vanilla beans and citrus zest — just remember to strain the cream after it’s heated and before you combine it with the chocolate. You can also try adding flavor extracts directly to the ganache; a best practice for doing this is to scoop out some of the ganache into a separate bowl, mix in the extract, then recombine it with the rest of the ganache; this way, if there is water in the extract that causes the chocolate to seize up, you haven’t ruined the whole batch.

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