We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

The Physics of Chocolate

Cosmic Variance
By Julianne Dalcanton
Apr 30, 2008 11:21 AMJul 19, 2023 7:06 PM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

While deeply held feelings about string theory ("Genius!" "Total Bunk!") may sometimes drive us apart, all of us can certainly get behind the theory that chocolate is a net good. However, in spite of its appeal as a tasty eatable (with or without bacon), it's actually a bit of a pain to work with. If you've ever tried to use chocolate in its melted form, you've probably discovered that chocolate has a number of peculiarities that frequently thwart your best culinary efforts. For example, if your melted chocolate becomes contaminated with an errant drop of water, the chocolate siezes up. If you try to reharden chocolate that's been melted (say, in making chocolate covered strawberries), you're frequently left with a matte finish and crumbly texture that in no way resembles the dark glossy chocolate you began with. The reasons for this should be familiar to any solid state physicist (or at least, they were to the one who made my wedding cake and first clued me in). Cocoa butter, one of the dominant ingredients in chocolate, contains several triglycerides that lock into a crystal form when cooled. However, there is not just one form that the triglycerides can lock into, but six of them (β(I) through β(VI)). Each successive form is more stable and has a higher melting point. Almost all commercial chocolate is in the β(V) form -- from what I can tell, you only get to sample β(VI) in the afterlife, if you've been very, very good. When chocolate goes all wrong, it is usually a failure of the melted and cooled chocolate to recrystallize into the β(V) state. Similar problems can affect commercial chocolate suppliers as well, leading to chocolate that develops that unsightly chalky film we associate with old chocolate. Even previously stable β(V) chocolate can wind up with the same unsightly film after temperature fluctuations break down the crystal structure, or melt and reharden a thin layer on the surface. Given the commercial implications, there's been some solid technical work on the structure of the magical β(V) form, which has been studied with x-ray diffraction using synchrotron radiation (more technical data here). Given the above, when cooking with chocolate, one's goal is to coax the cooled chocolate back into the β(V) form if one wants the end product to look glossy, be solid at room temperature, and have a nice crisp snap when bitten. The traditional mechanism for this is known as tempering (video here). Traditional tempering involves carefully controlling the temperature of the chocolate as it cools, so that the chocolate favors the preferred crystalline state. However, there is a vastly simpler mechanism, namely, seeding the crystal. If you take a lump of unmelted commercial chocolate, toss it into your bowl of melted chocolate, and stir for a bit, you'll melt the new lump while cooling the melted chocolate. The cooling chocolate will then prefer the same crystal structure as the melting lump, such that when it hardens completely, you'll find it in the luscious β(V) state. PS. I can verify that the above works exactly as advertised. Last weekend I made the wedding cake above for the same solid state physicist who made mine a decade ago. (The cake was alternately described as looking like the Heatmiser's hair, Mordor, and Garrett Lisi's E8 symmetry group, so you can imagine it was a pretty techie crowd). Making the thin chocolate sheets from which I cut the decorations, I got huge swaths of perfectly glossy chocolate. Occasionally, though, there'd be a small section with a matte surface, that was clearly a different crystalline form. Science. It works, bitches.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.