Melting chocolate is a challenge that many chocolate makers face and having a supply of melted chocolate on hand - at a known and precise temperature - is very handy.
The fastest way to do this is to use a special-purpose chocolate melter. These can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Less expensive is to use warming (or bread proofing) cabinets (without the water, of course). While these can be found used on eBay and elsewhere, new ones will set you back a thousand dollars or more and they are the size of a large speed rack - and not all kitchens have that amount of space.
Tabletop melters like the ones from Mol d'Art and Bakon tend to be comparatively expensive (a 20kg machine can easily cost close to $1000), but many people like the table-top form factor. I do, too, in part because you can mix and match pan sizes. Full, half, thirds - depending on the amount of chocolate you need to work with.
There are lots of DIY solutions, but not a whole lot that require zero construction.
A while ago, ChocolateLife member Ben Rasmussen, the founder of Potomac Chocolate, pointed me to an inexpensive buffet warmer from APW Wyott (link is to WebRestaurantStore where they are priced at $99) that he was using as a chocolate melter. I recommended this to someone else, but even on the lowest setting, they were finding that the warmer was scorching their chocolate. This is because the temperature dial isn't calibrated in degrees - it just runs from 1-10 - and, food warmers are typically designed to keep food at a minimum of 140F for food safety reasons.
NOTE: It's important that you get a unit that is designed to be used without water. Not all of them are. There are less expensive warmers than these but, as near as I can tell, they require water to work.
To combat the problem of overheating and scorching - and to provide a true temperature control - what's needed is an inexpensive sous-vide controller. (There are other temperature controllers, but you want one that's designed to work with food.) There's one on Amazon from a company called DorkFood for $99. The DorkFood sous vide controller has a range of 32F-200F with a precision of +/- 0.25 degrees.
Your "work" will be to find the maximum heat setting for the warmer that heats the chocolate without overheating and scorching it. Put the chocolate in the warmer, plug the warmer into the sous vide controller, and plug the sous vide controller into the wall, and set the temperature you are looking for.
Which means you might also be able to use the combination as a replacement for a Mol d'Art melter.
If you are having problems with the lower settings of the melter being too high, you may want to look into some sort of thermal mass (or, you could contact the manufacturer and ask). A Fibrament (or similar) baking stone will even out the heat. This may limit you to using shallower pans in the melter. Note - the smallest rectangular stone from Fibrament is bigger than the interior dimensions of the melter. Fibrament will cut to fit if you send them the dimensions with your order.
The nice thing about the sous vide controller is that it could have other applications for controlling temperature around the kitchen.
Thanks for posting this Clay. It looks like food warmers have some inconsistencies with regards to the temperatures at the various levels. My process was to turn the warmer on to level 2 or 3 for an hour or so, and then drop it to level 1. Doing that, I never had any scorching, but also read that someone else who was using one did.
I did think about getting a temperature control as you describe, but just never got around to it. I'm not using the warmer as a melter anymore, due to upgrading my tempering machine to a model that is much easier to melt with. My warmer is now being used as a mold warmer, and does use a temperature controller similar to this.
The main problem I've found is that the temperature swings can be pretty dramatic due to the pulsing on/off way that the warmer works--especially at higher levels. For melting, it shouldn't be a problem if you've set your warmer to a low level.
The sous vide controller should keep the temperature swings in check - especially if there is a thermal mass involved.
Melters like this can be used to feed tempering machines by keeping a decent mass of melted chocolate on had at a reasonable temperature. You can add small amounts to the working bowl and never take the chocolate in the tempering machine out of temper.
They also work well for melting chocolate for panning and other applications where temper is not an issue.
Thanks Clay. When I was using my Chocovision temperer as my main machine, I would sometimes use the method you describe to add chocolate. My newer temperer (Savage Bros. 50lb) can hold a full batch of my chocolate, so I haven't had the need to melt separately since I got it.
I think the controller will help with the swings, but not eliminate them. I now use my warmer with a temperature controller (similar to the sous vide controller) to warm molds before molding. If I have the warmer set to a higher level, the temp continues to rise for a while after the controller turns off the warmer. I set the controller to 89 or 90, and found that when it is set to the higher levels (3+ maybe--I'd have to test to be sure), I've seen the temp get up well over 100. When the warmer is set to LO or 2, I don't have this problem as much.
p.s. Great idea for a new forum! Have you considered moving or linking existing threads about DIY equipment here to make it a repository of such info on TCL?
I will probably be linking to existing threads in other places on TheChocolateLife and closing down those discussions and pointing people here to continue them. There would be one thread each for different types of winnowers (e.g., PVC pipe, zig zag, etc), and separate threads for things like my "static cooling tunnel" and for types/classes of machines.
I am open to other suggestions - but the idea is to consolidate them in one place and I wanted something different than creating a DIY category in the main discussion forum.
And another thing about the APW Wyott warmer - I mentioned it because it's the one you pointed me to and it's really, really cheap. There are more expensive ones that should do a better job of maintaining heat swings within a narrow range.
BTW - you could even use this technique with a heating pad, for gosh shake. I know someone who is going to do this ... in the upper shelves of a speed rack because there's no space for even a countertop melter. She's going to sandwich a heating blanket between two sheet pans then put the hotel pan full of chocolate on top of that, overnight. The sous vide controller goes into the pan to control the maximum temperature the chocolate reaches. When she comes in in the morning - 20 kilos of melted chocolate at the precise temperature she needs to start working with.
I've been looking at using the kind of heating mat that you can find to fit under reptile tanks. I still haven't found one that's the right size that has the wattage needed. They make them to melt snow.
I have a reptile warmer (used it to incubate chicken eggs!). I am always looking for simple DIY ways for everything and am turning my mind to chocolate now. What was your idea for using the reptile mat for chocolate?
I am looking for a high-wattage version of the reptile mat that I can sandwich between two sheet pans to use as a warming pad for a variety of applications. One is as a chocolate melter (put a hotel pan of chocolate on top overnight) because it would be safer than a heating pad, the other would be to use it to slightly melt the edges of hollow molds to "glue" them together.
I love this post too :)
Hi Clay. I stumbled on these silicone rubber heating blackets on Grainger's website and remembered you were looking for something like this:
The ones on Grainger don't include a controller, but the ones direct from BriskHeat do.
I also found heat tape, which may just be strips of the blanket material:
We Just ordered an x3210 Chocovision tempering machine, which I had seen you mention. Any heads up about tweaks for that model in advance? if that is, indeed, the machine you are upgrading from? btw, thank you for your idea last week to watch the cooling as suspect on the bloom photos we posted. Corrected.
Love this DIY group, Clay Gordan, thanks
Thanks Clay! Love this post.
Sometimes you don't need a big melter - all you're looking to do is to warm a kilo or two of chocolate or even keep containers of colored cocoa butter melted and ready to use.
The Brod & Taylor bread proofer/yogurt maker may be just the ticket, then. You can use it with or without water (probably without when working with chocolate) and you can choose the size(s) of containers that fit inside. It's compact in use and it folds up and out of the way when you're not using.
If you are careful about temperature setting and have time to wait, you may be able to melt small amounts of chocolate without taking it out of temper - just warm it to the usage temperature.