Before going to culinary school in 2006, I didn’t know anything about ganache. I didn’t even know the word. It sounded clunky and unreal whenever someone said it in class — obviously French, but not really like other French words. And more often than not, the claim “it’s so easy” was said in the same breath. My mind always raced at that point because I didn’t think so then, and now, 4 (four!) years later, I still don’t. But it occurred to me a few months ago that ganache no longer makes me anxious. I’ve become comfortable with ganache… Even though I still don’t know everything about it, and heck, your ganache might act differently than my ganache.
Ganache is usually an emulsion of cream and chocolate (and maybe other flavorings, liquid sugar, and butter), and it is mostly commonly the silky substance found in truffles (and I really have no idea how I didn’t know this for the first 26 yrs of my life); it can also be used as a frosting for cakes. The biggest fear about ganache is that it will “break” and/or that it won’t “set up.” It could be like any broken emulsion, like a broken hollandaise or mayonnaise.
The facade of simplicity begins with ganache recipes. A normal, simple way to make ganache goes something like this:
Boil cream. Pour over chopped chocolate. Wait 60 seconds. Combine.
So, 2 ingredients and 4 steps. I can still hear everyone else sighing with boredom over this sort of recipe… because I, of course, was in that state of hyper-alert fright, anticipating impending disaster… Not that it happened right away. I never had a ganache break in culinary school, nor at the internship that I had at a chocolate company after graduation. I only saw photos of oily, grossly chunky ganaches in books, and read about finicky, uncertain ways to fix them… and inwardly hoped: “Please not me.”
When I was preparing to launch BonBonBar in early 2007 in Los Angeles, I developed about a dozen candy bar recipes, some featuring ganache, which I usually wanted to be pretty soft because I like that texture. Sometimes they set up ok… Sometimes they set up very soft… Sometimes they took a couple days to set up… Sometimes they set up with a kind of grainy crust on top, composed of tiny spheres. With the last one, I really didn’t know what it was at first, and even took a picture to use to ask around. But then it dawned on me: my ganache was broken. And it seemed to be broken in ways that no one else understood.
The most reliably-textured ganache was my Malt Ganache, and coincidentally, I thought that it would be a great flavor to launch with in the Malt Bar in December of 2007 so I put the other unfortunates aside and focused on that. It took about 22 versions of that ganache to get the malt flavor to come through strongly enough in a solid-enough texture, but once developed, it really was a winner: it never broke. Not once.
Then I launched the Scotch Bar in February 2008, and had endless issues with that Scotch Ganache. I think I’ve finally figured it out — it is, after all, probably the recipe that I’ve made the most, and I kind of like the way it sounds because it rhymes — but that experience is why it took 2 years for me to introduce more alcohol ganache-based bars. I didn’t suddenly get a craving for different alcohols — it was just that pleasant realization that I could handle them without having another nervous breakdown.
So, here are some things that I’ve learned about ganache that I haven’t really seen addressed in other places, and thought it might be nice to share:
- If you’re researching ganache recipes, you’ll generally find two kinds: one that is meant to set and sit at room temperature and one that is meant to set and sit in the refrigerator. I would say that at least 90% of the truffle recipes out there are meant to be refrigerated, and are usually made at home or in restaurant kitchens. The room temperature variety is usually made by professional confectioners, and that’s what I was making and still do. The recipes are formulated differently. The former usually has a ratio of about 1p cream to 1p chocolate while the former has about a 1p cream to 2p chocolate ratio. The refrigerated variety calls for more cream (ie fat & water), which keeps the ganache softer when chilled, and if brought to room temp before eating, are very soft; these may or may not be covered in chocolate. The room temperature variety calls for less cream because too much cream would make it too soft at room temp and the more water, the faster the spoilage (water & air are the biggest food spoilers). You can ship room temperature ganaches, but not refrigerated.
- Room temperature ganaches need to set up at room temperature overnight, and the temperature of the environment where the ganache sets makes a big difference (btw, it needs to set up overnight b/c of the cocoa butter, which is very thin when melted, but sets firm at room temp). With refrigerated ganaches, you don’t really have to worry about it because it is guaranteed to be chilled completely. Now I realize why even my not-broken ganaches in Southern California often set softer than usual — it didn’t get as cold for as long there overnight. A difference of even 5 degrees in overnight temp will affect how firmly the ganache is set the next morning.
- Not all broken ganaches separate grotesquely into liquid cocoa butter and cocoa solids as seen in some books. When mine break, they just look thin, and have a slightly curdled sheen when looked at closely in the light. Unbroken, It should have a good, kind of buoyant body to it — like a smooth pudding.
- What to use to emulsify? Spatula, whisk, food processor, or immersion blender? Some say that using a food processor or an immersion blender introduces too many air bubbles and so encourages spoilage. But I’ve found that the food processors provide the tightest emulsion. I started out using a home food processor, then using a robot coupe pro food processor, then a pro immersion blender, and now a regular immersion blender. When I switched from using a food processor to an immersion blender, I adjusted my recipe so that it had slightly less cream so that it would set up as firmly as it did in the food processor. So, my theory is that the tighter emulsion of the food processor balances out the possible air issue. Of course, if you’re lucky, you can have a Stephan with a vacuum to take out the air that makes the densest ganaches. I don’t use a spatula or whisk to emulsify my ganaches; I think that they would be even looser, and maybe more finicky.
- How to emulsify? With an immersion blender, you have to start in one area and emulsify that before gradually working in the rest of the cream. If you move the blender around too quickly at first, there’s the chance that it won’t emulsify at all, as if born broken. Or if you get an emulsion and then mix in too much liquid at once, the emulsion can break.
- The speed at which you emulsify makes a difference. Earlier this year, my ganaches seemed to be breaking pretty often. Then my immersion blender died, and I started using a new one. I could instantly tell that the new one was more powerful, and I haven’t had a ganache break since. My theory is that the old one gradually got weaker and I didn’t notice. The more powerful your emulsifying tool, the less chance of breaking.
- Broken ganache in a food processor makes a sloshy sound.
- Should the chocolate be melted, chopped, or melted tempered? I’ve had luck using melted milk chocolate at 112 (and cream cooled to same) and chopped dark chocolate. I never had luck with melted or melted tempered dark chocolate for my ganaches, but I haven’t tried it in a few years.
- I’ve never had a ganache break from being over-agitated.
- Should the cream be boiled or just brought to 90F or 120F? For dark chocolate, I boil it, and immediately pour it over the chocolate. I don’t mind getting rid of some water in it through boiling, maybe preventing some spoiling, and I like that it melts down the chocolate easily.
- I’ve had ganaches break when the room temperature was very cold. So I’d wait until after I’d cooked or baked something, and then make it nearby.
- How do I fix a broken ganache? I let it cool down a little, and then blend it in one spot. It’ll eventually look worse… until it looks better. It works for me. I used to add a little bit more cream and blend around it, and it worked eventually, but I didn’t like adding more cream b/c that’s changing the recipe and I found not adding cream works just as well.
- I don’t really like the flavor of butter with chocolate, so all of my ganaches are low or no butter. I like the flavor of alcohol with chocolate, so most of them are relatively high alcohol. I think that this has caused texture issues. Alcohol is a liquid and using a lot of it makes for softer ganaches that take a little longer to set up, especially since there isn’t much butter to give body. At least alcohol is more shelf-stable than cream. But it is amazing how even the most potent alcohol can be easily overshadowed by chocolate. It was difficult enough getting the Scotch flavor to come through in the Scotch Bar, but when I developed the Bourbon Bar, I had to adjust even more because the Bourbon was even harder to get to come through… Using a 141 proof Bourbon wasn’t just for show. But you also can’t use too much alcohol, because that, I’ve read, breaks down the chocolate.
- I think that sugar has something to do with encouraging the emulsion. My malt ganache was all milk chocolate and also had malt syrup added to it, and as I said, it never broke. So, for my other ganaches, I always have a small percentage of milk chocolate in them and a fairly high percentage of glucose; I think that the thicker texture of both of them also somewhat make up the lost body for not having much butter in them. The milk chocolate may also help make it easier for some flavors to come through because it’s less potent than dark chocolate; it may give an undesired caramel flavor, though, so you may have to balance how much you use.