Understanding the Tempering Process While Cooking

Tempering sour cream with hot soup. © 2008 Barbara Rolek licensed to About.com, Inc.

In culinary terms, to temper an item means to stabilize it so its characteristics don't change when heated.

What Does Tempering Mean to a Cook?

In the kitchen, for instance, when a hot liquid like soup or stock is mixed directly with a cold item like cream or sour cream or eggs, the dairy product will tend to curdle as the soup's heat coagulates the proteins in the dairy.

The way to avoid this is to slowly increase the heat of the dairy so its temperature is more compatible with the temperature of the hot liquid.

This is done by placing the cold item into a heatproof bowl and then briskly whisking in a few ladles of the hot liquid and then adding the tempered item back to the rest of the hot liquid.

Chocolate Tempering

Likewise, chocolate is tempered by heating and cooling and heating again to stabilize the fat in the chocolate so it doesn't crystallize or "bloom" once it cools.

Industrial Tempering

It's not just food that is tempered. Glass, cast iron, steel, and other products are tempered to make them more resistant to stress. This is done by heating it to a certain temperature for a specific length of time and then rapidly cooling it to a normal temperature in a set time period.

Recipes with Tempered Ingredients

  • Creamed Dill Pickle Soup RecipeThis unusual soup is a favorite of Poles and other Eastern European groups. In this case, chicken or vegetable broth is the target and sour cream is the item needing tempering.
  • Russian Rassolnik RecipeThis traditional kidney-pickle soup is a reputed hangover cure and is made with a tempered egg yolk which acts as a thickener and binder and must be tempered so it doesn't scramble when hitting the hot stock.
  • Serbian Lamb Vegetable Soup Recipe: In this dish, a zafrig or roux consisting of fat and flour is mixed with egg yolks and sour cream and is then tempered before returning it to the stock pot. 
  • Cream of Horseradish Soup RecipeIn this Hungarian recipe, heavy cream and an egg yolk are tempered so they won't curdle or scramble when added to the hot stock.