From Sweetened Chocolate to Unsweetened and Beyond—What Are They For?

Your sweet introduction to everything you need to know about chocolate.

Chocolate is an ingredient stocked in nearly everyone's pantries. Maybe you keep a supply of sweetened chocolate chips on hand for chocolate chip cookies when a craving strikes. Perhaps you've got milk chocolate bars in the pantry for snacking or s'mores. Or, if you're a big fan of homemade chocolate desserts such as cakes and brownies, you may have bars of unsweetened and sweetened chocolate in varying levels of cacao percentages.

No matter your go-to chocolate, it's helpful—especially if you need a substitution—to know what makes the different types of chocolate unique. Use this guide to choose the chocolate that best suits your cooking or snacking needs.

Row of different types of chocolate. From left to right: Cocoa powder, unsweetened chocolate, semisweet chocolate, milk chocolate, and white chocolate all on a plain white surface
Brie Passano

All chocolate starts from beans of the cacao (kay-KAY-oh) tree. The beans are fermented, dried, roasted, and cracked. The extraction process produces cocoa butter and an intense brown paste called chocolate liquor. The percentage number on chocolate packages you buy represents the amount of chocolate liquor in the bar. The rest is sugar. The greater the percentage of chocolate liquor, the more pronounced and complex the chocolate flavor.

Cocoa Powder (Unsweetened)

Unsweetened cocoa results from a final extraction of cocoa butter from chocolate liquor, resulting in a solid product that is ground into a powder. Learn how to substitute chocolate for cocoa powder in your baking.

Test Kitchen Tip: Cocoa powders labeled "Dutch-process" or "European-style" have been treated to neutralize the naturally occurring acids, giving them a mellower flavor and redder color.

Milk Chocolate

As defined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), milk chocolate must contain at least 10% chocolate liquor and 12% milk with added cocoa butter and sugar. Milk chocolate has a milder flavor than darker chocolates.

Sweetened Chocolate, Semisweet Chocolate, and Bittersweet Chocolate

There is a bit of mystery around what bittersweet chocolate is versus what semisweet chocolate is and how sweetened chocolate fits in here. These three types of chocolate contain varying amounts of chocolate liquor and sugar.

  • Sweet and semisweet contain 15% to 35% chocolate liquor and have more sugar than bittersweet chocolate.
  • Bittersweet chocolate has 35% or higher chocolate liquor.

You can use these chocolate varieties interchangeably. Generally, sweet chocolate is a bit sweeter than semisweet chocolate. Specific sweetness and color intensity vary by manufacturer's recipes and cacao bean sources.

Unsweetened Chocolate

Sometimes called baking chocolate, this type of chocolate is pure chocolate and cocoa butter with no sugar added. Recipes using unsweetened chocolate call for plenty of sugar. Don't substitute other types of chocolate for unsweetened chocolate; the sugar ratio will be too far off.

Buy It: Baker's Unsweetened Chocolate ($3, Target)

White Chocolate

Remember when we said all chocolate comes from the chocolate liquor made from cacao beans? Well, there's a caveat. White chocolate doesn't meet the definition of chocolate as it contains no chocolate liquor. White chocolate combines cocoa butter (which is extracted from cacao beans) with sugar and milk solids.

Test Kitchen Tip: White chocolate with cocoa butter (found in the baking aisle) should be used in recipes calling for white chocolate. White baking pieces do not contain cocoa butter so they do not work as a good substitute.

Chocolate-Flavor Candy Coating

Another not-actually-chocolate chocolate is chocolate-flavor candy coating (sometimes called candy melts). This is a chocolate-like product with most cocoa butter removed and replaced with vegetable fat. It's easier to work with than chocolate for dipping and molding. Candy coatings come in assorted colors and flavors and can be found in craft stores' baking sections.

Characteristics of Quality Chocolate

Determining whether chocolate is of high quality involves all the senses.

  • Glossy shine: This indicates that it has been properly stored, around 65°F. When chocolate melts and resolidifies, the cocoa butter rises to the top, causing "bloom" (that white dusty-looking coating that can occur). It may look off but changes the taste and texture only slightly.
  • Snap: Good chocolate will make a crisp, sharp snap when broken.
  • Aroma: Sniff for that strong chocolate scent.
  • Texture: When talking about food in your mouth, the texture is referred to as "mouthfeel." The mouthfeel of good chocolate should be smooth, not grainy, and not waxy. It should melt in your mouth, literally. Cocoa butter has a melting point lower than 98.6°F, body temperature. Chocolate with vegetable fat will hold its shape in your mouth longer. Solid shortening has a melting temperature that is above body temperature and has a waxy mouthfeel.
  • Taste: In the end, this is what will determine for you which chocolate is right. Every manufacturer's chocolate is different based on many factors, including where the cacao beans come from, how they're roasted, and the balance of cocoa butter, sugar, and pure chocolate.

Where Should Chocolate Be Stored?

No matter the type of chocolate you're storing—unsweetened, semisweet, cocoa powder, etc.—store chocolate in a cupboard (to avoid heat and light) for up to one year.

More chocolate storage tips to consider:

  • Store in a tightly covered container or sealed plastic bag. Chocolate's porous nature allows it to pick up flavor from other items.
  • Temperature should be around 65°F.
  • Humidity should be no more than 50%.
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