I’m a sucker for dark chocolate and always have been. So when my friend Sarah was creating the Ultimate Brownie recipe, I questioned why she would use anything but the darkest chocolate she could find. After trying about a dozen variations, I learned that all chocolate isn’t equal. While they’re all delicious, each one tastes, bakes and reacts in its own unique way.
Also known as baking or bitter chocolate, this is chocolate in its simplest form. It’s as bitter as chocolate can get, since no sugars or flavorings are added. Definitely not for eating out of hand, this type is intended as an ingredient in rich brownies, cakes and cookies.
Here is where things can get a little confusing. While the FDA mandates bittersweet and semisweet chocolate contain at least 35 percent pure chocolate (cacao), it doesn’t specify what that percentage must be. In general, the higher the percentage, the less sweet the chocolate. It seems counterintuitive, but since chocolate in its natural form isn’t sweet, this actually makes perfect sense. Chocolate labeled 60 or 72 percent cocoa is often referred to as bittersweet. It’s great for eating by itself or baked in chocolaty recipes like Jumbo Brownie Cookies.
Semisweet chocolates generally range from 35 to 55 percent cocoa. Most chocolate chips are semisweet unless labeled otherwise. Semisweet flavor tends to be sweeter and less intense than bittersweet, so it’s is great for things like chocolate chip cookies, where the chocolate isn’t intended to be the dominant flavor.
Mild in flavor and the sweetest of the true chocolates, milk chocolate contains at least 10 percent cocoa, and usually contains a lot of cocoa butter and sugar, too. Classic mainstream chocolate bars are made with this type. It’s also used in candymaking and in recipes where chocolate plays a supporting role, such as Milk Chocolate Pie.
In the chocolate world, white chocolate has probably caused the most controversy. To be a true chocolate, the FDA says it must contain at least some chocolate solids, but these are removed in the process of making white chocolate. White chocolate fans argue that since cocoa butter comes from the cocoa bean, white chocolate is, in fact, real chocolate. No matter which side you’re on, you can enjoy this type out of hand or in desserts like this White Chocolate Fluffy Cake.
Natural Unsweetened Cocoa Powder
Press most of the cocoa butter out of unsweetened chocolate, and you’ll end up with bitter-tasting (but wonderful) natural unsweetened cocoa powder. The most widely available, it’s the secret weapon when you want a deep, rich chocolate flavor for baked goods like Devil’s Food Cake. While you can use a little bit to sprinkle on truffles, this type of cocoa powder is almost always intended to be used in a recipe, not eaten alone by the spoonful. (Come on, we’ve all tried it.)
Dutch Processed Cocoa Powder
Dutch-processed (aka alkalized) cocoa powder has been treated to reduce its acidity, giving it a smooth flavor and a reddish color. You can use Dutch-processed or natural cocoa interchangeably in candy and sauce recipes. However, when it comes to baked goods, stick to what the recipe calls for, since the type of powder can affect how the dough or batter rises.
Chocolate Bars vs. Chocolate Chips
With the exception of unsweetened chocolate, all of the solid chocolates are available in both bar and chip form. While the names may be the same, there are slight differences. To help keep their shape, chips have less cocoa butter and contain added stabilizers. While you may not notice a big difference between the two in the texture of a brownie, in sauces and candymaking it can greatly alter the recipe. Baking bars are created to melt quickly and smoothly, so if a recipe calls for baking chocolate, it’s best to use the bar form.
If you’re as much of a chocoholic as I am, I encourage you to experiment with different brands of chocolate. Chocolate is grown all over the world, and just like wine, its provenance can greatly affect the flavor. Also, just as there are different varieties of wine grapes, there are many varieties of cacao beans. Some are fruity while others are floral, nutty, spicy or earthy. I tend to purchase Ghirardelli the most because I like the notes of fruit in their chocolate, and because it’s widely available and performs well no matter what recipe I use it in. But don’t take my word for it—try them all and see which is your favorite.