Well, white chocolate is chocolate—legally speaking, even if you personally disagree—but since it does not contain any cocoa solids, it will never qualify for either bittersweet or semisweet designation; the toasty, caramelized notes of blonde chocolate notwithstanding, it simply can’t achieve the intensity of flavor boasted by its bittersweet and semisweet cousins. Milk chocolate is also out of the running and will always qualify as sweet in comparison to darker semi- and bitter-sweet bars. But those two are harder to tell apart, and broadly speaking, can be substituted for each other pretty much any time.
dark chocolate. The only FDA requirement is that something called dark, bittersweet, or semisweet chocolate contain at least 35 percent cacao and less than 12 percent milk solids (more milk solids, and it’s required to say it’s milk chocolate). Beyond that, labeling is entirely up to the manufacturer.Typically, semisweet chocolate has lower cacao content and is sweeter than bittersweet chocolate. However, there are no official guidelines about what can be called bittersweet and what can be called semisweet, and they both fall under the umbrella of
At its most basic, chocolate is made up of cocoa butter and cocoa powder—which together are called cacao liquor and determine cacao content—along with sugar (flavorings and stabilizing chemicals can also be added, but those are the main ingredients). Thus, as cacao percentage goes up, sugar content goes down, but this does not necessarily mean more bitterness, says Frankie Whitman, marketing director for Scharffen Berger. Some regions and processing methods produce cocoa beans that are bitterer than others even if used at the same concentration.
And when you get into the finer points of cocoa percentage, things get even more confusing—but at least they remain reliably delicious.
For the purposes of baking, it may be easiest to think in terms of milk and dark chocolate—when you want a sweeter, milder chocolate flavor, go for milk, and when you want something more intense, use either semisweet or bittersweet. The best way to know which specific flavor you want for any given application is to get familiar with a range of chocolate brands beforehand. Yes, you get to eat a bunch of chocolate and call it research! Take note of different brands’ nuances and intensities and pick whichever one seems best suited to the specific dish you’re making.
Guittard Chocolate Cookbook, $9.99 on Amazon
This promises decadent chocolate recipes of all sorts, but feel free to play around with your favorite bars and brands.
One other note: While those bright yellow bags of semisweet chocolate chips are classic cookie ingredients, it’s generally preferable to use chopped chocolate bars (for batters and doughs) or chocolate wafers (for anything that calls for melted chocolate), for better flavor and texture. Basically, the fewer stabilizers and additives in the mix, the better. Beyond that, though, it’s all a matter of personal taste.
This rich sauce is based on melted bittersweet chocolate, underscored by unsweetened cocoa powder for extra depth; the only additional sugar comes from a little corn syrup, which also helps add shine and smooth texture. Get our Bittersweet Chocolate Sauce recipe.
A bittersweet chocolate frosting pairs beautifully with classic yellow cake, but if you have a sweeter tooth, you could make it milk chocolate instead. (Semisweet will fall somewhere between the two, but again, it also depends on what brand you buy.) Get our Moist Yellow Cupcakes with Bittersweet Chocolate Frosting recipe.
Bittersweet chocolate is intensified with a touch of brewed espresso in these rich brownies. For double the dose of chocolate, mix roughly chopped semisweet or bittersweet chocolate into the batter before pouring it into the pan. Get our Intense Chocolate Brownies recipe.
Chocolate can add a great depth of flavor to savory dishes, too. Mexican mole is a classic example (but try it in chili too, for starters). Bittersweet chocolate provides a dark cocoa edge with just a hint of sweetness that marries perfectly with all the other flavors. This version is easy enough for a weeknight, thanks to being made in a Crock-Pot. Get our Easy Slow Cooker Chicken Mole recipe.
Stepping down the chocolate intensity ladder, semisweet makes for a nicely balanced but rich chocolate mousse pie that’s crowned with whipped cream and extra chocolate shavings. As always, choose a chocolate you would happily eat on its own for all your baking projects. Get our Chocolate Mousse Pie recipe.
Semisweet chocolate melted down with heavy cream, a pat of butter, and just a few tablespoons of complementary liqueur makes a perfect pool of luscious fondue for dipping fruit, cake, or whatever your heart desires. As the recipe indicates, you can use a mix of semisweet and bittersweet chocolate to get the perfect balance. Get our Chocolate Fondue recipe.
A mild milk chocolate isn’t overpowered by the Guinness in this ice cream from David Lebovitz, nor does it provide too much bitter competition to the roasty stout. Get the Guinness Milk Chocolate Ice Cream recipe.
For a fantastic (and ridiculously easy) cup of hot chocolate, simply melt some eating chocolate down with whole milk and heavy cream. A classic milk chocolate will work here, but dark milk chocolates are increasingly easy to find, and make for a richer flavor with a bit less sugar. Then again, if you like even more intense chocolate taste, the same trick works wonders with semisweet! Get our Easy Homemade Hot Chocolate recipe.
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Related Video: How to Make Basic Chocolate Mousse
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This post was originally published on August 21, 2009 and was updated with new links, images, and text on January 29, 2019.
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