Here's Nearly Everything You Need to Know About Chocolate

Here's Nearly Everything You Need to Know About Chocolate

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Christine Gallary
Dec 10, 2014
(Image credit: Elena Veselova/Shutterstock)

Chocolate comes from the Aztec word "xocolatl," which means bitter water. Luckily, the chocolate we now know and love is a far cry from the unsweetened drink the Aztecs used to imbibe. Chocolate is craveable, comforting — and confusing.

All the different percentages and labels, like milk, dark, and white chocolate — what do they mean? Let's take a deep dive into the world of chocolate production and all the kinds of chocolate out there.

Cacao Tree Pods
(Image credit: tristan tan/Shutterstock)

How Is Chocolate Made?

Chocolate is made from the cocoa beans of cacao trees, which are cultivated in Hawaii and in the areas of the world 20 degrees north and south of the equator.

Cocoa Beans
(Image credit: JPC-PROD/Shutterstock)

Cocoa beans (seeds) and pulp are fermented together, and then the fermented beans are dried, usually in the sun, before they are moved to chocolate factories. While beans from different places used to be combined together to make chocolate, there are now also "single-origin" chocolates, which means the beans came from one place.

The beans are then inspected and sorted, cleaned, and then roasted. To remove the husks from the beans, air is blown onto them (called winnowing) and the roasted beans shatter into fragments called cacao nibs.

These nibs are finely ground into a paste called chocolate liquor. This liquor, which is composed of about equal parts cocoa butter and nonfat dry cocoa solids, is used as the base for other types of chocolate products where other ingredients such as milk or sugar are added.

Finally, conching occurs, where machines with rotating blades blend heated chocolate liquor to remove moisture and acid while more cocoa butter and sometimes lecithin are added for texture. The chocolate is cooled in a temperer, then poured into molds.

(Image credit: Svetlana Lukienko)

What Are the Different Types of Chocolate?

Now that we know how chocolate is made, let's tackle the different types that are out there.

1. Unsweetened Baking Chocolate

(also called bitter chocolate)

  • Ingredients: 100% cacao that is 50-58% cocoa butter
  • Shelf life: Up to one year, but best used within a few months.
  • Taste: Bitter with no sweetness since there is no added sugar; not an eating chocolate but a cooking chocolate.

2. Milk Chocolate

  • Ingredients: Has to have at least 10% cacao, but usually around 35-45% cacao, sugar, vanilla or vanillin, sometimes lecithin, dried or condensed milk or cream (must have at least 12% milk solids)
  • Shelf life: Up to six months
  • Taste: Sweet, mild taste with less bitterness than semisweet or bittersweet chocolates. Tastes of fresh milk or caramel.

3. Semisweet Chocolate

  • Ingredients: Has to have at least 35% cacao (but usually around 55% cacao), sugar, vanilla or vanillin, sometimes lecithin
  • Shelf life: Up to one year, but best used within a few months.
  • Taste: Since semisweet chocolate doesn't contain any milk, it has a less creamy taste. It has a balance of chocolate and sweet flavors but not much bitterness or acidity.

4. Bittersweet Chocolate

  • Ingredients: Has to have at least 35% cacao (but usually around 70% cacao), sugar, vanilla or vanillin, sometimes lecithin
  • Shelf life: Up to one year, but best used within a few months.
  • Taste: Less sweet than semisweet chocolate. Bittersweet chocolate is intense, more bitter, and can taste more acidic.

5. White Chocolate

  • Ingredients: At least 20% cocoa butter (make sure it is listed as an ingredient), sugar, at least 14% milk solids, at least 3.5% milk fat, lecithin, and vanilla. It is now officially recognized by the FDA as a type of chocolate.
  • Shelf life: Up to six months
  • Taste: Creamy, very melt-in-the-mouth texture, and distinctly does not taste like the other kinds of chocolate since it doesn't contain any of the dry cocoa solids.

Buying and Storing Chocolate

While more expensive chocolates are usually of a higher quality, you really should use your tastebuds when purchasing. Buy what you like and also cook with what you like. Look for a good, crisp "snap," chocolate aroma, and a smooth and creamy texture as it melts in your mouth.

Instead of looking at labels like semisweet or bittersweet, which don't have regulated cocoa percentage designations except a minimum (so percentages vary wildly across brands), the cocoa percentage is really what's important when shopping. Try to buy chocolate with at least 54% cacao, and you'll want to use the best quality chocolate you can afford in recipes where the chocolate flavor really shines, like in truffles or chocolate sauces. Go for cheaper chocolates when baking and adding lots of other ingredients and flavors.

Look for chocolate that's smooth and glossy with no blemishes on it. Stay away from grainy-looking textures (with the exception of Mexican style). Keep chocolate in airtight containers between 60-64°F, away from moisture, heat, or extreme temperatures.

Substituting Chocolates for Each Other

Semisweet and bittersweet chocolate are the most closely related so generally can be substituted for one another. The taste and texture of milk and white chocolates, however, are very different so they should not be substituted.

And remember that unsweetened chocolate is usually used in recipes that have lots of sugar for sweetness since the chocolate itself doesn't contain any, so don't try to substitute semisweet, milk, or bittersweet for unsweetened chocolate and vice versa.

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