While wandering the baking aisle of a grocery store, you've likely come across stacks of what is referred to as "baking chocolate." How does that differ from the chocolate a few aisles over in the candy section? And what kind do you actually need for that cake?
Baking chocolate, in its most traditional form, is unsweetened chocolate. That means it's 100 percent chocolate liquor (aka processed and ground cocoa beans) without any added sugar or flavoring, so it's extra bitter and extra unpleasant to bite into. Unsweetened chocolate is meant to be used in a recipe where you're using enough sweeteners to counter this bitterness.
So What About Bittersweet and Semi-Sweet Chocolate?
This is where things get confusing because technically, these are baking chocolates too. The difference is both have a small amount of sugar blended in. So while unsweetened chocolate is 100 percent cacao, by FDA standards in the United States, bittersweet and semisweet must be at least 35 percent cacao. They also might have vanilla (for flavoring) or an emulsifier like lecithin (for a creamy mouthfeel) added.
While you may think bittersweet would have less sugar added to it and therefore be less sweet than semisweet, it's up to the chocolate maker what percentage they use and what they want to call it. For example, Ghirardelli makes a 60 percent cacao baking bar they call bittersweet, while Scharffen Berger makes a 62 percent cacao baking bar they call semisweet, so really, the terms are used interchangeably. That means you can use them interchangeably in a recipe. The higher the cacao percentage, the deeper and more intense the chocolate flavor will be, so reach for what you like best.
And That Chocolate in the Candy Aisle?
You'll never find unsweetened chocolate in the candy aisle, but you will find bars that have very similar cacao percentages to that found in bittersweet and semisweet chocolate. The big difference then is form: Baking chocolate tends to be sold in blocks, chunks, or chips (as they'll be melted down, chopped up, or mixed into a recipe), while a snacking bar is thin and easy to manage.
Read More: Baking: Which Chocolate Works Best?