The 5 Essential Types of Chocolate and What to Do with Them (Besides Just Eating Them)

published Feb 12, 2022
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Credit: Photo: Shutterstock; Design: Kitchn

When it comes to chocolate, I have a mantra: It’s all good. My other mantra? It’s all confusing. Even though I’ve been writing about chocolate, as well as judging competitions and leading chocolate tastings, for almost a decade, the key attributes of each type still often baffle me. How can a dark chocolate bar contain milk? Should I buy semisweet or bittersweet chocolate to make cookies? And the kicker: Is white chocolate really chocolate?

Below, I break down the basics about the five essential types of chocolate. (To go beyond the basics, pick up a copy of my book, Bean-to-Bar Chocolate: America’s Craft Chocolate.)

Credit: Photo: Shutterstock; Design: Kitchn

Types of Chocolate

Unsweetened Chocolate

Woe for the many times that as a kid I ate a piece of unsweetened baking chocolate while my mom was making a cake. It smelled delicious but tasted so bitter. Those days are gone, though, as there are now many more delectable options for unsweetened chocolate, whether you’re baking with it or enjoying a taste with some tea.

All chocolate starts unsweetened — and it takes a lot of work to create it. The first step is to pick the pods off the cocoa trees. Cut them open and you’ll find 50 to 100 beans that are encased in cocoa fruit. Farmers ferment the beans in that fruit for several days, then dry them, usually in the sun. Next, at the chocolate factory, the chocolate maker roasts the beans, breaks them into pieces (called cocoa nibs), then removes the husk around each bean (a process called winnowing). Last, they’re ground up into a paste that, when cooled, turns into a block of chocolate. Unsweetened chocolate doesn’t have any added sugar, and it shouldn’t include any other ingredients either: It should be 100% cocoa. Within that 100% it’s about 50% fat — cocoa butter, the natural fat in the cocoa bean.

Semisweet/Bittersweet Chocolate

You’ll often find the terms semisweet or bittersweet on a bag of chocolate chips, but the definitions can be mysterious. According to the FDA, semisweet and bittersweet chocolate are interchangeable terms, both under the umbrella category of “sweet chocolate.” Semisweet or bittersweet chocolate must contain at least 35 percent cocoa. Percentage doesn’t have anything to do with quality but rather the percentage of ingredients. For example, a 35 percent chocolate means 35 percent of it comes from the cocoa bean and 65 percent of it is other ingredients, like sugar, milk powder, soy lecithin, and so on. Milk powder? Yep, when making chocolate, chocolate makers always use powdered milk, not liquid milk, as liquids don’t combine well with chocolate.

Dark Chocolate

As someone who spends my whole day thinking about, tasting, and discussing dark chocolate, I’m always surprised there isn’t a legal definition for dark chocolate. Technically, dark chocolate is a type of bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, so it’s also considered “sweet chocolate.” Also, though we think of dark and milk chocolate as opposites, there’s no reason that dark chocolate can’t contain dairy. Oftentimes, it does. Because there’s not a legal definition other than it being a “sweet chocolate,” there’s no assigned percentage of cocoa for dark chocolate, as long as it’s above the 35% required for semisweet or bittersweet. You’ll find that anything over 55% is generally labeled dark. There’s also a huge trend toward single-origin chocolate, most of which is dark chocolate. Single origin means all the beans come from the same location, allowing you to taste the terroir of the beans — so different chocolates might have fruity, nutty, earthy, floral, and other notes, just like wine.

Milk Chocolate

Milk chocolate is made from those ground-up cocoa nibs, sugar, milk powder, and/or cream powder. To legally be considered milk chocolate, it should contain at least 15% cocoa. Now there are even some tasty plant-based versions made with coconut, oat, and almond milk.

White Chocolate

Whether you love it or hate it, you probably have an opinion about white chocolate. Some even go as far as to say that it’s not real chocolate. But by my standards, it is absolutely real chocolate, as long as it meets a few requirements. White chocolate’s main ingredient should be cocoa butter, the natural fat in the cocoa bean. If it has other fats in it, like palm oil, it’s not only not real chocolate but is also responsible for white chocolate’s bad rap. In fact, U.S. law requires white chocolate to have at least 20 percent cocoa butter and no other vegetable fat. (There are also requirements about how much milk, milk fat, and sugar it can have in it.) Bottom line: If it’s made out of cocoa butter, it’s real chocolate. Hate the game, not the player.