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Don’t be Bitter, My Sweet: Tips for Choosing Chocolate

There are many different types of chocolate on the market today, baking, bittersweet, semisweet, milk, white, couverture and compound to name just a few. Chocolate can be as pedestrian as a chocolate bar in the aisle of a grocery store and as grand as a showpiece created by a master pastry chef, but what are the differences between the types of chocolates?

The basic components of chocolate are: cocoa solids, cocoa butter from the cacao bean, sugar, and can also include milk solids, emulsifiers like lecithin, and flavorings like vanilla. Cocoa butter is the fat in chocolate that melts at around 90 degrees and gives chocolate the wonderful melt-in-your-mouth sensation. The major difference between the types of chocolate is the amount of sugar and cocoa solids and the type of fat in the chocolate.


Baking chocolate is the most intense, containing only cocoa solids and cocoa butter without added sugar. It is bitter when nibbled straight from the bar but offers a wallop of chocolate flavor to cakes, cookies and other baked items.


According to FDA regulations, bittersweet and semisweet chocolates must contain at least 35% cocoa liquor (cocoa solids and cocoa butter) but beyond that, the cocoa solid and the sugar contained in the chocolate is up to the manufacturer. The amount of cocoa and sugar contained in one company’s semisweet may be the same as another’s bittersweet. One way to tell how much sugar is in chocolate is by the percentage on the package. The percentage represents the amount of cocoa liquor, the higher the percentage, the lower the amount of sugar. For instance, chocolate with 58% cacao contains approximately 42% sugar. The higher the percentage of cocoa liquor contained in chocolate, the more bittersweet it will be.


Milk chocolate has at least 10% cocoa solids and 12% milk solids. Look for milk chocolate with a higher percentage of cocoa solids for a chocolate with a stronger chocolate flavor.


White chocolate must have 14% milk solids, 20% cocoa butter and 55% sugar but no cocoa solids. White chocolate is the most fragile of chocolates. It easily burns when melted and so should not be heated above 110 degrees. Look for white chocolate containing cocoa butter.


Couverture and compound chocolates can be bittersweet, semisweet, milk or white. Couverture is a high-end chocolate that contains high amounts of cocoa. This type of chocolate melts smoothly and is perfectly suited for candies and showpieces but does require tempering. (Tempering is the method used to align the fat crystals to produce a firm, shiny chocolate that generally takes lots of stirring and patience.)

Compound Chocolate

Compound chocolate is on the opposite end of the chocolate spectrum from couverture. Compound is a type of chocolate that contains little to no cocoa butter. Instead it contains a substitute oil like palm kernel or coconut oil that does not require the chocolate to be tempered to create a beautiful shine in candy making. This makes working with chocolate much easier but it lacks the melt-in-your-mouth sensation of chocolate containing cocoa butter.

Photo by Jonathan Boncek
Photo by Jonathan Boncek


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