A thorough description of the different types of chocolate – unsweetened, bittersweet, dark, semisweet, milk and white, and when to use them!

Chocolate 101: A thorough description of the different types of chocolate - unsweetened, bittersweet, dark, semisweet, milk and white, and when to use them!

Welcome to another installment of Baking Basics! Today we’re talking about one of my favorite ingredients – CHOCOLATE!

You’d think that chocolate would be pretty self-explanatory and when it comes to eating it, it usually is. However, when you’re baking with chocolate, there is a lot of different terminology for all of the different types of chocolate regarding how sweet it is. Knowing the difference can mean the difference between a perfect chocolatey dessert and one that is either way too bitter or way too sweet. We’re going to cover all of the bases today so you know exactly what you should be using and when.

Let’s dig in!

The 411 on Chocolate

So, how is chocolate made, anyway? Let’s start with a little science lesson to set the stage for talking about all the different types of chocolate.

Chocolate is made from cocoa beans, which are the dried and and partially fermented seeds harvested of the cacao tree. The beans are cleaned, roasted and graded, then the shell is removed to extract the nib (cacao nibs!). The nibs are then ground and liquefied, resulting in pure chocolate in liquid form, which is referred to as chocolate liquor (although no alcohol is involved). The chocolate liquor can be further processed into cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Chocolate liquor is blended with cocoa butter in varying quantities to make the different types of chocolate you see at the grocery store.

Below are the most common varieties for baking, how to tell them apart, and the brands that I use…

Unsweetened Chocolate

This chocolate is the most self-explanatory of the bunch – it is pure chocolate (solidified chocolate liquor) without any added sugar, cocoa butter, milk solids, etc. Nothing added, just chocolate. Which means that it’s extremely bitter and isn’t something that you would eat on its own, but rather add to recipes that also include sugar or some other type of sweetener.

What I Use: Scharffen Berger Unsweetened Dark Chocolate Baking Bar

Dark & Bittersweet Chocolate

When I first started baking on a regular basis, I found that many recipes called for “dark chocolate” while others called for “bittersweet chocolate”. For a novice baker, that can be downright confusing. Were they the same? Different? What should I look for at the grocery store? The short answer is that there was no set-in-stone definition, but in general, bittersweet chocolate contains at least 35% pure chocolate and has a small amount of sugar added. More often than not, however, it has a cacao percentage of more than 60%; this percentage is listed on most chocolate bars that you find in the baking aisle of your grocery store. Dark chocolate is a generic term that can mean anything from semisweet (see below) to bittersweet chocolate, but in U.S. “dark chocolate” typically refers to bittersweet chocolate above that 60% cacao threshold.

What I Use: When a recipe calls for dark or bittersweet chocolate, I use Ghirardelli 60% Cacao Baking Bar. If a recipe calls for “extra-dark” chocolate, then I will use their 70% cacao baking bar.

Semisweet Chocolate

Semisweet chocolate is straddling the fence between a sweet milk chocolate and a more bitter dark chocolate; it contains at least 35% pure chocolate with both sugar and cocoa butter added to it. This would be considered the all-purpose flour of chocolate – if you don’t like your chocolate baked goods overly sweet or too bitter, this is your go-to. It’s also the most common type of chocolate used for chocolate chips since it’s incredibly versatile and won’t overpower your recipe.

What I Use: Ghirardelli Semisweet Baking Bar

Milk Chocolate

Milk chocolate is the sweetest of chocolate products, with the distinction of not only cocoa butter and sugar added, but also milk solids. It typically contains at least 10% chocolate liquor and at least 12% milk products.

What I Use: Ghirdalli Milk Chocolate Baking Bar

White Chocolate

White chocolate is a little bit of a misnomer because it truly is not a chocolate product since it does not include chocolate liquor – it is comprised of a combination of cocoa butter, sugar, milk solids, and a flavoring like vanilla. Beware! Always read the ingredient label on white chocolate products – if it does not contain cocoa butter, then it is not actually white chocolate, but rather just a flavored baking product.

What I Use: Ghirardelli White Chocolate Baking Bar

Summing It Up

So, there you have it! All of the different types of chocolate that a baking recipe might call for, and how they’re different.

QUICK TIP! If you need to melt chocolate – whether it’s chocolate chips or chopped chocolate bars – you want to do it low and slow to prevent the chocolate from seizing up and hardening (white chocolate is particularly prone to this). I use one of two methods:

  1. A heatproof bowl (stainless steel is awesome!) set over a small saucepan of barely simmering water (make sure the bowl isn’t touching the water below), stirring occasionally until completely melted; or
  2. In the microwave on 50% power in 30-second increments, stirring after each, until the chocolate is completely melted.


Check out more posts in the Baking Basics series:

5 Mistakes to Avoid When Preparing a Recipe

High Altitude Baking Tips

Flour 101: The Definitive Guide to the Different Types of Baking Flours

Cocoa Powder 101: Natural Unsweetened vs Dutch-Process

Baking Soda vs. Baking Powder: Everything You Need to Know!

Why You Should ALWAYS Weigh Your Ingredients