First, though, let’s define the differences, thanks in part to info from the National Confectioners Association.
Unsweetened chocolate comes as billed. It has no sugar, so it’s nothing but chocolate ground from nibs (the centers of cocoa beans) and some cocoa butter. This ground mixture, called chocolate liquor or sometimes cacao mass, also may be packaged as baking chocolate. It’s very bitter, almost astringent.
Bittersweet and semisweet chocolate are where sugar starts entering the picture, along with more cocoa butter. By U.S. regulations, both bittersweet and semisweet bars or chips must contain at least 35 percent chocolate liquor. Bittersweet usually has more — at least 50 percent. Here’s also where those percentages come in: The higher the percent, the more chocolate liquor in the bar, the deeper the flavor.
What makes up the remaining percentages? Cocoa butter and sugar, in proportions that vary with the producer. Bars labeled German’s chocolate are among the sweetest. But the famous German Chocolate Cake also may be made successfully with semisweet chocolate. Note that German’s chocolate has nothing to do with Germany. It was created by Samuel German in 1852, for his employer, Walter Baker & Co.
Bottom line: Bittersweet and semisweet chocolate can be used interchangeably. The determining factor is how intense a flavor you want in your baked good.
Milk chocolate is made with dry milk solids, at least 12 percent. There’s more sugar, while cacao mass may be as little as 10 percent. This is almost too mild for baking, but delicious alone to savor or as the foundation of a great frosting.
White chocolate flips the formula, showcasing cocoa butter, along with milk solids, sugar and vanilla. There’s no chocolate liquor or mass here, which causes some people to say it’s not “real” chocolate. But cocoa butter is the fat from cocoa beans, so white chocolate comes from a cocoa plant.
The likely culprit for confusion is the product called almond bark or coating. It looks like white chocolate, but is made with vegetable fats instead of cocoa butter.
Finally: cocoa. Mostly, recipes call for natural cocoa, which is chocolate liquor with all the cocoa butter pressed out of it. The resulting dry stuff is ground into cocoa powder that’s lighter, even reddish, as in Red Velvet Cake.
Dutch-processed cocoa starts with natural cocoa, but it’s then treated with an alkaline solution to neutralize cocoa’s natural acidity. It’s milder in flavor, but darker in appearance.
Bottom line: For recipes that don’t specify a particular cocoa, use natural cocoa. Dutch-processed may turn up in recipes that rely only on baking powder for leavening, since it’s also neutralized. The two cocoas are not interchangeable, so best to follow the recipe for optimum results.
And here’s a sweet hack: If you’re out of unsweetened chocolate, but have natural cocoa on hand, melt 1 tablespoon of butter or shortening, then stir in 3 tablespoons of cocoa powder. This is the equivalent of 1 ounce of unsweetened chocolate.
Finally, as with most ingredients, you pay for quality. In recipes with chocolate flavor front and center, such as a flourless cake, top-grade chocolate will yield the best results. Store brands may be fine for everyday chocolate chip cookies.
Still feeling a little stressed? Have no fear. Here’s a recipe for chocolate frosting that will ease your mind. It uses both milk and semisweet chocolate bound with sour cream, so it’s not too sweet and lets the chocolate flavor shine.
LUSCIOUS, CREAMY CHOCOLATE ICING
Makes enough to generously frost and fill one (8- or 9-inch) layer cake or 2 dozen cupcakes.
Note: The brown sugar makes the chocolate taste fudgier and the corn syrup makes the frosting easily spreadable and gives it a slight sheen. You can use either chips or chopped bar chocolate. This recipe is from "BakeWise" by Shirley Corriher.
12 ounces (2 cups) milk chocolate, chips or chopped
9 ounces (1 1/2 cups) semisweet chocolate, chips or chopped
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons light corn syrup
1 1/2 cups sour cream
Place the chocolate in a large microwave-safe bowl and microwave on 50 percent power for 30-second intervals, stopping to stir after every interval, until completely melted and smooth. This will take two to three minutes.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the brown sugar, salt, vanilla and corn syrup. Stir in the sour cream with a few strokes. Add the melted chocolate. Stir until no sour cream streaks remain and it’s very smooth. It will be beautiful. If it is too thin, let it stand for an hour at room temperature until slightly thickened.
YELLOW BUTTER CAKE
Makes 2 (8- or 9-inch) layers for one layer cake.
Note: This classic is from "Betty Crocker's Cookbook."
2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup sour cream
Heat oven to 350 degrees and place rack in center position. Grease bottom and sides of 2 (8- or 9-inch) round cake pans with shortening; lightly flour. Or cut parchment circles to fit in pans and spray lightly.
In small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt; set aside.
In large bowl, beat butter and sugar with electric mixer on medium speed, scraping bowl occasionally, about 3 minutes or until light and fluffy. Do not underbeat. Beat in vanilla.
Beat in eggs, 1 at a time, just until smooth. On low speed, add flour mixture alternately with milk, beating after each addition, until smooth. Scrape side of bowl occasionally. Beat in sour cream.
Pour evenly into pans. Tap pans on counter 2 to 3 times to eliminate air bubbles from batter.
Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes; remove from pans to cooling racks. Cool completely, about 1 hour, before frosting.
Nutrition information per each of 16 servings: 490 calories, 150 mg sodium, 60 g carbohydrates, 15 g saturated fat, 42 mg total sugars, 6 g protein, 80 mg cholesterol, 2 g dietary fiber
Exchanges per serving: 2 starch, 2 carb, 5 fat.
Bittersweet and semisweet chocolate: These two are interchangeable, and it comes down to intensity.
Cocoa powder: Unless Dutch-process is called for, stick to natural cocoa for most recipes.
Milk chocolate: The mild flavor lends itself more to snacking or frostings than to most baking.
White chocolate: It has cocoa butter, so it does contain chocolate, but it's not the same as coatings or almond barks.