Chocolate has been used in sweet and savory applications for thousands of years. Read on to learn how it's made, the different forms chocolate can take and how we like to use them, tips about using chocolate, and a handful of our favorite chocolate recipes.
- What Is Chocolate, Anyway?
- The Journey from Bean to Bar
- Why the Brand of Chocolate Matters
- All About Bittersweet/Semisweet Chocolate
- All About Milk Chocolate
- All About Cocoa Powder
- All About Unsweetened Chocolate
- All About Dark Chocolate Chips
- All About Milk Chocolate Chips
- All About White Chocolate
- The Best Chocolate Recipes
What Is Chocolate, Anyway?
The base of all processed chocolate is chocolate liquor (not to be confused with alcoholic liqueur)—a dark paste produced from grinding the nibs extracted from dried, fermented, roasted cocoa beans. In its natural state, chocolate liquor is about 55 percent cocoa butter. The remaining 45 percent is the cocoa solids responsible for chocolate’s flavor. The cocoa butter and cocoa solids in chocolate liquor may be separated and recombined in different ratios; together, they make up the cacao percentage in processed chocolate.
The Journey from Bean to Bar
Why the Brand of Chocolate Matters
Brand really matters with chocolate. In tastings we found that nearly half (or even more) of the products in our lineup weren't up to par, no matter the type of chocolate. So for best results, stick with our winners.
All About Bittersweet/Semisweet Chocolate
What It Is: Also known as dark chocolate, bittersweet and semisweet chocolates (there is no official distinction) must contain at least 35 percent cacao. While 35 percent is the minimum, most chocolates in this category contain a much higher percentage of cacao. The remainder is mainly sugar, with a small amount of emulsifiers and flavorings.
How We Use It: With its strong chocolate flavor and smooth texture, bittersweet is our go-to chocolate. We use it for most baked goods and desserts and for dipping and coating. Try it in our Rich Chocolate Tart, Ultimate Flourless Chocolate Cake, and Triple Chocolate Mousse Cake.
Good to Know: Cacao percentage matters. It affects the flavor as well as the texture of creamy desserts. For cooking and baking, we prefer 60 percent cacao. In tests, some chocolates with cacao percentages even a few points less than 60 percent (and thus a lower percentage of cacao solids) produced loose custards. Chocolates with cacao percentages higher than this (and thus with more cacao solids) turned out chalky custards.
The Best Bittersweet/Semisweet Chocolate: Ghirardelli 60% Cacao Bittersweet Chocolate Premium Baking Bar
How to Substitute Bittersweet Chocolate with Unsweetened: In a pinch, replace 1 ounce of bittersweet chocolate with ⅔ ounce of unsweetened chocolate and 2 teaspoons of sugar; note that texture may be affected.
Dark ChocolateIt’s easy to find a great snacking chocolate. But cooking is different: Choosing the right dark chocolate can make the difference between a dessert that’s flawless and one that’s a flop.
All About Milk Chocolate
What It Is: With only 10 percent cacao required, milk chocolate can taste more milky than chocolaty. Milk fat, along with cocoa butter, gives it its ultracreamy texture.
The Best Milk Chocolate: Dove Silky Smooth Milk Chocolate
Milk ChocolateMilk chocolate bars are often dismissed as candy for kids, but we found some that even the pickiest chocolate connoisseur could appreciate.
All About Cocoa Powder
What It Is: Cocoa powder is chocolate liquor that has been pressed to remove most of the cocoa butter, leaving behind cocoa solids and 10 to 24 percent fat (in the form of cocoa butter) that are then finely ground.
Natural cocoa powder is produced from fermented, roasted beans and has an intense flavor and light color; it is naturally acidic, with a pH around 5.7.
Dutch-processed, or alkalized, cocoa powder is produced from fermented beans that have been treated with an alkali before or after roasting to raise the pH of the cocoa powder to 6.8–7.2. Dutch-processed cocoa powder has a milder, less bitter flavor but a darker color.
The greater acidity in natural cocoa powder can lead to baked goods with higher rise and slightly drier texture.
But an even more important difference is the fat content. Dutch-processed cocoa powder typically has a lot more fat than natural cocoa powder (it can contain as much as 24 percent fat, while most natural cocoa powders range from around 10 to 12 percent fat). Fat adds flavor and a perception of moisture. So in recipes that call for more than 1/2 cup of cocoa powder, we recommend shelling out for more expensive Dutch-processed cocoa powder.
How We Use It: Ounce for ounce, cocoa powder packs more chocolate flavor than any other form of chocolate. We use it when we want big chocolate flavor and when we want to control sweetness. Because cocoa powder has less fat than bar chocolate, we also tend to use it in recipes that already have a lot of fat, such as cakes and cookies. Use it in our Chocolate-Caramel Layer Cake, Chocolate Crinkle Cookies, and Easy Holiday Cocoa Sugar Cookies.
The Best Cocoa Powder: Droste Cacao
Good to Know: We often bloom cocoa powder in a hot liquid such as water or coffee. This dissolves the remaining cocoa butter and disperses water-soluble flavor compounds for a deeper, stronger flavor.
The Best Cocoa PowderThe big debate in cocoa powder has always been Dutch-processed versus natural. Is that really the most important factor?
All About Unsweetened Chocolate
What It Is: Unsweetened chocolate is pure chocolate liquor formed into bars.
How We Use It: In recipes such as chewy brownies or chocolate cake, unsweetened chocolate’s lack of sugar allows us to control the sweetener to achieve a desired texture. Try unsweetened chocolate when making Chocolate Financiers and our Dark Chocolate Fudge Sauce.
Why It Has No Substitute: Some sources recommend subbing cocoa powder and butter or oil for unsweetened chocolate, but these fats don’t have the subtle cocoa flavor or contribute the same texture as cocoa butter.
Good to Know: Because unsweetened chocolate isn’t for snacking, some manufacturers don’t use the best beans. But since it’s also not typically refined or conched (a process where the liquor and other ingredients are smeared against rollers until smooth, mellowing out harsh flavors), there’s no hiding the flavor of mediocre beans. In taste tests, we had reservations about or disliked three out of the nine products in our lineup.
The Best Unsweetened Chocolate: Hershey’s Unsweetened Baking Bar
Unsweetened ChocolatePlain-Jane unsweetened chocolate may not inspire the same passion as our favorite candy bars, but it's one of the best tools in a baker's arsenal.
All About Dark Chocolate Chips
What They Are: Dark chocolate chips are bittersweet chocolate with at least 35 percent cacao—the same as for dark bar chocolate—but they typically have less cocoa butter, so they’re cheaper to make and will hold their shape on the production line.
How to Use Them: Chocolate chips get the most use as mix-ins for cookies and brownies.
Good to Know: Most companies don’t cite cacao percentages for chips. And in lab tests, we found that chips produced by such companies had far less cacao than that of bar chocolate—and correspondingly weaker flavor and grainier texture. And while it might be tempting to swap in bars of white chocolate for white baking chips, doing so will affect the results of your finished dessert.
The Best Dark Chocolate Chips: Ghirardelli 60% Premium Baking Chips
The Best Dark Chocolate ChipsWith chocolate chips now coming in different shapes, sizes, and even cacao percentages, how do you choose? We tested 14 options to find a winner.
All About Milk Chocolate Chips
What They Are: Milk chocolate chips are made from four key ingredients: sugar, cocoa butter, cocoa solids (the part of the cacao plant left over once the cocoa butter is extracted), and milk. A good milk chocolate is creamy, delicate, and sweet, with a melt-in-your-mouth smoothness you just don’t get from dark chocolate.
How We Use Them: We use milk chocolate chips for cookies, muffins, and bars, where we want distinct morsels of chocolate speckled throughout.
Good to Know: Contrary to popular belief, milk chocolate chips don’t contain any wax or special stabilizers other than lecithin, which is also present in bar chocolate. Instead, they usually contain a lower percentage of cocoa butter (i.e., fat) than bar chocolate does, which helps the chips hold their shape during baking.
The Best Milk Chocolate Chips: Hershey's Kitchens Milk Chocolate Chips
The Best Milk Chocolate ChipsMost of us associate milk chocolate with supermarket candy bars and foil-wrapped kisses, but does this sweet and creamy chocolate deserve a spot on your baking shelf, too?
Using Cocoa Nibs
After cocoa beans are roasted, the brittle shells are separated from the inner beans, also known as nibs. We like crunchy, bitter cocoa nibs best in baked goods where there aren’t many other competing flavors or textures. They’re also great in granola. Use ½ to ⅔ cup per loaf of quick bread, dozen muffins, or 9-cup batch of granola.
All About White Chocolate
What It Is: White chocolate is technically not chocolate since it’s made with cocoa butter, milk, sugar, emulsifiers, and flavorings but no cocoa solids. White chocolate has a milky taste and satiny texture. Some products substitute other fats for all or some of the cocoa butter; these can be labeled as only “white” and not “chocolate.”
Good to Know: Products with “fake” flavor and “chalky” texture abound. We had reservations about four out of the 10 white chocolate products in our tasting lineup. Real white chocolate rapidly goes rancid when exposed to bright light or heat during storage (antioxidants in the cocoa solids in milk and dark chocolate temper the reaction); plus, it has a tendency to pick up surrounding odors.
The Best White "Chocolate": Guittard Choc-Au-Lait White Chips