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Plain-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.
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What You Need To Know
Anyone who has eaten a piece of a baking bar knows that while unsweetened chocolate may look like candy, it's definitely not. But in fact, unsweetened baking bars—more than any other kind of chocolate—most closely resemble how chocolate has been consumed for the better part of its 3,500-year history. But it wasn't until 1847 that a British chocolate company called J. S. Fry & Sons began pressing chocolate and sugar into bars, making the very first “eating chocolate.” It would be another 30 years before other innovations—such as adding milk powder and other ingredients to reduce bitterness and using a method called conching to give chocolate a smoother texture—would result in the sweet chocolate candy we know today.
Perhaps the purest form of chocolate sold in supermarkets, unsweetened chocolate is typically made from 100 percent fermented and roasted cacao nibs that have been ground into a paste, melted, and solidified into a bar. While dark chocolate can have a cacao content as high as 85 percent, it still contains just enough sugar to make it palatable when eaten out of hand, whereas unsweetened chocolate contains no sugar or dairy—just processed cacao beans.
The Differences Between Unsweetened Chocolate and Cocoa Powder
We rely on unsweetened chocolate to pack in rich chocolate flavor while keeping sweetness in check. Though unsweetened chocolate has similar uses to cocoa powder, it differs in that it still has all the cocoa butter (fat) that is naturally in the cacao bean; cocoa powder has been mostly defatted and often undergoes a process called “Dutching” that changes the acidity of the chocolate. We choose unsweetened chocolate for baked goods such as brownies, chocolate volcano cake, and chocolate chess pie, in which the extra fat contributes to the fudgy, dense texture we're looking for.
We've long stocked Hershey's Kitchens Unsweetened Chocolate Baking Bar in the test kitchen, but in the years since we named it our favorite, it has become increasingly difficult to find. The manufacturer reports that this product is now sold in only 20 states (though it can be purchased online). Is there another unsweetened chocolate out there that's just as good (or even better) and more widely available?
Comparing Unsweetened Chocolate Bars
We rounded up five unsweetened chocolates—four nationally available products plus Hershey's—priced from $0.62 to $1.35 per ounce. Though we like to taste products in their plainest form, after a quick, ill-advised flirtation with plain unsweetened chocolate, we knew we needed at least a little sugar in the mix to take off the bitter edge. We settled on blind tastings of our One-Minute Hot Fud...
Everything We Tested
Our previous favorite still stood out for its “fudgy” richness and subtle notes of “coconut,” “espresso,” and “milk chocolate.” Tasters thought brownies made with this product were “decadent” and “well balanced.” It's available in only 20 states (though you can purchase it online) but is a good option for baking if you can find it.
The most expensive chocolate in our lineup, this product was surprisingly “mellow,” with “delicate” “caramel” notes and a “sweetness” that reminded tasters of milk chocolate. In the hot fudge sauce, tasters picked up a “slight fruitiness” that was a touch “distracting” but not unwelcome.
In hot fudge sauce, this chocolate was “deeply cocoa-y” and had “hearty” notes of “coffee” and “caramel.” Brownies were a bit more “subtle,” with “nuanced” chocolate flavor. A few tasters picked up on slight “bitter” and “tart” aftertastes in both the sauce and the brownies.
Recommended with reservations
Tasters were split on this chocolate's “fruity,” “tropical” flavor. While some thought that the “banana” and “citrus” notes added “nuance,” many tasters felt that these “unusual” flavors were “distracting” and made brownies and a sauce that tasted “overly tangy” and “slightly sour.” While these flavors are likely from differences in type, origin, or treatment of cacao beans, this chocolate was also the only one containing vanilla beans, which may have contributed to the out-of-place flavors.
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