It’s pretty rare to find someone who doesn’t like chocolate, although those unicorn people do exist. And some types of chocolate elicit a very strong reaction — for example, there doesn't seem to be a lot of gray area around white chocolate (which even some chocolate lovers refuse to acknowledge as real chocolate). But whether you like yours milky, dark, or in a warm mug with marshmallows, we've broken down what makes chocolate chocolate in all its various forms.
What Is Chocolate?
Chocolate — regardless of form — is derived from the cacao plant. Specifically, chocolate as we know it comes from roasting and grinding cacao beans. This process yields a dense liquid known as chocolate liquor. Then, depending on what ingredients and the amount of sugar that is added, chocolate makers can create various types of chocolate.
The Core Trio
There are three main types of chocolate: milk chocolate, dark chocolate, and white chocolate.
- Dark chocolate: This type of chocolate is close to its original chocolate liquor form. As its name implies, dark chocolate is visually darker in color. While some sugar may be added for taste or milk fat to improve texture, dark chocolate isn't as sweet as other types of chocolate. It has a higher cacao percentage compared to other chocolates.
- Milk chocolate: The “cocoa” brown color that we all associate with most chocolate candies is milk chocolate. It includes milk solids that give it that signature color. To be considered “milk chocolate,” the product must contain 10% chocolate liquor and 12% milk solids by weight.
- White chocolate: Compared to other chocolates, white chocolate doesn’t contain any cocoa solids but does contain cocoa butter. This is also why many people don’t consider it to be real chocolate. To qualify as white chocolate, it must contain 20% cocoa butter, 14% milk solids, and a maximum of 55% sugar, but additional ingredients can include vanilla or other additives.
Chocolate and Cacao Percentages
So, now you know the basics of what constitutes chocolate. But a little thing called percentages is going to be important — especially if you’re baking with chocolate. To be classified as dark, milk, or white chocolate, the final product has to meet certain ratio requirements. In particular, we’re talking about the cacao percentage. While you won’t always see this highlighted on mass chocolates like popular candy bars at your grocery store checkout lane, it’s usually a big selling point for quality chocolate. White chocolate lacks cacao liquor, so for this portion, we’re focusing on dark and milk chocolate. As a general rule, the higher the cacao liquor percentage, the more bitter the chocolate will be.
- Baking chocolate is 100% cacao liquor and usually isn’t eaten by itself. It lacks any sugar as it’s meant for baking where sugar is added as a separate ingredient. Baking chocolate may also be listed as unsweetened chocolate.
- Dark chocolate contains at least 70% cacao or higher, but depending on other ingredients, it can still be sweet.
- Bittersweet chocolate is often substituted for baking chocolate since it is slightly sweet. It contains 70% cacao and 30% sugar.
- Semi-sweet chocolate can be eaten by itself or used for baking. It contains 60% cacao and 40% sugar.
- Milk chocolate must contain between 10 to 40% cacao and is typically mixed with sugar and milk solids. This sweeter chocolate is usually meant to be eaten as opposed to baking.
So far, we’ve been talking about chocolate in solid or liquid form. But there’s another form that’s ideal for cooking and baking — cocoa powder. Cocoa powder contains 100% cacao, which makes it the powdered version of chocolate liquor. So, while it probably shouldn’t be eaten by itself, it’s perfect for making hot chocolate, molés, and traditional baking recipes.
Cocoa powder comes in two forms: natural cocoa and Dutch-processed cocoa. Natural cocoa powder tends to be more acidic and has a bold chocolate flavor. In contrast, Dutch-processed cocoa powder is darker, less acidic, and has a milder flavor.
Don’t Forget to Prioritize Quality
Chocolate sales predictably increase around the holidays. So, if you want to impress your paramour or family, get them quality chocolate. You might be asking, “How do I know the chocolate I want to buy is quality or not?” The answer is simple. Look for products in which cacao or cocoa is the first ingredient. When this ingredient appears farther down in the contents list, it means that fillers were added to reduce the cost and stretch the ingredients across more products. And no one wants to eat diluted chocolate. So splurge and get your honey something that shows you care!