If you think of the main difference between chocolate as a choice between Hershey’s Kisses, a Snickers bar or bar of Ghirardelli, then you may want to read on to learn more about what exactly are all types of chocolate and just what the differences are between them.
As well as considering some of the main differences between our favorite chocolate treats, we also look at the different types of chocolate used in baking and cooking, so you will know which chocolate is the right type to use next time you want to make some frosting or chocolate chip cookies.
According to the National Confectioners Association, there are only three main types of chocolate: dark, milk and white, but in this article we have included a few other ‘types’ that sit outside of these groups for various reasons.
Cacao or Cocoa?
Before we look in detail at different types of chocolate, we need to talk a little bit about cacao and cocoa as chocolate packaging can refer to cacao or cocoa content. Unfortunately, there is no agreement on exactly what the two terms mean although cacao is often seen on chocolate products that have been least processed.
Cacao can often mean the ground up contents of the pods and beans while cocoa can refer to the powder left after fat is pressed from the ground beans. Others call the pod and beans cacao until they are fermented and after this call them cocoa beans.
Cocoa beans grow in pods on the Theobroma cacao tree. As well as containing beans, the pods also contain a white pulp. When the beans are harvested - along with some of the pulp - they are briefly stored to allow the microbes that feed on the pulp to start to ferment the beans. At this point, some of the aroma and flavor of chocolate starts to develop.
After fermenting, the beans are dried and sorted. They can then be left raw (and sold as raw chocolate), but more often are roasted to bring the chocolate flavor out along with some sweetness.
Once roasted, the beans are crushed, and the centers separated from the outer hull. These centers are called nibs. The nibs are then ground into a smooth paste which can be heated to a liquid and formed into chips or bars of dark chocolate. This paste can also have sugar and other ingredients added to create different types of dark chocolate, or milk and other ingredients can be added to make it into milk chocolate.
If the ground nib paste is placed under high pressure, then the paste separates into cocoa solids (cocoa powder) and cocoa butter - the natural fat found in cocoa beans – which is used for making white chocolate with.
Also called unsweetened chocolate, baking chocolate or chocolate liquor, or plain chocolate in other countries, dark chocolate is firm and has a bitter flavor and aftertaste. It is made from the nibs of the roasted cocoa beans which have been ground into a liquid form.
Dark chocolate in this pure form is used in baking as it does not contain any added sugar or any other added ingredients. It is also too astringent and bitter for most people to eat as is.
Unsweetened chocolate or chocolate liquor is often best melted into other ingredients such as cream as it does not have the smoothness of other types of chocolate. Recipes that use unsweetened chocolate often contain more sugar to offset some of the bitterness.
Dark chocolate is also called chocolate mass or more commonly, chocolate liquor although it does not contain any alcohol.
It is also the ‘base’ for all other types of chocolate (except white) and so can cause confusion. This is because there are different subtypes of dark chocolate such as bittersweet and semisweet, but chocolate liquor or unsweetened chocolate is the purest form (containing 100% chocolate liquor or 100% cocoa solids + cocoa butter) of dark chocolate.
A dark chocolate must by law contain at least 35% chocolate liquor in the US to be a dark chocolate.
How much chocolate liquor (as well as sugar if added) the dark chocolate contains will affect how rich or bitter dark chocolate tastes. Taste is also affected by where the cocoa beans are actually grown. Some cocoa may taste of baked brownies while other cocoas can be earthy or have fruit notes.
There is a difference between bittersweet and unsweetened chocolate although both types are dark chocolate.
Bittersweet is typically an eating chocolate that you could eat from a bar in your hand while unsweetened chocolate is the 100% chocolate liquor or baking chocolate described above. Bittersweet chocolate can also be used for making decadent frostings with.
Bittersweet is sometimes be called extra-dark chocolate although in many countries, the terms dark chocolate and bittersweet chocolate are used for one and the same type of chocolate.
As a dark chocolate, a bittersweet chocolate must contain at least 35% chocolate liquor but often contains more than 50%. In fact it often weighs in at around 66% to 70% chocolate liquor and contains less than one third of the total content of added sugar.
Semisweet chocolate is another type of dark chocolate and looking at dark chocolate vs semisweet chocolate, the main difference is that semisweet chocolate is sweeter than a dark (unsweetened) chocolate as it contains added sugar.
Semisweet chocolate bar is made with chocolate liquor, sugar, soy lecithin (which helps make it smooth) and flavorings such as vanilla
Baking chips from the grocery store are usually semisweet chocolate and because these have the bitterness of the chocolate liquor tempered with sweet sugar, it makes them ideal for lots of different uses in the kitchen, not least cookies.
If you need semisweet chocolate for a recipe and only have bittersweet, then you can use bittersweet in its place as they often have a similar chocolate liquor although semisweet will often contain more sugar.
A traditional cocoa powder is also a dark chocolate. Made when the cocoa solids are separated from chocolate liquor under high pressure and then ground into powder, a pure or unsweetened cocoa powder is 100% cocoa.
Mixes for tasty hot chocolate drinks and similar are not cocoa powder although they usually contain cocoa powder along with other ingredients.
There are two types of cocoa powder; natural (or Broma processed) cocoa powder and Dutch cocoa powder. Both types of cocoa powder can be used in cooking, although Dutch cocoa powder is often preferred for baking and making hot cocoa with as the alkalizing process allows the resulting powder to blend better with liquids. Natural cocoa powder is often added to spice rubs for more flavor.
Natural cocoa powder is exactly what it says it is. It is light brown in color with a strong chocolate flavor. It is also acidic. In comparison, a Dutch cocoa is a natural cocoa that has had its acidity neutralized with the addition of an alkaline. This makes its flavor milder and its color darker than natural cocoa. You should only use Dutch cocoa if a recipe says to use it as it will react differently with other ingredients because it is not as acidic as natural cocoa powder.
Although more common in Europe, couverture chocolate is a premium dark chocolate used for dipping and coating to give a shiny and deep colored chocolate finish. Couverture can also be found as a milk couverture chocolate, although this is not as common as the dark.
Couverture should not be used in general baking as not only is it ground more finely during processing compared with other types of chocolate, but it also contains a higher amount of cocoa butter compared to cocoa solids.
Sweet Chocolate (or Sweet German chocolate)
Sweet chocolate kind of sits between a dark chocolate and a milk chocolate but should not be confused with either types.
Sweet chocolate is a sugary chocolate also known as sweet baking chocolate and was invented by a baker called Samuel German to remove the process step of needing to mix sugar with chocolate when baking. Most of us are familiar with sweet chocolate in a German chocolate cake with delicious coconut pecan frosting!
Sweet chocolate must by law contain a minimum 15% chocolate liquor (more than the 10% of milk chocolate but less than the 35% of dark chocolate). It also contains cocoa butter and sugar.
If a cake recipe asks for sweet chocolate and you use semisweet chocolate instead, you will need to add more sugar.
The most popular type of chocolate, milk chocolate is made from chocolate liquor, sugar and milk. Although often bought just to enjoy as a treat, milk chocolate can also be used in many recipes, especially where its milder flavor doesn’t get overwhelmed by other ingredients.
Milk chocolate must contain at least 10% chocolate liquor and 12% milk, although in Europe, milk chocolate must contain at least 25% chocolate liquor by law. It is the milk that takes out the bitterness of the chocolate liquor in milk chocolate to give it that lovely chocolate flavor. The amount of chocolate liquor and milk content is the main difference between dark chocolate and milk chocolate.
The main type of milk used in milk chocolate is actually dry milk solids – similar to powdered milk – although milk chocolate can also be made with condensed milk or boiled milk.
The difference between semisweet and milk chocolate is that semisweet contains more chocolate liquor (at least 35%) while milk chocolate only needs to contain at least 10%. Milk chocolate must also contain minimum 12% milk while dark chocolate is free from milk.
Chocolate coatings (otherwise known as compound chocolate) may contain chocolate liquor but as these often contain low-cost vegetable fats rather than cocoa butter, or may contain below the required chocolate liquor content, they cannot by law be called chocolate. They may be labeled as being ‘made with chocolate’ though and are often used as coatings on candy bars where only a thin coating is needed.
As we have seen earlier, white chocolate is made with the cocoa butter found naturally in cocoa beans rather than from the cocoa butter and cocoa solids that dark and milk chocolates are made with. But because the cocoa butter comes from cocoa beans, it means that white chocolate is still a type of chocolate.
Along with the cocoa butter, sugar, milk, vanilla and an emulsifier such as lecithin are added to make white chocolate with the sweet and mild flavor that many of us love. White chocolate may also contain vanilla for extra flavoring.
A white chocolate must contain at least 20% cocoa butter, 14% milk and less than 55% sugar.
As well as a delicious treat, white chocolate is great for baking with or for using on cake and confection decorations. White chocolate first appeared as an alternative to cocoa butter, with Nestle being the first company to manufacture white chocolate in the 1930s.
Although the National Confectioner’s Association say there are only three types of chocolate, we could not write this article without mentioning ruby chocolate. Ruby chocolate has a natural red-pink hue which comes from ruby cocoa beans, rather than being an artificially colored white chocolate.
It was only in 2017 that the Barry Callebaut cocoa processor and manufacturing company brought ruby chocolate to the market.
Ruby chocolate currently contains 47.5% chocolate liquor from ruby cocoa beans and 26.3% milk, and it has a fruity flavor with some fresh and sour hints.
As ruby chocolate is so new and the exact manufacturing process is currently owned by Barry Callebaut, the FDA have yet to add a formal definition as to how much chocolate liquor and milk ruby chocolate should contain, although a temporary permit was issued by the FDA in late 2019 which not only stated minimum values for ruby chocolate but also allowed the product to be marketed in the US.
Summary of All Types of Chocolate
As we have seen so far, the different types of chocolate are probably more complicated than you may have first thought!
We thought it would be helpful to put some of the key information in a chart. As you can see below, the chart not only lists the different types of chocolate but can be used as a quick reference chocolate percentage chart.
|Also known as
|% chocolate liquor (cocoa solids + cocoa butter)
|% cocoa butter
|• baking chocolate
• chocolate liquor
• bitter chocolate
• unsweetened chocolate
|no - unsweetened
• extra-dark chocolate
|yes - sweetened
|At least 35%*
(often 50% to 70%)
|• semisweet chocolate
|At least 35%*
|• natural cocoa powder
• Broma processed powder
|• Dutch cocoa powder
|unsweetened but alkalized
|no (but may contain milk if a milk chocolate couverture)
|At least 35%* cocoa solids + 31%* cocoa butter
|• sweet German chocolate
|At least 15%*
(at least 12%*)
|At least 10%*
|sweetened but less than 55%* sugar
(at least 14%*)
|• ruby couverture
|At least 1.5%* cocoa solids + 20%* cocoa butter
* % value set by the FDA.
Forms of Chocolate
As well as the different types, chocolate is also available in various forms. Chocolate bars are always popular and easy for eating as well as being easy to break up for using in the kitchen.
Larger candy bars, or chocolate blocks are always better if you need a lot of chocolate to bake with. Be prepared to shave pieces off from larger blocks though as they can be difficult to break up by hand.
Chocolate chips are probably still one of the most popular products for baking with although not all chips do melt easily as they contain stabilizers to keep them in shape. If you need to melt chocolate chips, then look to buy ones that contain less stabilizers.
Chocolate wafers are ideal for melting to decorate cakes and confections with, or even just fruits and as a type of dark chocolate, cocoa powder is always best used for cooking or baking with, or even just as a dusting powder to finish off candies, cakes and desserts.
What to Look for When Buying Good Chocolate
If you want to treat yourself or are making an extra special chocolate cake, then the quality of the chocolate you buy really can make a difference. The first ingredient in a dark chocolate should always be cocoa or cacao and if sweetened, sugar will be the next ingredient. It may also contain cocoa butter and/or lecithin to give a better texture to the chocolate.
A good quality milk chocolate should contain actual dairy rather than milk substitutes and it should be free from oils, non-sugar sweeteners and non-cocoa butter fats. It should also ‘snap’, a bit like a dark chocolate, when you break it.
Decent white chocolate will be creamy, soft and rich as it should be high in natural cocoa butter, milk and sugar rather than any artificial substitutes and flavorings.
If you did not fancy a candy bar or a chocolate brownie before you started reading this piece, we bet you do now!
Although there are differences in words used to describe chocolate – such as cacao or cocoa – it is good to know that for any chocolate to be sold in the US, it must meet the minimum requirements by law for chocolate liquor (cocoa solids + cocoa butter), or cocoa butter content, as well as requirements for milk and sugar contents (if applicable).
This means you are just left with the important decision about which type of chocolate to buy or use, and we hope that this article along with our chocolate percentage table will help you to easily make that decision!