What Is the Difference Between Unsweetened Chocolate, Semisweet Chocolate, and Sweet Chocolate?

Let’s look at how chocolate is made.

Cacao beans, which are really seeds, are found inside melon-shaped seedpods attached directly to the trunk or thick branches of the tropical cacao tree.

The beans are first separated from the pulpy mass inside the pod and allowed to ferment, usually by piling them up in heaps and covering them with leaves. Microbes and enzymes attack the pulp, kill the germs of the seeds (the parts that would germinate or grow), remove some of the bitter flavor, and darken the beans’ color from off-white to light brown.

The dried beans are then shipped off to Willy Wonka at the chocolate factory, where they are roasted to further improve their flavor and color, separated from their shells, and milled or ground. The frictional heat of grinding melts the beans’ substantial content, about 55 percent, of vegetable fat, euphemistically known as cocoa (not cacao) butter. The result is a thick, brown, bitter liquid called chocolate liquor: the ground-up solids suspended in melted fat. This is the starting material for making all chocolate products.

When cooled, chocolate liquor solidifies into the familiar unsweetened, or bitter, chocolate that’s sold in one-ounce “squares” for baking. The FDA requires that this basic unsweetened chocolate contain between 50 and 58 percent fat.

The fat and the solids can be separated, however, and mixed in various proportions with sugar and other ingredients to make hundreds of different chocolates with a wide range of flavors and properties.

One of the wonderful things about chocolate is that its fat melts at 86º to 97ºF, which is just below body temperature, so that at room temperature it is relatively hard and delightfully brittle, but it literally melts in the mouth, releasing maximum flavor and producing a smooth, velvety sensation.

Semisweet or bittersweet chocolate is a prepared mixture of chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, sugar, an emulsifier, and sometimes vanilla flavoring. When melted, it is more fluid than unsweetened chocolate and has a satin gloss, both of which qualities make it ideal for dipping. It is sold in “squares” or bars for cooking, but because it may contain only 35 percent fat (the presence of the sugar reduces the percentage of fat), it will have different cooking characteristics from the fattier unsweetened chocolate.

Thus, you can’t substitute unsweetened chocolate plus sugar for semisweet or bittersweet chocolate in a recipe. To further complicate things, there are significant variations among brands, and chocolates labeled bittersweet are likely to have a higher ratio of chocolate liquor to sugar than those labeled semisweet.

Moving up the sweetness scale, we encounter hundreds of kinds of semisweet and sweet chocolate confections containing at least 15 percent chocolate liquor and often much more. Milk chocolate generally contains less chocolate liquor (10 to 35 percent) than dark chocolate (30 to 80 percent) because the added milk solids reduce its percentage. That’s why milk chocolate has a milder, less bitter flavor than dark chocolate. The FDA sets ingredient standards for all of these products manufactured in the U.S.: sweet chocolate, semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, and milk chocolate.

Before any high-quality chocolate product is ready for molding into bars or for enrobing (coating) various objects, it goes through two important processes: conching and tempering.

In conching, the chocolate mixture is kneaded in heated tanks at a controlled temperature somewhere between 130º and 190ºF (it varies) for as long as five days. This aerates the chocolate and drives off moisture and volatile acids, improving both its flavor and smoothness. Then it is tempered, kept at carefully controlled temperatures while it cools, so that the fat crystallizes into very tiny crystals (about 40 millionths of an inch), rather than bigger ones (as large as 2 thousandths of an inch) that would give the chocolate a grainy texture.

Today, there are many excellent chocolates available for cooking.

The quality depends on many factors, including the blend of beans used (there are about 20 commercial grades); the type and extent of roasting; the degree of conching, tempering, and other processing; and, of course, the amounts of cocoa butter and other ingredients.