Know Your Chocolates

by Jane Wangersky | February 27th, 2015 | Cooking Basics

cocoa-beans (400x400)Homemade chocolate desserts are, all by themselves, enough reason for anyone to learn to cook. When you control the amount of chocolate that goes into your concoction, new extremes of flavor are within reach. (If you’re careful, they’ll be extremes of good flavor.) The different kinds of chocolates you can use for cooking are a good place to start learning.

So let’s see what’s produced by the cocoa tree, because the level of those products (and other ingredients) determine what kind of chocolate we have.

Cocoa “beans” are really the seeds of the cocoa or cacao tree, Wikipedia tells us. They’re made into cocoa powder, chocolate liquor, and, well, chocolate. Cocoa powder is also called cocoa solids and is sold with other baking supplies; it’s also the basis for commercial cocoa mix. Cocoa butter or theobroma oil is another product — you may have used it as a moisturizer. Together in equal parts, the powder and the butter make up chocolate liquor. Confused yet?

Chocolate is classed by its sweetness. No cocoa products have any natural sweetness — in fact the Aztec word for chocolate means “bitter water” — so that depends on the amount of sugar or other sweetener added.

Let’s start at the bottom of the scale with unsweetened chocolate. Like other cooking chocolates, it comes in packages of squares, one ounce to each. Unlike other cooking chocolates, you won’t want to eat it straight, so it’ll stick around to cook with.

Next comes semisweet or bittersweet chocolate — not everyone agrees that they’re the same, but the FDA says so. These are at least 35% chocolate liquor. They’re sold as squares and also chocolate chips.

Sweet chocolate only has to have 15% chocolate liquor, leaving more room for sugar, milk etc. You can buy it as German’s sweet chocolate, German being the name of the man who introduced it, not its country of origin.

Milk chocolate is slightly different, needing only 10% chocolate liquor and at least 12% total milk solids. It also comes in chips and other forms.

White chocolate’s only cocoa ingredient is cocoa butter, which gives it some of the taste and scent of other chocolates, but not the color. It comes in the same forms as other chocolates.

While different chocolates aren’t interchangeable, you can experiment with them to see what you like better. If you use semi-sweet instead of sweet, you can either increase the sugar in the recipe or enjoy the less sweet taste. Just don’t substitute unsweetened for any other chocolate unless you’re going to melt it so you can add sugar.

Cocoa powder can be substituted for chocolate — use three tablespoons with a tablespoon of fat for an ounce of unsweetened, and add three tablespoons of sugar to make it semisweet. There’s a detailed chart at

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