There’s chocolate, and then there’s chocolate. While you’re probably familiar with the difference between an expensive hand-crafted bar of dark chocolate and the cheap sweetened chips you snack on while you make cookies, you might not know the difference between all of the kinds of chocolate you use when you bake. Here’s everything you need to know in order to find the perfect bittersweet chocolate substitute.
For nearly 4,000 years, people have been enjoying chocolate-based treats of various shapes and sizes. Chocolate comes from a plant called cacao or cocoa. It produces bitter seeds known as cocoa beans that can be fermented and then processed to form the substance we call chocolate.
The process begins by fermenting the beans in order to let out their natural flavors. Once they’ve finished fermenting, they’re carefully dried out and cleaned to remove any unwanted debris. The beans are then roasted, shelled, and ground into a paste. This paste is then melted together to form liquid chocolate or chocolate liquor. Chocolate liquor is made of two components: cocoa butter and cocoa solids. Manufacturers carefully mix these two components together to create stable blocks of chocolate that literally melt in your mouth.
Chocolate isn’t always sold pure. There are many grades of chocolate, ranging from the very pure bakers chocolate to sweetened products with lots of additives like milk chocolate and white chocolate. Bittersweet chocolate is roughly 70% pure. The little bit of added sugar makes it perfect for baking lots of treats, like pies, frosting, cakes, and more.
To be honest, there’s not a big difference between bittersweet chocolate and semi-sweet chocolate. While bittersweet chocolate is about 70% pure, semi-sweet chocolate is about 60% pure. If you gave a chunk of unspecified chocolate to a professional baker to taste they probably wouldn’t be able to tell you whether it was bittersweet or semi-sweet 100% of the time. This means that semi-sweet chocolate and bittersweet chocolate can be used interchangeably with basically no downsides.
Technically, no. If you taste these two varieties of chocolate side by side you’ll definitely notice a difference. That said, you’re totally free to use one for the other with no issue. They’re close enough that it won’t make a difference in how your cooking turns out. If you prefer slightly sweeter chocolate, you might use semi-sweet all the time on purpose, while those of us who prefer darker chocolate might make the opposite substitution.
Unsweetened chocolate is a totally different can of worms. It has no sugar whatsoever, meaning that it’s pretty much only for recipes that already have a lot of sweet things in them. This means you’ll have to adjust the amount of sugar you add to a recipe if you have to substitute unsweetened chocolate for the bittersweet chocolate it calls for.
While going up in sweetness is pretty easy (since you add sugar), going down is more complicated. You can try to add slightly more of a sweetened chocolate while scaling back on other sweet ingredients (like sugar), but this can get pretty complicated fairly fast. Worse, chocolate is often a key component in baked goods that are fairly touchy when it comes to texture and form. This means that adding a sweeter chocolate with lots of additives (like milk solids) can make your cake, brownies, or other dish come out a bit differently than you expected.
That said, you’re unlikely to ruin a dessert you’re casually making at home by using the wrong type of chocolate. If the recipe calls for unsweetened and you only have semi-sweet, try using semi-sweet instead! You’ll get a sweeter dish overall that may have a different texture, but it will still be edible (and probably delicious). If you’re trying to uphold your reputation as a consistent, professional baker, of course, you should buy the real thing.
Milk chocolate is chocolate with lots of added sugar as well as milk solids. Milk chocolate can be as low as 10% cocoa, You should try to avoid using milk chocolate in recipes that call for the less-sweet stuff due to how little chocolate is actually in milk chocolate.
Dark chocolate is a blanket term that includes both bittersweet and semi-sweet chocolates. It’s usually around 70% cocoa, with many varieties going well above that. In general, you shouldn’t trust the term “dark” when referring to chocolate and should instead look for a number that describes the cocoa content in a more concrete way. If it’s around 60% cocoa, it’s semi-sweet. If it’s around 70%, it’s bittersweet. If it’s substantially above 70%, it’s quite bitter and should be treated more like unsweetened chocolate than anything else.
White chocolate is fake, for lack of a better term. It’s made with lots of milk solids, sugar, and flavorings like vanilla. You should treat it more or less the same way you treat milk chocolate when it comes to baking.
Here’s a quick table on what kinds of chocolate you can use instead of bittersweet
Unsweetened to Bittersweet: Use 1 oz unsweetened chocolate plus 2 teaspoons sugar for each oz of bittersweet chocolate
Semi-sweet to Bittersweet: Simply use semi-sweet chocolate instead of bittersweet with no adjustments.
Milk chocolate to Bittersweet: Use 1 oz milk chocolate to 1 oz of bittersweet chocolate. For each oz substituted, try to remove about 1 tsp of sugar from the recipe elsewhere. When in doubt, err on the side of using more sugar or simply use milk chocolate with no adjustments. Your dish might be too sweet, but it probably will still taste good.
Chocolate Syrup to Bittersweet: Do not use chocolate syrup in place of melted chocolate.
Cocoa powder, unsweetened, to Bittersweet: Use about 3 tablespoons of cocoa powder plus 1 tablespoon of butter and 2 teaspoons of sugar for each oz of bittersweet chocolate.
Dutch-Process Cocoa Powder to Bittersweet: Do not use Dutch-process cocoa powder in recipes that do not specifically call for it. It’s been treated in a way that changes the acidity, which in turn affects how it reacts to other baking ingredients.
Many professional bakers prefer to buy their chocolate in huge bricks. When you make lots and lots of delicious cakes, brownies, fudge, and other treats each day you really appreciate having a gigantic block that you can section off yourself. Bakers simply cut the bricks into smaller pieces when they need chocolate and tend to measure things by weight. They’ll either shave the chocolate down with a knife, cut it into pieces, throw it in a food processor, or melt it in large chunks, depending on their tools, time, and situation.
In the home kitchen, I personally prefer to buy more modest wrapped bars. This form factor gives you the best of both worlds. You don’t have to pay a lot of money for a three-pound brick of chocolate you won’t use all at once, while you also get to cut your chocolate into the size and shape you desire while you measure it out. This means you can do chocolate shavings or big hunks without too much effort.
There’s a pretty big difference between chips and wafers. Wafers don’t contain stabilizers, meaning they’re purer than chips and should be used for more serious cooking. Chips are great for things like cookies that need chunks of chocolate in them. They’re also acceptable when you need something to melt down into liquid chocolate, but there are some chemicals added to chocolate chips to help them keep their shape when you bake them into cookies. I try not to use them when I don’t have to.
Depending on the kind of cooking you’re doing, you may also want to have some cocoa powder on hand. Cocoa powder is pure chocolate without the fat part, meaning that it’s quite bitter. It’s great to dust on top of things like cakes and fancy drinks or use to coat truffles. You can also mix cocoa powder with a different fat and some sugar to create something that’s not too far off from one of the other types of chocolate. Unless you use cocoa butter, however, it’ll taste pretty different.
If you don’t have any bittersweet chocolate at home, the best thing to do is to use semi-sweet chocolate. If you can’t find any, try using unsweetened chocolate and adding a bit of sugar as per the table above. Milk chocolate or white chocolate can be used in a pinch, although both options have lots of sugar and not a lot of actual cocoa. This will make your recipe taste different and may affect the texture. Again, you’ll probably enjoy the results all the same. Try to get real bittersweet chocolate for next time, however. You’ll almost certainly like it even more!