Semisweet, Bitter, Bittersweet, Milk: Your Guide to Different Baking Chocolates

Sometimes the baking aisle seems more like an impenetrable wilderness than a helpful display of options. There are so many different kinds of chocolate to choose from that it can feel like it’s impossible to identify the right product for your needs without an advanced culinary degree.

But choosing a baking chocolate doesn’t have to be so overwhelming. Once you understand a little bit about the different types, it becomes much easier to spot the one that’s right for you. Here’s a brief guide to the most common baking chocolates.

Bitter Chocolate (aka Unsweetened Chocolate)

Only the bravest of chocolate purists generally want to bite into a bar of unsweetened chocolate. As the name implies, the stuff is all solidified chocolate “liquor,” also known as pure cocoa mass, and no added sweetness (or milkiness)—which means it has more bitterness than your standard dark chocolate bar and can be a little drier in texture. It’s as dark as dark chocolate can get.

Even though most wouldn’t want to snack on bitter chocolate that doesn’t mean it’s without any good uses. Bitter chocolate is frequently used for baking all kinds of goodies, from brownies to cakes and cookies. It’s also commonly added to frostings, mousses, and puddings. Using unsweetened chocolate is great to up the chocolatey goodness of a recipe without adding overwhelming sweetness to the final product while the bitterness from the unsweetened chocolate is kept in check by the sugar already in the recipe.

Bittersweet Chocolate

As you might expect, bittersweet chocolate is a touch sweeter than bitter chocolate. That’s because the chocolate liquor is augmented with a small amount of sugar and (in some cases) a little bit of extra cocoa butter, which lends it a slightly creamier quality. In spite of these additions, all bittersweet chocolate remains dark chocolate. You still might not want to eat bittersweet chocolate straight out of the wrapper (although some people do choose to), but it works excellently in candies, cookies, frostings, ganaches, pies, truffles, and other baked goods and sweet treats.

Couverture Chocolate

When it comes to baking chocolate, couverture is the new kid on the block. The term refers to chocolate that contains an unusually high amount of cocoa butter (at least 30 percent and often more). While some bittersweet and semisweet chocolates might fall into this category, many times couverture chocolates are in a class all their own. The concoction makes for an especially creamy chocolate that melts evenly and maintains a glossy finish. This helps explain why it’s popular among professional chocolatiers, bakers, and pastry chefs, who use couverture chocolate for candy coatings and other decorations.

Semisweet Chocolate

Like bittersweet chocolate, semisweet varieties include some sugar and (in all cases) extra cocoa butter. Also like bittersweet chocolate, semisweet chocolate always falls under the “dark chocolate” umbrella. In spite of these similarities, semisweet differs from bittersweet chocolate in that it is almost always sweeter thanks to a higher amount of added sugar (although a lack of industry standardization means there may be exceptions to this rule). Of all the different baking chocolates, it has the most uses—it can be added to virtually any recipe that calls for chocolate. It’s also likely to be pleasing to most palates when eaten out of hand.

Some recipes do call for the use of sweeter chocolate varieties (including milk or white chocolate). But for the most part, baking chocolate falls into the various dark chocolate categories defined above. Every recipe calls for something different, so make sure you read instructions carefully before purchasing the right baking chocolate for your needs.