From Scratch: Chocolate 101

March 29, 2012

Photo by Joseph De Leo; styled by Mariya Yufest

We're not shy about our love of chocolate around here (see our tips for melting and sipping), but it’s high time we reviewed the types most often encountered as the spring season of chocolate approaches. Pass this primer and your preferences along to the Easter bunny, or use it as a guide for the perfect Passover-friendly confection.  

Choose Whole Trade® chocolate to guarantee that the melt-in-your-mouth treats you consume are produced sustainably by farmers who receive a fair wage.

How Chocolate is Made, Briefly

  • Cocoa beans are removed from the pod and fermented to develop flavor. They are then dried, roasted, and crushed to separate the nibs from the outer shells of the beans.
  • When the nibs are ground, the process generates heat, which melts the cocoa butter (a natural vegetable fat in the bean) and turns the mixture into a paste called chocolate liquor. Chocolate liquor can be separated into cocoa mass and cocoa butter.
  • Unsweetened baking chocolate becomes bittersweet, semisweet, or dark chocolate based on the amount of sugar added to the cocoa liquor. 
  • Conching, a process that aerates and smoothes the sweetened chocolate, is followed by tempering, which creates a glossy final product.
  • Most chocolate also includes vanilla for flavor enhancement and lecithin, an emulsifier.

Dark Chocolate

  • Dark chocolate contains cocoa mass, cocoa butter, and sugar.
  • Labels indicating a cacao percentage (i.e. 60% cacao) refer to the percentage of cocoa solids (cocoa mass and cocoa butter) in the chocolate. In the U.S., dark chocolate must contain at least 35% cacao, but it's not hard to find dark chocolate containing upwards of 70% cacao.
  • For savory recipes calling for chocolate, select bittersweet or unsweetened chocolate -- you're looking for the flavor only; leave most or all of the sugar behind.

Milk Chocolate

  • Milk chocolate contains both sweetened cocoa solids and milk solids (usually in the form of dry milk) and typically contains between 10-20% cacao.
  • Milk chocolate usually has more cocoa butter and sugar than dark chocolate, which creates a softer, smoother texture.
  • Some high quality chocolate manufacturers make a "dark milk" chocolate containing about 40% cacao.
  • The milk proteins and additional sugar in this variety of chocolate make milk chocolate extra sensitive to heat and sweeter than most baking recipes intend. When semisweet or bittersweet chocolate is called for, do not substitute milk chocolate or the fruits of your baking adventure may end up too sweet.

Chocolate Dump-t Cake Ingredients Mexican chocolate
Unsweetened baking chocolate and semi-sweet chocolate chips (photo by Melanie Einzig); Mexican chocolate contains cinnamon and extra sugar (photo by Sarah Shatz)

White Chocolate

  • White chocolate contains no cocoa mass, and is made from cocoa butter, sugar, and milk solids. All the "chocolate" flavor in white chocolate comes from the cocoa butter.
  • White chocolate scorches easily but melts exceptionally well, making it great for dipping fruits or pretzel rods.
  • Its delicate flavor is often paired with tropical ingredients (dried pineapple, macadamia nuts) or tart fruits, like raspberries.


  • Cocoa nibs are the cracked kernels of the cocoa beans. The nibs add a seed-like crunch to baked goods and frostings. They should be paired with sweet ingredients (or coated in sweetened chocolate), as they are naturally bitter.
  • Cocoa powder is made from ground cocoa mass that has had the cocoa butter extracted. Dutch-process cocoa powder is typically darker and more intensely flavored than natural cocoa powder and is treated with alkali to counter chocolate’s inherent acidity.

How to Store Chocolate

  • Chocolate should be stored in a cool, dry place.
  • Dark chocolate can last for many years, but milk and white chocolates should be used within one year of purchase.
  • A chalky "bloom" will develop on the chocolate’s surface if it is stored at too high of a temperature. The bloom is the cocoa butter rising to the surface and only slightly changes the flavor and texture of the chocolate (it's still safe to eat!).

Polvorones De Chocolate Milk Chocolate Nutmeg Tart with Hazelnut Crust
Chocolate's many faces; photos by Nicole Franzen (left) and James Ransom


Polvorones de Chocolate (pictured above, left)
"Mocha" Chili
Cardamom, Orange and Chocolate Ribbon Cookies
Mocha Krispy Treats
Milk Chocolate Nutmeg Tart with Hazelnut Crust [FOOD52] (pictured above, right)
Chocolate Dump-It Cake [FOOD52]
White Chocolate Snowflakes [FOOD52]

What shade of chocolate do you reach for most often? Do you prefer one type for eating out of hand and another for baking? Share your cacao-centered comments below.

Like this post? See last week's From Scratch topic: Homemade Stocks.

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