A Chocolate Primer

February 10, 2015 | Posted by Stephanie Banyas

The history of chocolate dates back to 1900 BC and was originally prepared only as a drink: a bitter, frothy liquid, mixed with spices, wine and even corn puree, that was believed to be an aphrodisiac. Well, all I can say is that I am glad that I am living in the year 2015 AD. As lovely as that liquid concoction sounds (not!), I prefer my chocolate in bar form filled with caramel and nuts; as a flavoring for moist layer cakes, formed into chips and added to buttery brown sugar cookies, or melted and drizzled over ice cream. Just sayin’.

What exactly is chocolate? It is, quite simply, a mixture of chocolate liquor (pure ground cacao beans), cocoa butter and sugar. The difference in the taste and color of the different varieties depends on the proportion of each of these ingredients in the recipe. Below is a crash course in chocolate -- Chocolate 101, if you will.

Unsweetened chocolate: If you were to take a bite of unsweetened chocolate, you would be a very unhappy camper (and would most likely spit it into a napkin). This chocolate it is strictly for baking, and is found in the baking aisle of a grocery store. It has absolutely no sugar, which makes it incredibly bitter, and is typically composed of 55% cocoa butter and 45% chocolate liquor from the cacao bean. Its intense chocolate flavor is perfect for brownies and cakes, or any preparation in which it’s combined with sugar (and other ingredients like dairy, coffee and vanilla extract) to make it palatable.

Bittersweet chocolate: Not to be confused with unsweetened chocolate (for some reason, it often is) Believe it or not, the US Government actually mandates that chocolate labeled “bittersweet” must contain at least 35% cocoa solids, though most high quality brands today contain in excess of 50% cocoa solids. Bittersweet chocolate is dark and rich in flavor and appeals to dark chocolate lovers. The US Government does not regulate the amount of sugar allowed in bittersweet chocolate, so its flavor and sweetness can vary between brands.

Semisweet Chocolate: This very versatile chocolate comes in many forms: block, squares and the beloved chip. Semi-sweet chocolate is a term found primarily in the United States, and it is somewhat interchangeable with bittersweet chocolate. Like bittersweet, semi-sweet chocolate usually contains at least 35% cocoa solids. It is generally assumed that semi-sweet chocolate is sweeter than bittersweet chocolate, though there are no specific regulations on how much sugar semi-sweet chocolate is required to contain. Semi-sweet is most widely used in this country in chocolate chip cookies.

Milk chocolate: Even though bittersweet chocolate is rising in popularity in this country, milk chocolate still remains the most popular form of eating chocolate in the United States. This light-colored chocolate with mild, mellow flavor has only 10% chocolate liquor and usually contains at least 12% milk solids and a good amount of sugar.

White chocolate: White "chocolate" doesn't contain any cocoa solids, and therefore isn’t chocolate at all. It is made from cocoa butter, sugar, milk and vanilla, which forms a very creamy confection that is great for both eating and baking. White chocolate is best when purchased in bar or block form -- and be sure to avoid any brand that is made with vegetable oil, instead of cocoa butter. The first ingredient on high quality white chocolate should be cocoa butter, followed by sugar.

Unsweetened cocoa powder: There are two basic types of cocoa powder, natural and Dutch processed. Cocoa powder in its natural state is very brown in color and gives a very deep chocolate flavor to baked goods such as American-style chocolate layer cakes, cookies and puddings. The most common brands of natural cocoa poweder in the US are Hershey's, Ghirardelli, and Scharffen Berger. Dutch processed (also labeled as European process) is treated with an alkali to neutralize its acids. Dutch processed has a reddish-brown color and mild, delicate flavor which makes it perfect in European cakes and pastries.