Whatever the type of chocolate – semisweet, bittersweet, unsweetened, or milk – it all comes from the cacao bean. Cacao pods are fermented, the shells removed, and the beans are roasted and ground into a fine mass (paste) that can be separated into two components: cocoa solids (commonly called cocoa powder) and cocoa butter. Each chocolate maker, called a chocolatier, combines these in different proportions but generally blends cocoa solids, cocoa butter, and sugar with other ingredients – emulsifiers, flavors, and milk solids if making milk chocolate – and forms his mixture into blocks and bars of chocolate.
To make unsweetened chocolate, the ground chocolate mass is not separated; it is melted into chocolate liquor, then cooled and molded into blocks of unsweetened chocolate. Most often used for baking, it adds rich chocolate flavor without loading the brownies, cookies, cakes, or breads with additional fat. Brownies, such as Crème de Menthe Brownies, and cakes, such as Boston Fudge Cake with Fudge Sauce, are good examples.
The cacao content marked on the package will indicate how sweet the other varieties of chocolate will taste. For example, “60% Cacao” on a bittersweet chocolate label tells that the chocolate consists of 60% cocoa butter and chocolate liquor (unsweetened chocolate mass), and the remaining 40% is made up of sugar and those optional ingredients.
Bars labeled with a higher percentage of cacao will taste more intensely chocolate and less sweet. Bittersweet chocolate can contain from 35 to 99 percent cacao (cocoa butter and chocolate liquor); semisweet chocolate varies from 35 to 45 percent cacao. The two chocolates can be used interchangeably if the cacao percentages are comparable; those found in the baking section of grocery stores have similar profiles. Bittersweet chocolate chips typically contain more cacao than semisweet chocolate chips and therefore will taste a little more intensely chocolate. Old-Fashioned Fudge Pie and Peanut Butter Cups in the Basket call for semisweet chocolate, but you could safely substitute bittersweet.
Milk chocolate contains at least 10 percent chocolate liquor and the rest is milk solids, milk fat, sugar, and other ingredients. The chocolate will be lighter in color and chocolate flavor, making it perfect for blending with other flavors like you find in Chocolaty-Peanut Butter Encrusted Rum Cake and Sweet Dreams Chocolate Fudge Candy.
White chocolate has no cocoa solids, but it contains 20 percent cocoa butter along with milk solids, milk fat, and other ingredients determined by the manufacturer. Its creamy texture and mild vanilla flavor is dreamy in Malted Marshmallow White Chocolate Royale and White Chocolate Cherry Chunkies.
The quality of the chocolate does not relate to the percentage of cacao, but rather it is dependent on the origin of the chocolate. Behind good quality, out-of-hand eating chocolate bars, there is a huge investment of time, money, and effort to find the beans and produce the chocolate. To distinguish quality, smell it. If it is of poor quality, you will immediately smell sugar and artificial vanilla or metallic nuances. Tasting it will confirm what you smell. If the chocolate is of high quality, the smell and taste will be more complex; nothing like sugar or vanilla will scream at your senses. The nuances of taste and smell will be complex and of the land—earthy, fruity, flowery, exactly the same as wine.
Chocolate liquor and cocoa powder give chocolate its taste, but the cocoa butter is responsible for texture. It is a naturally occurring vegetable fat that is solid at room temperature but melts when it comes in contact with your body temperature. Chocolatiers who make premium quality eating chocolate pride themselves on how their chocolate melts in your mouth; the chocolate is crafted for you to savor as it melts smoothly and slowly.