Chocolate: Master This Versatile Ingredient To Elevate Your Baking
Learn about the different types of chocolate used in baking and how to use them to their full potential
Brownies. Molten lava cake. Chocolate ganache. Truffles. Pain au chocolat. For many, those words alone conjure up feelings of warmth, comfort, and home.
Chocolate is one of the most popular ingredients in baking, used to make some of the best and most decadent desserts around the world. In fact, it’s so ubiquitous that you’d be hard-pressed to find a culture in which chocolate isn’t used.
Because of its widespread use, you’ve most likely baked with chocolate at some point or another in your life. Whether it was making late-night brownies from a brownie mix, or trying to impress your crush with a chocolate cake for their birthday, I’m willing to bet almost every one of you reading this has used chocolate in baking before.
Whether you’re a home cook or a maker of munchies brownies, have you ever stopped to think about what’s in the chocolate you’re using? Or wondered if you can use an ordinary chocolate bar in place of baking chocolate? I know I’ve asked these questions, so I set out to find out everything there is to know about the use of chocolate in baking.
What is chocolate?
Before we talk about the different types of chocolate used in baking, we need to know what chocolate even is.
Growing up, I loved eating chocolate. Twix bars are still my favorite candy, and brownies are my go-to dessert. However, it wasn’t until I started cooking for myself that I paused to think — what is chocolate?
At a high level, every type of chocolate is made from the products of processed cacao seeds: cocoa liquor and cocoa butter.
First, the seeds are harvested from the cacao tree and fermented. This involves leaving the seeds outside and covering them with banana leaves for a few days.
After the seeds are fermented, they are dried and shipped off to a processing company. There, they are roasted and ground into cocoa liquor. Cocoa liquor doesn’t actually contain any alcohol and is produced by finely grinding cocoa nibs (the inside of the cocoa seed). The cocoa liquor is then pressed to produce cocoa powder and cocoa butter.
Here’s how each kind of chocolate is made:
Dark Chocolate: cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, sugar
Milk Chocolate: cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, sugar, milk powder (or condensed milk)
White Chocolate: cocoa butter, sugar, milk powder (or condensed milk)
Side note: some people argue that white chocolate isn’t chocolate because it contains no cocoa liquor, but it’s used often enough to be included
Baking chocolate vs regular chocolate
As I mentioned earlier, I used to wonder if I could use ordinary chocolate bars in place of baking chocolate in my recipes, since they both say “dark chocolate” or “milk chocolate”.
While you technically could use chocolate made for eating in your baking, it isn’t recommended, unless added as a garnish. Baking chocolate is unflavored, containing only the ingredients mentioned above. This allows you, the chef, the freedom to pair the chocolate with whatever additional flavors you want. However, chocolate bars made for eating are usually already flavored to make them more pleasant to eat by themselves.
So, if you’re in a pinch and only have that half-eaten Ghiradelli chocolate bar in your pantry, go ahead and use it. But if you’re baking to impress, make the trip to Whole Foods and buy some high-quality baking chocolate.
Different types of baking chocolate
If you’ve ever bought baking chocolate, then you would’ve seen that there are actually a lot of choices. There’s unsweetened, bittersweet, semi-sweet, milk chocolate, and white chocolate. While we know what milk chocolate and white chocolate are now, what about the rest?
Unsweetened, bittersweet, and semi-sweet chocolate are all forms of dark chocolate, just varying in the percentage of cocoa present in the chocolate.
Unsweetened: This type of dark chocolate usually contains no sugar at all. It is also sometimes labeled as “baking chocolate”. This is baking chocolate in its purest form and is usually melted down to be used in batters where there is another source of sugar. Unsweetened chocolate will add an intense chocolate flavor to anything you use it in.
Bittersweet: This type of dark chocolate usually comes in around the 70%-80% mark. It’s still very bitter to eat directly but when used in baking, will impart a rich chocolate flavor.
Semi-sweet: This type of dark chocolate is usually between 60%-70% cocoa. Slightly less bitter than bittersweet chocolate, this is a popular type of chocolate for baking chocolate chips. It can also be substituted 1:1 for bittersweet chocolate in most recipes without altering the flavor.
Don’t forget about cocoa powder!
As we know, cocoa powder is created by pressing the fat (cocoa butter) out of cocoa liquor. At your local supermarket, you’ll usually find cocoa powder in both its “natural” form or Dutch-processed.
Regular cocoa powder is exactly what it sounds like. It is pure chocolate flavor with no sugar or other additives. It can be used in pretty much any chocolate recipe to add an intense and rich chocolate flavor.
Dutch-processed cocoa powder is regular cocoa powder that has been processed to increase its pH, reducing the acidity. In terms of flavor, it can be used as a 1:1 substitute for regular cocoa powder, but because of its chemistry, it will react differently in baked goods. In recipes that call for baking soda (which is basic) as a leavening agent, typically regular cocoa powder (which is acidic) is used to create a reaction that causes the batter to rise. That reaction wouldn’t occur with Dutch-processed cocoa powder.
Different shapes of baking chocolate
You thought we were done? Not even close. Now we need to talk about all the different shapes and sizes that chocolate can come in.
Chocolate Chips: The shape that people are most familiar with. These typically come as semi-sweet or sweeter chocolate. Despite their popularity, it is best to avoid baking with chocolate chips if possible. Chocolate chips are made with stabilizers in the chocolate that prevent them from fully melting. That’s why even after baking, you can still distinctly make out the chocolate chips on a chocolate chip cookie. While there isn’t any research that shows that stabilizers are harmful to consume, they do take on an undesirable waxy texture after cooling.
Chocolate Bars: No, not the thin kind that you eat. These baking chocolate bars typically come as a thick rectangular prism. These are usually the most high-quality chocolate and can be used for basically anything. You can roughly chop them to create pockets of melted chocolate in a brownie, or you can finely chop it to make a smooth ganache. If you can only buy one kind of baking chocolate, go with a high-quality baking bar.
Chocolate Discs: These look like mini cookies and are perfect for melting because of their high surface area to volume ratio. Use them to make a luxurious chocolate ganache or a smooth chocolate buttercream. Whenever you want to use chocolate chips, use discs instead, as they don’t contain stabilizers.
Side note: learn how to make chocolate ganache. It is the greatest form of chocolate
Does the quality of chocolate matter?
Yes! And no.
First of all, what does it mean for a chocolate to be “high-quality”? Does is it made of a specific type of bean? Is it more expensive? Does it cure disease? There are any number of metrics by which chocolate quality can be measured, but there isn’t one “correct” definition for high-quality chocolate. What’s most important is how does the chocolate taste to YOU? Does the flavor match what you want for what you’re making? In that sense, the quality absolutely matters.
Just like whiskey or wine, people’s tastes will differ. Some people like bourbon, some people like scotch, but that doesn’t make one type of whiskey better than the other.
However, there are a few things you can keep in mind when picking out chocolate. First, good chocolate smells like chocolate. This one should be obvious. If the primary smell isn’t chocolate, then chances are, when you bake it, it won’t taste like chocolate either.
Second, good chocolate is crisp. That means that when you snap it, you hear the snap. If your chocolate don’t snap, then it’s crap.
Third, taste the chocolate. But don’t chew it too much. Break it into small pieces, then stop chewing and let it melt in your mouth. Good chocolate will feel smooth and rich, carrying lots of complex flavors (much like a good whiskey). Most importantly, these flavors should taste good to you!
If you’re just looking for easily available high-quality chocolate, some popular brands that you can’t go wrong with are Guittard, Callebaut, and Valrhona. I usually use Guittard because both Whole Foods and Safeway carry it.
Recipes that feature chocolate
Now you’re ready to make anything you want with chocolate. The world is literally your oyster, as there are countless chocolate desserts that exist. Below are just a few that I absolutely love and will be a good starting point on your journey into chocolate.
- Decadent S’mores Tarts (this recipe from my blog uses my favorite form of chocolate, chocolate ganache, as the filling to an incredible s’mores tart)
- Brownies (it doesn’t get more classic than this brownie recipe from Mark Bittman)
- Super Fudgy Brown Butter Brownies (have I mentioned I love brownies? Here’s another one)
- Chocolate Cake (chocolate used in both the cake and icing. Welcome to chocolate heaven)
- Molten Chocolate Lava Cake (no one can deny the decadence of a delicious lava cake with a flowing gooey chocolatey center)
- Chocolate Soufflé (for those of you who want a bit of a lighter dessert)