There are six basic kinds of chocolate. While all six are products of the cocoa bean, they differ immensely in flavor and purpose. Knowing how the cocoa bean is processed and used to make chocolate will explain the different kinds of chocolate, and also reveal why some brands are better quality than others.
Cocoa beans come from trees grown in the tropics of South and Central America and Africa. Pods containing the beans are harvested, and the beans together with the surrounding pulp are removed and placed in bins to ferment. After three to seven days the fermented pulp is dried quickly to avoid molding. Then the beans are roasted, graded and ground into a liquid called cocoa liquor. From the liquor, a fat called cocoa butter is extracted, leaving cocoa powder. These are the raw ingredients used to make chocolate.
Most people are surprised to learn that pure cocoa is very bitter. Cocoa must be sweetened with sugar, and sometimes vanilla and milk to produce that ever-popular chocolate flavor. The amount of cocoa in the blend determines the type of chocolate. Unsweetened or Baking Chocolate is the solid form of chocolate liquor. It is used in baking, when sugar or other sweeteners are called for in the recipe. Similarly, Bittersweet chocolate is primarily used for baking, with a minimum of 50% cocoa liquor. A third type of chocolate used in baking is Semi-Sweet, with a minimum of 35% cocoa liquor. Semi-sweet morsels are best known as the key ingredient in chocolate chip cookies.
While bittersweet has a stronger chocolate flavor than the sugary semi-sweet chocolate, these can sometimes be used interchangeably in recipes. In fact, since the amount of sugar is not regulated, what one manufacturer calls semi-sweet may be called bittersweet by another. Europeans, whose regulations are higher than Americans, tend to use more bittersweet. As a general guideline itís best to note that the higher the content of chocolate liquor, the richer and more flavorful the chocolate.
Both bittersweet and semi-sweet chocolate are considered Dark Chocolate, which is any chocolate that does not contain milk or milk solids. American regulations set a minimum at 15% cocoa liquor in dark chocolate (European rules 35% minimum); however the finest dark chocolate has between 60-70%. There has been hype in recent years that the antioxidants present in dark chocolate may protect the heart; however, much of the processing destroys these healthy properties. Also, the high fat content in chocolate largely negates the benefits.
When milk solids are added to the blend, you get creamy Milk Chocolate, which has at least 10% cocoa liquor. Finally, White Chocolate, made with cocoa butter, milk, and sugar is usually made without any cocoa solids at all.
While chocolatiers have their own blends, the best quality chocolate is that made with high cocoa content. Cheaper blends may use fats other than cocoa butter, and many inferior mass-produced chocolates have less than 7% cocoa! Checking the ingredients list is a good idea if you are searching for a high-quality chocolate. Other than that, the feel of the chocolate in your mouth and the best flavor are largely a matter of personal taste. It is recommended you taste test different brands until you find the chocolate you like bestóa task that will hardly be a burden to anyone!