Chocolate Explained

With all the different varieties of chocolate available, it is tough to discern which type works best with which recipe. There are an array of confusing percentages, bars, disks, powders, and descriptions, what does it all mean?

In this article we’ll melt down the cocoa conundrum, to better understand the wide world of chocolate.

What Comprises Chocolate

Chocolate is really a simple recipe. From the bean, two key ingredients are extracted; cocoa (or cacao) and cocoa butter. This combination is called chocolate liquor. The remaining ingredients depend on the style of chocolate being created; sugar, flavorings (peppermint, vanilla, etc…) and dairy (milk or cream). Other ingredients could be added for desired effects, for example, vegetable oils or waxes (for dipping and shine). Regardless of the additives the flavor and quality begins with the bean.

The Origin of the Bean

Chocolate is primarily grown in South America with a small outcropping in the Caribbean and West Africa. Historically, the beans have been broken into 3 types;

  1. Criollo, found in northern South American regions (only makes up 1% of all chocolate and extremely rare).
  2. Forastero, most commonly grown and found primarily in the Amazon (90+% of all chocolate).
  3. Trinitario, the hybrid accidental cross-pollinator of Forastero and Criollo.

Each brings a different flavor profile to the table, either being bitter and brash or fragrant and delicate. Some chocolate houses blend the varieties to create their own unique flavor while others dedicate to a single region and varietal. You’ll see package terminology similar to wine; grand cru, single origin or vintage all are notices as to where the chocolate is from.

Calculating Percentages

The equation is simple, even though the manufacturers make it seem more complicated than it truly is. The cocoa percentage decreases as the sugar content increases, with the higher percent chocolate being more bitter. This is where our culinary mathematics come into play. If your recipe calls for a lot of sugar (like cookies or cakes) it is best to balance that sweetness with a higher percent chocolate (bitter). Similarly, if your recipe calls for less sugar, like (pastries or bread) use chocolate with a lower percent.

Below, you’ll find a little cheat sheet with the chocolate terminology and typical percentage range:

  • Unsweetened Chocolate or Cocoa Powder (85%-99%)
  • Bittersweet Chocolate (35%+)
  • Semisweet or Sweet Chocolate (15%-34%)
  • Milk Chocolate (10%)


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Patterson Watkins

Professional Chef/Recipe Development/Nutrition Expert/Food Photography

Patterson Watkins is a freelance recipe developer and industry consultant. She has dedicated over 15 years to food service management, encompassing restaurants and corporate dining. Patterson’s work has been featured in Taste of Home, Better Homes and Gardens, American Lifestyle and Urban Outfitters. For more information about Patterson and her work please visit

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