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What is Semi-Sweet, Bitter-Sweet Chocolate and Baking/er's Chocolate?

This is a question we don't get asked all the time! As chocolate makers we have a thorough look at all the varieties of chocolate in the world. Especially when writing a new recipe. It's important to start at the drawing board and forget everything we know before we begin making chocolate. If any readers know little about chocolate concurrently, this is a great article to bookmark and earmark for your learning. Experiencing the diversity of chocolate is actually step one in making, tasting or even eating craft chocolate. Plus its always great to start everything with a "beginners mind". So, let's go back to the past, to the beginnings of the chocolate industry to what we thought we knew.

So what is known?

We (this author included) were taught the craft of chocolate-making, hands on as apprentices. All the decades of lineage of the Sharkey family chocolate making has been downloaded, refined and employed at Island Sharks Chocolate. Island Sharks began our business differently than our namesake's (Hilo Sharks Chocolate) by using different Hawaii Cacaos. Some of which are to this day, also used by our mentors, colleagues and friends -- imitation is the highest form of flattery after all. Some of our chocolate is still grown by Tom Sharkey at Hilo Sharks Chocolate where he has been farming 'forever'. Now with new apprentices, Island Sharks continues to freely pass on the knowledge that was passed down to us, but with brand new Hawai'i origins!. Below is what everyone coming into the field thinks they know.

What Is Semi-Sweet Chocolate?

Island Sharks DOES NOT use semi-sweet chocolate. No pre-made chocolate is used at all.

We (this author), chocolate makers, baker's, home cooks, foodies and hobbyist have been defining (and using) semi-sweet chocolate as:

  1. Having a small amount of sweetening, up to 50% to 60% (what?!)

  2. Partially sweet or sweetened but having a distinct bitter component. Especially used to describe dark chocolate which is much less sugary than milk chocolate.

  3. Having a taste that is a mixture of bitterness and sweetness

  4. An industrial chocolate mass produced and sold to chocolatiers, home cooks and lesser restaurants and cafés

While that's not wrong, it doesn't reveal cocoa percentage. It would make sense that semi-sweet chocolate would be based on cocoa percentage. Its actually based on and refers to only the level of palatable sweetness and not cocoa percentage. Therefore we have folks all around the world describing chocolate w/ out actually knowing cocoa percentage. "What!? You mean people eating semi-sweet chocolate don't even know how much chocolate is actually in it?", you might ask, and that is correct. Cocoa percentages have only been revealed to chocolate consumers in the past 25/36 years. If you want to define the flavors of fine Hawai'i craft chocolate, it is much easier and accurate to measure cocoa percentage instead of perceptible, "sweetness." Also its more transparent for consumers. By trying different percentages folks have a way to get to know what percentages one likes (likely you'll many different cocoa percentages).

Chocolate pieces
Semi-sweet, Bitter-sweet and Baking Chocolate Looks Identical

Typically, semi-sweet may be considered dark chocolate. But dark chocolate has no specific cocoa percentage it begins at, so there is no way of telling. For example 99% cacao and 1% sugar would be correctly called dark chocolate. Thats the same case as our 72% cacao chocolate -- it's dark chocolate. Most people consider the cut off at 72% cacao or cocoa for something to be labelled dark chocolate. However, semi-sweet chocolate is 1.) the wrong name for 99% cocoa chocolate

and 2.) has a cut off at 35% cocoa mass. Anything below that is considered, "sweet chocolate". It seems unhealthy. I wouldn't recommend getting to know something with that much sugar on personal level (assuming the remaining percentage is sugar). "Sweet," chocolate terminology ends at 15% cocoa! That means anything with less cocoa is likely not legally chocolate. Its called, "chocolatey", and Hershey's discovered this when they introduced some PGPR into their chocolate taking the cocoa percentage below 11%. They had to change the name to Hershey's "Chocolatey" Bars and since have been restored to "chocolate" bar status after removing the PGPR and raising the cocoa % above 11.

What is Bitter-Sweet Chocolate?

Just like semi-sweet, bitter-sweet is vague in its meaning, does not refer to cocoa % and has no exact defined range of sweetness. There are vague federal regulations for some of these chocolates... not bitter-sweet. There are none.

Claims have been made that bitter-sweet chocolate has a minimum of 35% cocoa solids just like semi-sweet and like semi-sweet, there is no limit to how much sugar it can have. This is why some bitter-sweet and semi-sweet chocolate is the same. In baking, the two can be used interchangeably. Now it is commonly accepted and understood that bitter-sweet typically has less sugar then semi-sweet. We cannot really use cocoa % to measure bitter-sweet chocolate as it may have any amount of cocoa % above 35%. Cocoa % is definitely the best way to indicate how sweet a type of chocolate is.

What is Baking (Cooking) Chocolate?