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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?

Baking chocolate is well known also as, bitter chocolate and typically it is unsweetened. Not all the time. Baker's chocolate is a brand synonymous with baking chocolate which is genius. It would be like saying remote worker's coffee for all coffee at work-from-home offices. It's not only remote worker's coffee that can be drunk while telecommuting from work. You can drink any kind of coffee at anytime. That is the same with baking chocolate. You can bake anything with it! However, notice that you can bake with any type of chocolate at all. Just like you can drink any type of coffee while clocked in at your nomadic work keyboard.

What it is, is basically cocoa powder or unsweetened chocolate (aka chocolate liquor) that's been powderized. Maybe alkalized as well and maybe not. Brands differ. Its a simple product that has made Baker's chocolate a famous brand. It is now owned by Kraft Heinz and is one of the largest chocolate companies in the country. Some will compare baking chocolate to 100% cacao. It makes a lot of sense. That part about bitterness though...thats the difference. And its an important difference. 100% cacao is amazing when it is well made bean-to-bar. Besides for no bitterness, it will be completely edible and delicious. Things that never should be said about any Kraft Heinz chocolate.

More About Cocoa Percentages

Although they are literally what defines the cocoa profile of a bar, the percentages on chocolate bars are irrelevant to the old classifications we thought we know. Typically the chocolate classified using the old terms are manufactured using older methods.

Chocolate types
Milk, Sweet and Dark Chocolate Looking a bit Different

Unfortunately, those methods included child-slave farming, substitution of vegetable or synthetic oils and even failed attempts at genetically modifying it. All of these things are still happening to this day although there is no GMO cacao successfully grown for commercial production in the world. They've even cracked cacaos genome. Cocoa profiles, the tastes of chocolate bars may have changed with the addition of cocoa percentages, a relatively new labeling technique, though not a requirement, cocoa percentages are labeled on bars to clarify what cocoa profile customers will be tasting. It also shows that there is no place for modern slavery, but not all cocoa with a % on it is ethical. Only the most delicious cacao, not the most productive, is used in slave-free craft chocolate. There are many reasons behind needing to label cocoa percentage. It helps define the small craft chocolate industry as separate from industrial chocolate.

Chocolate bars can be anywhere from 11% to 100% cocoa. Cocoa is often referred to as cacao mass by the way. A 100% cocoa / cacao mass bar could be made of all cocoa butter and nothing else! Most commonly the percentage is confined to actually being cacao mass or cocoa mass, and not cocoa butter. A 100% cacao bar could also contain lower amounts of cocoa butter, like 50% or so. It all depends on how its made, what the manufacturer hopes to achieve and what guidelines they are using. There is no strict, or any enforcement on this area of chocolate production. Its enforced basically by customers who are satisfied by accurate taste perception based on somethings packaging. Customers want to set realistic flavor exceptions when purchasing and eating chocolate with the percentage labeled.

The old-fashioned chemical and process heavy, sugar-filled and waxy chocolate that we used to classify as semi, bitter and baker's chocolate never listed the percentages. If they do now, it is uncommon. And it's clearly out-dated. Customers want transparency! Especially when it comes to sugar...Cocoa percentage can help everyone estimate a bar's sugar content. However, what isn't mentioned, is dairy.

milk is in more than half of all chocolate labeled dark.
These Dark Chocolate Chips Contain Diary Although NOT Listed As An Ingredient

Dairy is an inflammatory inclusion in chocolate and was originally provided by donkeys. The first milk chocolate was donkey milk and it hasn't progressed far from there. By moving to cows (and camels), craft chocolate companies have sacrificed the integrity of their entire line of chocolate bars. 51 of 88 dark chocolate bars contained dairy although it was unlisted, in a USDA study. Milk contaminates all the machines it touches with dried pus and mucus, the main constituents of cows milk. Do NOT trust non-plant-based craft chocolate companies to make vegan chocolate. Unfortunately that means milk could be in chocolate whether its bean to bar, semi-sweet or even 90% dark chocolate for example. The only way to be sure there is no contamination in your chocolate is to purchase and support all plant-based craft chocolate companies. Companies like ours never have dairy on the premises at all ever (or gluten). By ordering from companies like Island Sharks, you can support great milk alternatives like our Oatmilk Chocolate bar or even our Vegan White Chocolate with coconut milk. No one needs to eat animal products to live. How did dairy become associated with luxury chocolate when its full of bovine growth hormones and corn-fed milk too? Its simple. The taste of pure cacao (or spoiled cacao beans) didn't taste good. That was 100 years ago, way before the invention of bean-to-bar chocolate. Current chocolate-making methods include processes termed as Farm-to-Bar, Craft Chocolate, Artisan and more. These methods are being updated and refined by all the bean to bar craft chocolate makers, no matter what they call themselves. Read more about them here. And do not call what they make "industrial chocolate".

What Else Do Percentages Mean? 72% to 100% cacao mass in chocolate categorizes it as a, "Dark", Chocolate. This is completely informal however as dark chocolate is actually considered to be, "plain chocolate". 80% and above is consider dark chocolate too. But if you go for Baker's Chocolate for dark chocolate, you may be surprised. This is the bitter chocolate. When made bean to bar, dark / baker's chocolate won't be bitter, at all. It still has a dark profile due to the low sugar content. This is somewhat common knowledge although some dark chocolate lover may not realize they are eating what used to be considered baking chocolate! Baking chocolate is known to very bitter although sometimes it can actually contain only 66% cacao mass.

Chocolate pieces
Chocolate of All Makes Is Shaped Into Small Meltable Pieces

All bitter-sweet chocolate is dark chocolate but not all dark chocolate is bitter-sweet. Anything 72% to 100% is widely accepted as dark and / or bitter-sweet chocolate. It's typically a bit bitter unless the makers are craft chocolate producers. Its simply known industry wide, bitter chocolate comes from over roasting cocoa and nothing to do with the sugar content. Some sources you cannot site, like the label of a Hershey's Special Dark. Its 45% (not actually considered dark!) and not printed anywhere on the label. Don't let Hershey's skew your definition and understanding of cacao or chocolate. From Don't get confused! The above types of chocolate are not gladiators with the "5 types of chocolate". The "5 types...", are a completely different subject. They refer to milk, dark, white, ruby and sweet chocolate. Any of these types could be used/enjoyed as semi, bitter or even baker's chocolate. Any of them can be any sweetness or any percentage. What We Thought We Knew About Tasting

Perhaps this is where we learned the most! Our palettes long ago were newbies and we didn't even know the basics of tasting even our chocolate. Years of disagreeing on (and off) and calibrating palettes has revealed that its important to do the basics brilliantly. Can you even taste chocolate? I've written a book on it here. For now suffice it to say that its important that we keep learning. And the only way to do that is to go back to where it all begins, tasting chocolate while knowing cocoa percentage.

Would you taste semi-sweet or baker's chocolate? No. All the subtly, nuance, hints and notes we love about chocolate are only available through knowledge of cacao percentage within the world of craft chocolate. Its the only way to know what you are going to taste. If you are tasting industrial chocolate you only get 3 flavor choices; semi-sweet, bitter-sweet and baking chocolate. Don't do it. Can you see why understanding this is really the first step in learning to taste chocolate, is important?

2 pieces of chocolate
You Cannot Tell What Chocolate Type by Looking!


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Okay, each time I think I know about chocolate you write another blog! This is crazy, so its bitter because they want to make it that way? To quote you, bitter chocolate comes from over roasting cocoa and nothing to do with the sugar content. I am so confused by BIG CHOCOLATE, why must they make everything so not natural? Big Corp = Gross. Thanks for another insightful post!

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