The differences between chocolate flavors is based on the type of cocoa bean, terroir, fermentation, roasting and conching as well as the type and proportion of ingredients included in each chocolate formula. Real chocolate only has a short list of ingredients, so read labels carefully.
Dark chocolate flavor ingredients
Dark chocolate can come in a variety of flavors which are categorized by the industry as unsweetened chocolate, bittersweet chocolate and semisweet chocolate:
Unsweetened chocolate or brute chocolate
Unsweetened chocolate is mainly used for cooking purposes as it usually has a cocoa liquor component of 99%.
(As a reference, the U.S. FDA requires that the chocolate contain 35% or more cocoa liquor)
Unfortunately, there's a big difference in flavor between chocolate with 35% cocoa liquor and that with 84%. The higher the cocoa liquor, the less the percentage of sugar. Your own palate should determine the percentage of cocoa liquor you prefer. Please note that percentage of cocoa liquor does not determine quality. You can make a 70% chocolate with badly processed beans that don't taste very good.
Semisweet chocolate or sweet chocolate
(As a reference, the U.S. FDA requires the chocolate contain 15% or more cocoa liquor)
Again, there's a wide range of chocolate liquor percentages in this category. What's interesting to note is that to be considered semisweet or sweet chocolate, the bar only needs to contain 15% cocoa liquor.
(As a reference, the U.S. FDA requires the chocolate to be 10% or more cocoa liquor)
Milk chocolate flavor ingredients:
Milk chocolate flavor has a lot to do with the type of milk or cream product that's used in its manufacturer as well as the strength and taste of the cocoa liquor. Because the added milk or cream softens or masks the flavor of the chocolate liquor, many manufacturers rely on a bitter chocolate flavor bean such as forastero to deliver flavor.
Dark milk chocolate: There's a trend by artisan chocolatiers to use a "dark" milk chocolate which contains a higher percentage of cocoa liquor. This gives the creamy milk chocolate a more pronounced chocolate flavor.
(As a reference, the U.S. FDA requires the chocolate to be 20% or more cocoa butter)
White chocolate flavor ingredients:
Because there's so little "chocolate" in white chocolate, the flavor is mainly that of milk, vanilla and sugar.
Single origin, vintage or grand cru chocolates
These are chocolates whose origins are specific to a region or plantation. Quality is not a given and can depend upon the agriculture and processing practices, so make sure to taste before buying. These chocolates can come in a variety of flavors such as semisweet chocolate, bittersweet chocolate, milk chocolate and white chocolate.
What does cocoa percentage mean?
Sometimes chocolate manufacturers indicate the percentage of cocoa on the label. This basically tells you the percentage of cocoa liquor (i.e. the essence of the bean). The rest of the product is made up of sugar or a combination of sugar and dry milk powder in the case of milk or white chocolate.
Important note: This percentage does not indicate quality as you can have lower quality beans made into a high cocoa percentage bar. Use the percentage only as an indication of sweetness.
Understanding special chocolate such as organic chocolate
In our curriculum at Ecole Chocolat, we address the important issues of sourcing organic chocolate, supporting fair trade chocolate and promoting sustainable cocoa and chocolate practices. Click here to learn more about organic chocolate and other issues.
Sourcing good quality chocolate
We have put together a compilation of companies that offer pure chocolate for purchase online or through mail order to use in your chocolate making at home. Gourmet Chocolate Suppliers