Baking Basics: Baking with Chocolate

chopped white chocolate, milk chocolate, and dark chocolate on a cutting board

Last week, I introduced you to my monthly baking challenge. It’s a project I’d been brainstorming for awhile, but never got around to actually executing. Now that it’s live, I wish we had all been doing this together sooner!

February’s baking challenge recipe revolves around chocolate. MOLTEN lava chocolate if we’re being particular! And as Valentine’s Day approaches, I figure this week is the perfect time to discuss the delicious beast that is chocolate. Grab a cup of coffee and stick around because this is a good one.

Welcome to another baking basics!

melted chocolate in bowls

When I was in St. Lucia last year, we took a half-day tour and learned about all about its agriculture. Most specifically, cacao. Obviously my favorite part of the day. Let’s see how much I can remember!

Chocolate is derived from cacao– and it doesn’t become chocolate until the pod is harvested, the beans are removed from the pod, then fermented, dried, roasted, ground into a paste (aka chocolate liquor– no alcohol!), then mixed with other ingredients like sugar and milk (milk chocolate!). Woo-eee! That’s a lot.

After that roasting, however, the shells are removed from the dried cacao beans which leaves the cocoa nib. The nib is what you need for chocolate! Well not YOU but the chocolate makers. These nibs are what are ground into chocolate liquor. Chocolate liquor can be sold as such, also known as “baking chocolate” (more on baking chocolate below!) or processed further to separate the fat (cocoa butter) and eventually become cocoa powder.

Bars, Chips, Powder?

The baking aisle is loaded with chocolate choices. Who knew such a tasty aisle could leave us in so much bewilderment? Let’s start with cocoa powder. Actually, let’s rule it out completely. Cocoa powder, while from cacao as you know, is a completely different ingredient that deserves its very own post. (←click right there for it!)

When a recipe calls for chocolate (not “cocoa” and not “chocolate chips”) the recipe is referring to baking chocolate. It’s not referring to chocolate chips. Thanks to stabilizers and preservatives, chocolate chips are designed not to melt under heat. If you stick them in the microwave or double boiler, you’ll certainly have a melted chocolate product. Delicious, of course, but not what you want as the base of your brownies, cakes, in puddings, ganache, frosting, lava cakes, or coating around your candies. Save the chips for your cookies; they taste best that way!

Baking chocolate, on the other hand, is what you should be reaching for. In its pure form, baking chocolate is unsweetened chocolate aka chocolate liquor. It is 100% chocolate without any added sugar or flavors. It’s bitter and therefore used in recipes with added sugar. While “baking chocolate” is unsweetened chocolate, you can use other chocolate varieties in baking. It’s a little confusing, I know. Chocolate used for baking can also be bittersweet, semi-sweet, milk, and white chocolate varieties– but the term “baking chocolate” typically means unsweetened. Got it?

chopped chocolate chunks on cutting board

Major chocolate brands in the baking aisle sell chocolate in bar form, typically 4 ounce bars– and they’re right next to or above the chocolate chips in the baking aisle. There are several brands to choose from like Baker’s, Ghirardelli, Lindt (Lindt bars are actually sometimes in the candy aisle), Nestle, Scharffen Berger, etc. The latter is a pricier choice but you get what you pay for: absolutely DIVINE chocolate. If you shop at Trader Joe’s, their “Pound Plus” bar is the right choice. Great quality and hefty amount for a steal of a price!

This chocolate melts down uniformly because it contains few additional ingredients besides the cacao. If I’m using chocolate as a coating for candies, sometimes I add 1/2 teaspoon of oil when I’m melting it down. This makes dunking and dipping easier because it slightly thins out the chocolate.

Did you know? All baking chocolate– whether that is unsweetened, bittersweet, semi-sweet, etc– is tempered in factories before you buy it. Tempering is a matter of heating and cooling melted chocolate to certain temperatures so that the finished chocolate will have a glossy surface, a smooth texture, and snap when you break it. Properly tempered chocolate will not melt on contact with your fingers. But once you melt it down to use as coating for candies and such, the tempering process must be repeated in order to maintain the same desirable texture. I discuss tempering chocolate at length in Sally’s Candy Addiction if you have a copy. Though never required for my recipes (melting without tempering is OK!), we only need to worry about tempering chocolate when using it for candy. Turn to page 42 to learn more!

Wait, What are Chocolate Wafers?

Grocery stores also carry chocolate wafers. They’re perfect for melting as a coating because they don’t contain stabilizers. Wafers are fantastic for unbaked goodies like ganache, puddings, frostings, and coating around candies. Unlike baking chocolate, I don’t recommend wafers for actual baked recipes. You want to reach for chocolate that is made for baking.

Percentages on Chocolate

Ever wonder what the percentage on a chocolate bar means? This number actually tells you quite a lot about the flavor you’re about to unwrap– it refers to the percentage of ingredients by weight coming from cacao. A higher percentage means more intense chocolate flavor and less sweet.

chopped white chocolate, milk chocolate, and dark chocolate on a cutting board

Types of Chocolate

White chocolate: let’s start here because it’s not technically chocolate! White chocolate has cocoa butter in it, but does not contain any chocolate liquor. Remember learning about those two above? Since there’s no chocolate liquor, many argue that white chocolate isn’t technically chocolate. Whatever, it’s still amazing.

Bittersweet/dark chocolate: these two terms are usually used interchangeably. “Semi-sweet” contains 35 – 45% cacao and is usually sweeter than bittersweet or dark varieties. However, there are no legal restrictions to distinguish between all 3 and, depending on the brand, “bittersweet” or “dark” may have the same percentage as “semi-sweet.” Regardless, it will be darker and more intense than milk chocolate and sweeter than unsweetened.

Semi-sweet: see above. It can be used interchangeably with bittersweet/dark chocolate. It’s what I use most often in baking because it’s the most readily available. It’s the base of our lava cakes!

Milk chocolate: only 10% cacao. Super sweet and oh-so-good!

Q: What’s your favorite?

chopped chocolate chunks on cutting board

I’ll have to write a separate post on melting and tempering chocolate sometime!

strawberries dipped in chocolate

More lessons for ya:

If you haven’t already, try the lava cakes for the baking challenge this month. Share your photos throughout this month using #sallysbakingchallenge on Instagram or email me, tweet me, or upload a photo of your recipe to my Facebook page. It’s been fun so far!


  1. That was a great post.


  2. Laura | Tutti Dolci says:

    Yes please to all the chocolate! 🙂

  3. Thank you for this most interesting and educational blog. I’m guilty of using chocolate chips in place of baking chocolate and have learned the difference in the results. This is so helpful.

    Wishes for tasty dishes,

  4. I love any chocolate in baked goods, but for snacking, I prefer 85 or 86% cocoa. A lot less sugar that does not leave that overly sweet taste in my mouth.

  5. Sally – I love, love, LOVE reading this type of posts. Of course, your recipes are fabulous but so are these. I used to work for a ‘chocolatetier’ where I learned that chocolate that was not kept at the proper temperature (too hot or too cold) blooms or turns whitish. It is still good to eat or even use, but it looks unsightly so products could not be sold that had bloomed. Not to nerd out any more – just a handy tidbit that has stuck with me over the years. 🙂

  6. I work in a chocolate factory in Canada and love everything about your blog. Very curious though, have you ever substituted for Couverture Chocolate into any of your recipes? I was going to try a couple of your recipes this weekend with some of our companies new baking line but don’t know if I will have to adjust the fats in the recipe to work well with the higher cocoa butter content that is found in our baking “morsels” – any advice would be greatly appreciated and keep up this wonderful success of yours!

    1. I actually haven’t! Are the baking morsels like chocolate chips? Because you wouldn’t need to alter a recipe for using them if that’s the case!

  7. hi sally 🙂 loving your blog and all your recipes are so helpful and turns out perfectly!!! 😀 could you write a blog on melting and tempering chocolate too… 🙂 and I prefer the dark chocolate 🙂

    1. Hi Rosh! I wrote alllllll about tempering chocolate in my cookbook if you have a copy!

  8. What about couverture chocolate? Can it be used for baking and in your seriously fudgy brownies recipe?

  9. Do you have any recipes that call for unsweetened baking chocolate. I bought a lot of it by accident and so far, I’ve only made brownies and chocolate sauce with it.

  10. I have a bar of Green and Blacks 70% that I’d like to use in your lava cakes. 1) Is that considered “baking chocolate”? 2) And would that be too bitter?

    1. Yes, you can definitely use that for the lava cakes. It shouldn’t be too bitter.

  11. Hailey Dodds says:

    Hi Sally,

    Would LOVE to read about tempering

  12. Hi Sally.. Like reading your recipes I love your these lessons of wisdom on baking as well. Very informative & helpful. I love to understand the chemistry behind baking even though I hated it in college . About bitter sweet chocolate, I have chocolate that has 70%or so cocoa, so when I use it in baking that calls for semi-sweet how do I adjust the sweetness? Is there a thumb of rule or just trial & error to suit one’s own taste.

    1. Hi Meera! There’s no real rule for this as it really depends on the recipe. You’ll have some luck slightly increasing the sugar, but I wouldn’t increase it too much. It’s likely the dessert you’re making is already plenty sweet, even with the bittersweet chocolate you use.

  13. Andrea MacKenzie says:

    Hello Sally!

    Do you have a link that includes all your recipes that use unsweetened baking chocolate?

    Thank you,

    1. Hi Andrea! I only have a couple (I usually use bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate) and they’re grouped under my chocolate category. I recommend my chocolate mousse pie.

  14. Hi, Sally!

    I have a lot of unsweetened chocolates here for baking and I want to make 60-70% chocolate bars that I could use for cookies. What should I add to them? What type of sweetener can I use?

    1. Hi Molly, I’m unsure and haven’t tested this, but I would try melting them down with a little corn syrup to add sweetness. Pour out onto a lined baking sheet or pan and chill it until solid. I don’t recommend dry sugar since you’d taste the sugar granules.

  15. Helen Caines says:

    I’ve used white chocolate bar for ganache for tuxedo cake (in between layers) but used your buttercream recipe to ice the cake. I’m making another tux cake, but want to use a different icing. Can I used Baker’s chocolate bar to ice a cake, if so how many bars do I need to ice a 3 layer tuxedo cake?
    I look forward to your expertise.
    Many thanks!

  16. Aaliyah Cooley says:

    Which baking chocolate or chocolate wafers do you prefer to use?

    1. Hi Aaliyah! I really like Bakers or Ghirardelli brand baking chocolates. They’re sold in the baking aisle by the chocolate chips.

  17. Hi Sally! Amazing post! Can you please explain something about the differences between compound chocolate and couverture chocolate? Thank you 🙂

  18. Hi Sally, this is am amazing post. Looks like I am addicted to your blog!.

    I love the way you write and explain simple yet significant things that are key to baking well. I would like to know, if Chocolate Compound can be substituted for Baking Chocolate. If yes, in what kind of recipes. Would love to hear from you on this if your time permits. Thank you so much and appreciate all that you share here with all of us.


    1. Thank you so much for your kindness! I’m glad to help. Compound chocolate would be fine in most recipes calling for pure baking chocolate, especially if used as a coating or for dipping.

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