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. This is great, thank you! My favorite will always be white chocolate – no shame.

  2. My favorite chocolate is dark. I once saw 99% cocoa dark chocolate at the store and was sorely tempted to try it. Thank you so much for this post. It really helps!

  3. Andrea @ Cooking with a Wallflower says:

    Thank you so much, Sally, for all this info! Sometimes it’s hard to figure out the different types of chocolate and how to use them in candies and baking. This has been super helpful!

  4. Marina @ A Dancer's Live-It says:

    I love the baking basics series! This is so helpful! My favorite kind of chocolate is dark chocolate, usually in the 80-85% range. Sooooo good!

  5. Great post on chocolate, Sally, thank you!
    I recently discovered milk chocolate with an amount of 65 % cocoa – so good, the perfect chocolate for me! It’s wonderful in cookies.

  6. Patricia @Sweet and Strong says:

    The baking aisle can definitely be confusing with all the different kinds.  And how can I choose a favorite, I love it all!  Dark chocolate is probably my favorite though, so yummy!

  7. Thanks for this post.  I learned so much!

  8. Thanks, Sally, for the great information! My favorite is dark chocolate!

  9. Hi Sally, I also like to add oil when I am melting chocolate. It creates shiny, smooth texture. My favorite chocolate is milk. However, if it is Lindt I can eat all of them.

  10. I loved this post Sally. One of my fears/challenges this year is to work on melting and tempering chocolate and I’d love to see that future post from you. I’ve only baked with chocolate chips and making ganache from chocolate chips and heavy cream, but never the “real deal”.

    To answer your question, I love milk chocolate! But I try to eat dark chocolate when nothing is left. 😛

    1. Dark chocolate *is* supposed to be better for you!

  11. Shawnna Griffin says:

    Hey girl- great post! My favorite chocolate is milk chocolate! Yummy- I also like dark to!

  12. My favorite (to eat) is, and always will be, dark chocolate. Semi sweet is FANTASTIC in cookies and cakes. And I use white chocolate for decoration, and not usually in actual baking. Sally, what’s  your favorite?

    1. I seriously cannot choose. It used to be dark chocolate, but I LOVE a good milk chocolate. And white chocolate– so good in its own right!

  13. Great and informative post Sally!

    I actually like all chocolates – I never discriminate chocolate!

    1. Me neither. I really do love them all!!!

  14. Even though I know it’s not *really* chocolate, white chocolate is still my favourite variety. Great post, Sally – super informative for bakers new to more complex desserts and ones like me who struggle to spend the extra cash to buy quality chocolate, but you’re right & sometimes quality baking chocolate is just necessary for recipes. I always use Baker’s brand when I buy pure chocolate – I didn’t even know Lindt sold pure baking chocolate! Can’t wait to try out some of your chocolate-y recipes for Valentine’s Day next week 🙂

    1. Let me know which recipes you try for Vday! White chocolate is the best.

  15. Sally I really can’t say how much I enjoy your baking basic posts. Even though you have baked for years, it is always great to “nerd out” with you. You always have the perfect amount of information. It always inspires me to get in the kitchen and do some baking!!

    I’m sorry is there a type of chocolate your not suppose to love?!?!?!

    1. Thanks so much, Vanessa!

  16. Thank you Sally…very interesting! I love all chocolate but if I had to pick, my absolute favorite is dark 🙂

  17. Thanks for the lesson. Always appreciated

  18. Sally! Another great post 🙂 my fav is white chocolate – and yes please! We need a post on melting… I made white chocolate liquour during the holidays and melting the white chocolate was… a challenge. A challenge resulting in spilling boiling water on my stomach thank you :/ the microwave just didnt work like it usually did to melt white chocolate, so had to do bain marie and… yeah no, did not end well! 

    1. Spilling boiling water on yourself! You poor thing! I hope you were OK. Chocolate can be stubborn. And melting can get complicated– and frustrating. I’ll have to work on a baking basics post about it!

      1. I’m fine 🙂 it was painful though! But aloe vera worked wonders 😛 I will be looking forward to your chocolate melting posts!! Thanks Sally

  19. Juliane @ Beyond Frosting says:

    Yeah! Thank you for breaking that down

  20. I really enjoy your Baking Basics! Thank you for taking the time to nerd out and break the mechanics of baking down. 🙂 My favorite is dark chocolate, though I do enjoy white as an accent color and flavor.

  21. Would absolutely love a “melting chocolate” post – we went through 4 bars of chocolate this past Christmas with them all seizing and being ruined!  Thanks so much for your posts!

    1. That is so frustrating! I’ll definitely try to work in a baking basics post on melting chocolate sometime. 🙂

  22. Melissa Howell says:

    Thanks for all that info! I didn’t know there was such a big difference between using baking chocolate and chocolate chips as a base for cooking. And I love all the sciency stuff. Keep it coming!

  23. Rachel S. (sprinkle lover) says:

    Fantastic post Sally!! I’m sure all your followers will agree, you give so much of ‘you’ and everything you have learned to all of us! You make baking fun, exciting and always make us understand the ‘why’s’ behind what we are doing. I think that is the perfect recipe for creating the yummiest masterpieces!! 

  24. Dark chocolate definitely holds a special place in my heart right next to ice cream, and when the two meet…, but seriously your mocha truffles in Sally’s Candy Addiction are the best!!!

    1. Those mocha truffles are LEGIT! I need to make them again soon.

  25. Christine Smith says:

    I LOVE your baking basics series; the science is fascinating to me. Keep them coming!!

  26. White chocolate is always first for me…then dark. 🙂

    I actually like using broken up bars of chocolate in cookies now…love the melty pools of chocolate it makes. (but I could not be trusted with a Pound Plus around the house…I don’t bake as much as you do and fear 90% of it would end up being snacked on….)

    1. Yes yes yes, I actually love adding both chocolate chips AND real chocolate bars to cookies because you get both those melty chocolate pools and big chips!

  27. Michelle @ Modern Acupuncture says:

    This was great, thank you! My favorite chocolate is Cadbury milk chocolate 🙂 Soooo good!

  28. Your making me hungry for something sweet as I snack on my pretzels at work…Milk Chocolate all the way!!!! and White Chocolate -a close 2nd…..

  29. Thanks for another great post Sally. In NZ we have different names and products of chocolate, so this was very helpful for me to distinguish the difference between them. As far as favourite chocolate goes….I can’t choose, I love them all!!!

  30. There is just something about milk chocolate rabbits, how I love them so. Around here a place called Andy’s Candies has the best chocolate, in my opinion.

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