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What is Bittersweet Chocolate?
Blog / Chocolate / What is Bittersweet Chocolate?

What is Bittersweet Chocolate?

When it comes to the world of chocolate, there's a tempting array of choices at our fingertips.

From velvety milk chocolate to creamy white chocolate and beyond, each variety has its unique allure.

However, among these myriad choices, one type of chocolate often piques the curiosity of budding confectioners and seasoned chocoholics alike – bittersweet chocolate.

This post is dedicated to unpacking the enigma that is bittersweet chocolate.

We'll delve into what sets it apart from other types of chocolate, how it's made, and why it might just become your new favourite addition to homemade sweets and bakes.

What is Bittersweet Chocolate?

Bittersweet chocolate is a type of dark chocolate that contains a high percentage of cocoa solids and less sugar than its sweet or semi-sweet counterparts.

In the UK, bittersweet chocolate typically contains a minimum of 60% cocoa solids, although it can go much higher, offering a rich, deep cocoa flavour with a lower level of sweetness.

It's often used in baking and dessert making, where its complex flavour profile can balance out sweeter ingredients.

(Read this post if you would like to read about: What Are Chocolate Truffles?)

What Does Bittersweet Chocolate Taste Like?

Bittersweet chocolate offers a rich and complex flavour profile.

As the name suggests, it strikes a balance between bitterness and sweetness, with the scales tipping slightly towards the bitter side.

In terms of taste, bittersweet chocolate delivers a potent cocoa flavour thanks to its high percentage of cocoa solids.

This robust cocoa character is accompanied by a lower level of sweetness compared to milk or semi-sweet chocolate, giving it a darker, more intense flavour.

The bitterness in bittersweet chocolate is not harsh or unpleasant, but rather it offers a depth and complexity that enhances its overall taste.

It can also exhibit subtle flavour notes that vary depending on the origin and type of cocoa beans used, such as fruity, nutty, or even floral undertones.

Its rich, less sweet flavour makes bittersweet chocolate a popular choice for baking and dessert making, particularly in recipes where a strong chocolate presence is desired to balance out other sweet components.

(Take a look at this post if you would like to read about: How to Tell if Chocolate is Bad).

What Is the Difference Between Bittersweet and Semisweet Chocolate?

​​Bittersweet and semisweet chocolate are both types of dark chocolate and are often used interchangeably in baking.

However, they do have subtle differences in their cocoa content and sugar levels, which can affect their taste and suitability for different recipes.

  1. Cocoa Content: The main difference between bittersweet and semisweet chocolate lies in the percentage of cocoa solids they contain. Bittersweet chocolate typically contains a higher percentage of cocoa solids – often 60% and above in the UK. This gives it a deeper, more robust cocoa flavour. Semisweet chocolate, on the other hand, usually has a slightly lower cocoa content, often around 50-60%.

  2. Sugar Content: Linked to the cocoa content is the level of sweetness. Bittersweet chocolate contains less sugar than semisweet chocolate, making it less sweet (as the name suggests) and a bit more bitter.

  3. Flavour Profile: Due to these differences in cocoa and sugar content, bittersweet chocolate tends to have a richer, more intense flavour, with a balance that leans towards the 'bitter' side. Semisweet chocolate, while still offering a noticeable cocoa flavour, will taste a bit sweeter and less intense.

Despite these differences, in many recipes, bittersweet and semisweet chocolate can be used interchangeably, depending on personal taste preference.

If a recipe calls for one and you only have the other, feel free to substitute, but be aware that this may slightly affect the final sweetness and intensity of your chocolate flavour.

(Click here for a more in-depth look at the differences between semi-sweet and bittersweet or here to learn the percentage of cocoa in semi-sweet).

What Is the Difference Between Bittersweet and Dark Chocolate?

Bittersweet and dark chocolate are terms often used interchangeably, but they can denote slight differences in the chocolate's composition, particularly in terms of cocoa solids and sugar content.

  1. Cocoa Content: Both bittersweet and dark chocolate have a high percentage of cocoa solids, which contributes to their deep, rich flavour. Bittersweet chocolate typically contains at least 60% cocoa solids, and sometimes much more. Dark chocolate, however, is a broader category that can include chocolate with a wide range of cocoa content, typically anywhere from 35% to 100%. As such, bittersweet chocolate can be considered a type of dark chocolate that falls on the higher end of the cocoa content scale.

  2. Sugar Content: Bittersweet chocolate tends to have less sugar compared to some other forms of dark chocolate, leading to a more intense, less sweet flavour profile.

  3. Flavour Profile: Bittersweet chocolate, as the name suggests, has a balance of bitter and sweet notes, with the bitter ones being slightly more prominent. Dark chocolate, given its broader range, can vary significantly in taste. Lower-percentage dark chocolates will be sweeter and less intense, while higher percentages (like bittersweet and extra dark chocolates) will be more robust and less sweet.

In essence, while all bittersweet chocolate can be classified as dark chocolate due to its high cocoa content, not all dark chocolate can be categorised as bittersweet, especially if its cocoa content is lower and its sugar content is higher.

Therefore, when cooking or baking, it's essential to check the cocoa percentage on the packaging to ensure you're getting the flavour profile you're aiming for.

What Are the Ingredients of Bittersweet?

Bittersweet chocolate, known for its rich and intense flavour, consists of a few essential ingredients:

  1. Cocoa Mass or Cocoa Liquor: This is the purest form of chocolate, produced by grinding cocoa beans into a smooth, liquid state. It includes both the cocoa solids and the cocoa butter naturally present in cocoa beans.

  2. Sugar: Sugar is added to balance the intense, bitter flavour of the cocoa. The amount of sugar in bittersweet chocolate is less than that in other types of chocolate, such as milk or semi-sweet chocolate.

  3. Cocoa Butter: Additional cocoa butter may be added to give the chocolate a smoother texture and better mouthfeel. The amount varies depending on the desired taste and texture of the final product.

  4. Vanilla or Vanilla Extract: While not always present, vanilla or a similar flavouring is often added to round out the flavour of the chocolate.

  5. Lecithin: This is an emulsifier, usually made from soy or sunflower, that helps blend the cocoa and cocoa butter smoothly together. It's used in small quantities.

It's important to note that high-quality bittersweet chocolate usually contains a short list of ingredients, focusing on a high percentage of cocoa and minimal additives.

Always check the label to ensure you're getting a quality product, especially if you're using the chocolate for cooking or baking, as it can greatly affect the outcome of your dishes.

What Percentage is Bittersweet Chocolate?

Bittersweet chocolate is typically defined by its relatively high percentage of cocoa solids. In the UK, bittersweet chocolate generally contains at least 60% cocoa solids, although this figure can often be much higher, even up to 85% or more in some premium varieties.

This high cocoa content results in a richer, more robust flavour compared to other types of chocolate, with a balance that leans more towards the 'bitter' side than the 'sweet.'

The exact percentage of cocoa solids should be clearly marked on the packaging, so it's always a good idea to check, especially if you're using the chocolate for a specific recipe.

Some Notes From a UK Chocolate Expert

While the terms “bittersweet” and “semisweet” are commonly used in the United States to denote different types of dark chocolate, they might not be as familiar to us ‘UK’ chocolate lovers.

In the UK, we tend to categorise our chocolate more by the specific cocoa content, with dark chocolate often labelled with the percentage of cocoa it contains.

You’ll commonly see dark chocolate bars with labels like “70% cocoa” or “85% cocoa” on supermarket shelves.

These percentages give you a good indication of how intense the chocolate flavour will be, with higher percentages generally providing a more robust, less sweet chocolate taste.

“Bittersweet” and “semisweet” are terms you’re more likely to encounter when following American recipes or looking at imported chocolate products.

If you do come across them, remember that “semisweet” is generally a sweeter, less intense chocolate (akin to a lower-percentage dark chocolate in the UK), while “bittersweet” is less sweet and has a deeper, more robust chocolate flavour (similar to a higher-percentage dark chocolate).

As always, the best guide is your own taste buds.

If you prefer a less sweet, more intense chocolate, opt for higher percentages or “bittersweet”.

If you like your chocolate a bit sweeter, go for lower percentages or “semisweet”.

And don’t be afraid to experiment – part of the joy of cooking and baking with chocolate is discovering your own personal preferences!

What Makes a Good Substitute for Bittersweet Chocolate?

If you find yourself short of bittersweet chocolate for a recipe, there are a few suitable alternatives you could consider:

  1. Semisweet Chocolate: This is perhaps the closest substitute, although it does contain slightly less cocoa and more sugar. It can generally be used in a 1:1 substitution.

  2. Dark Chocolate: As long as it has a similar cocoa solid content (around 60% or more), dark chocolate can be a good substitute. Bear in mind the taste might be slightly less sweet.

  3. Unsweetened Chocolate + Sugar: If bittersweet chocolate is not available, you could use unsweetened chocolate and add sugar. For each 170g of bittersweet chocolate, use 170g unsweetened chocolate and 4 tablespoons of sugar.

  4. Cocoa Powder + Sugar + Fat: You could also mix cocoa powder, sugar, and a fat (like butter or coconut oil) to mimic the cocoa and sugar content of bittersweet chocolate. For each 30g of bittersweet chocolate, use 1 tablespoon of unsweetened cocoa powder, 2 teaspoons of sugar, and 2 teaspoons of butter.

Remember, the best substitute will depend on the recipe and how the chocolate is being used.

If it's a primary ingredient, you may want to stick closer to the original requirements, but if it's a minor component, there might be a bit more wiggle room for substitutions.

What is the Best Type of Chocolate for Cooking and Baking?

The best type of chocolate for cooking and baking largely depends on the recipe you’re following and your personal taste preferences.

However, here are some general guidelines for different types of chocolate:

  1. Dark Chocolate: With its robust, rich flavour, dark chocolate is a versatile choice for many recipes. It’s available in different cocoa percentages, allowing you to choose based on how intense you want the chocolate flavour to be. It’s excellent for ganaches, truffles, and any recipe where a deep chocolate flavour is desired.

  2. Semi-Sweet and Bittersweet Chocolate: These are types of dark chocolate, often used interchangeably in recipes. They’re great for baking due to their balanced sweetness and cocoa flavour. Ideal for cookies, brownies, and many other desserts.

  3. Milk Chocolate: Sweeter and creamier than dark chocolate, milk chocolate is best used in recipes where a milder, sweeter chocolate flavour is desired. It’s great for making chocolate sauces and fillings, or for use in desserts where its sweetness complements other ingredients.

  4. White Chocolate: Although it doesn’t contain cocoa solids, white chocolate brings a creamy, sweet, and slightly vanilla flavour to dishes. It can be used in baking, though it’s more sensitive to heat than other types of chocolate.

  5. Couverture Chocolate (like Whitakers Easymelt product): This is a high-quality chocolate that contains a higher percentage of cocoa butter. It’s excellent for tempering and making chocolate decorations due to its smooth texture and shiny finish when melted and cooled.

  6. Cocoa Powder: Ideal for adding a chocolatey flavour to cakes, biscuits and frostings, cocoa powder is a staple in many baking recipes. It provides a strong, bitter chocolate flavour without adding any fat or sweetness.

Remember, when it comes to cooking and baking with chocolate, the quality matters.

Higher-quality chocolate will generally produce better results, so it’s worth investing in good chocolate, especially for recipes where chocolate is the star of the show.

Final Notes On Bittersweet Chocolate

Bittersweet chocolate is a rich and versatile ingredient with a high cocoa content of at least 60%, giving it a robust flavour.

It's ideal for various recipes, and while there are alternatives like semisweet chocolate or a mix of unsweetened chocolate and sugar, quality matters.

Each type and brand can offer subtly different flavours, so experiment to find your favourite.

Enjoy the unique taste and culinary journey that bittersweet chocolate provides.