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The distinction between milk chocolate and dark chocolate may be fairly well known, but what is the difference between bittersweet chocolate and semisweet chocolate? You might surmise that one simply has more sugar, but how does that tie into cacao percentage, and why do some bittersweet bars actually have less cacao content than some semisweet ones? (And what’s the deal with white chocolate?)
Well, white chocolate is chocolate—legally speaking, even if you personally disagree—but since it does not contain any cocoa solids, it will never qualify for either bittersweet or semisweet designation; the toasty, caramelized notes of blonde chocolate notwithstanding, it simply can’t achieve the intensity of flavor boasted by its bittersweet and semisweet cousins.
Milk chocolate is also out of the running and will always qualify as just plain sweet in comparison to darker bitter- and semi-sweet bars. But those two are harder to tell apart, and broadly speaking, can be substituted for each other pretty much any time.
100 PERCENT DELICIOUS: What Does Cocoa Percentage Actually Mean?
Typically, semisweet chocolate has lower cacao content and is sweeter than bittersweet chocolate. However, there are no official guidelines about what can be called bittersweet and what can be called semisweet, and they both fall under the umbrella of dark chocolate.
The only FDA requirement is that something called dark, bittersweet, or semisweet chocolate contain at least 35 percent cacao and less than 12 percent milk solids (more milk solids, and it’s required to say it’s milk chocolate). Beyond that, labeling is entirely up to the manufacturer.
At its most basic, chocolate is made up of cocoa butter and cocoa powder—which together are called cacao liquor and determine cacao content—along with sugar (flavorings and stabilizing chemicals can also be added, but those are the main ingredients). Thus, as cacao percentage goes up, sugar content goes down, but this does not necessarily mean more bitterness, says Frankie Whitman, marketing director for Scharffen Berger. Some regions and processing methods produce cocoa beans that are bitterer than others even if used at the same concentration.
And when you get into the finer points of cocoa percentage, things get even more confusing—but at least they remain reliably delicious.
For the purposes of baking, it may be easiest to think in terms of milk and dark chocolate—when you want a sweeter, milder chocolate flavor, go for milk, and when you want something more intense, use either semisweet or bittersweet. (And many dessert recipes call specifically for unsweetened chocolate, also called baking chocolate or baker’s chocolate, which adds cocoa flavor without any additional sugar.)
The best way to know which specific flavor you want for any given application is to get familiar with a range of chocolate brands beforehand. Yes, you get to eat a bunch of chocolate and call it research! Take note of different brands’ nuances and intensities and pick whichever one seems best suited to the specific dish you’re making.
One other note: While those bright yellow bags of semisweet chocolate chips are classic cookie ingredients, it’s generally preferable to use chopped chocolate bars (for batters and doughs) or chocolate wafers (for anything that calls for melted chocolate), for better flavor and texture. Basically, the fewer stabilizers and additives in the mix, the better. Beyond that, though, it’s all a matter of personal taste.
This rich sauce is based on melted bittersweet chocolate, underscored by unsweetened cocoa powder for extra depth; the only additional sugar comes from a little corn syrup, which also helps add shine and smooth texture. Get our Bittersweet Chocolate Sauce recipe.
This bittersweet chocolate frosting is actually made with melted unsweetened baking chocolate and powdered sugar. It pairs beautifully with classic yellow cake, but if you have a sweeter tooth, you could top the cupcakes with our milk chocolate buttercream instead. Get our Moist Yellow Cupcakes with Bittersweet Chocolate Frosting recipe.
Bittersweet chocolate is intensified with a touch of brewed espresso in these rich brownies. For double the dose of chocolate, mix roughly chopped semisweet or bittersweet chocolate into the batter before pouring it into the pan. Get our Intense Chocolate Brownies recipe.
Chocolate can add a great depth of flavor to savory dishes, too. Mexican mole is a classic example (but try it in chili too, for starters). Bittersweet chocolate provides a dark cocoa edge with just a hint of sweetness that marries perfectly with all the other flavors. This version is easy enough for a weeknight, thanks to being made in a Crock-Pot. Get our Easy Slow Cooker Chicken Mole recipe.
Stepping down the chocolate intensity ladder, semisweet makes for a nicely balanced but rich chocolate mousse pie that’s crowned with whipped cream and extra chocolate shavings. As always, choose a chocolate you would happily eat on its own for all your baking projects. Get our Chocolate Mousse Pie recipe.
Semisweet chocolate melted down with heavy cream, a pat of butter, and just a few tablespoons of complementary liqueur makes a perfect pool of luscious fondue for dipping fruit, cake, or whatever your heart desires. As the recipe indicates, you can use a mix of semisweet and bittersweet chocolate to get the perfect balance. Get our Chocolate Fondue recipe.
A mild milk chocolate isn’t overpowered by the Guinness in this ice cream from David Lebovitz, nor does it provide too much bitter competition to the roasty stout. Get the Guinness Milk Chocolate Ice Cream recipe.
For a fantastic (and ridiculously easy) cup of hot chocolate, simply melt some eating chocolate down with whole milk and heavy cream. A classic milk chocolate will work here, but dark milk chocolates are increasingly easy to find, and make for a richer flavor with a bit less sugar. Then again, if you like even more intense chocolate taste, the same trick works wonders with semisweet! Get our Easy Homemade Hot Chocolate recipe.
A classic devil’s food cake is always welcome at the table, but this Mexican chocolate-inspired twist spices things up—literally, with ancho chile powder and cayenne whisked into the dry ingredients, which include natural cocoa powder for deep chocolate flavor. Add a sprinkle of cinnamon too if you like. You can spread the layers with simple whipped cream, or double down on the cocoa with our milk chocolate buttercream. Get our Mexican Devil’s Food Cake recipe.
We like bittersweet chocolate for these easy cheesecake bars, but semisweet would also work. With 4 1/2 teaspoons of vanilla extract in the swirled cream cheese filling, it’s a perfect mingling of two classic flavors—and the press-in vanilla wafer crust is the ideal buttery base. Get our Marble Cheesecake Bars recipe.