Blog Post

Chocolate Basics: Dark, Milk and White

In the past couple of years I’ve learned a lot about chocolate. Still have much to learn (I know some chocolatiers who know more about chocolate than I know about everything), but I’ve got a good handle on some of it.

I get a lot of questions about what makes different kinds of chocolate different, so let’s start with some of the basics.

There are two fundamental kinds of chocolate: dark and milk. Dark chocolate is simply chocolate, sugar, and a bit of vanilla (to, ironically, bring out more chocolate flavor) and soy lecithin, which helps bind it all together.

Chocolate is an amazingly complex food, with hundreds of different compounds in it. Simply, though, it is made from cocoa butter and cocoa solids (which is essentially cocoa powder). Cocoa butter is completely flavorless, but smooth and creamy. All the flavor comes from the cocoa solids.

When you buy a bar of dark chocolate that has a percentage on it, that number is telling you how much of the bar is chocolate — both cocoa butter and cocoa solids. The rest is sugar (with less than 1 percent vanilla and soy lecithin).

So a bar of 64% is 64 parts chocolate and about 38 parts sugar.

What they don’t tell you outright is the proportion of cocoa butter (smoothness) to cocoa solids (flavor). You can calculate that, though, by looking at the nutrition label to compare the serving size to the amount of fat.

(Beware, math coming up.)

Let’s say our 64% bar has a serving size of 43 grams, and has 18 grams of fat.  If we divide 18 by 43, we learn that about 42% of the chocolate in the bar is cocoa butter, and about 58% is cocoa solids. If we multiply the 42% (0.42) of cocoa butter times the 64% (0.64) of chocolate in the bar, we find that about 27% of the bar is cocoa butter (smoothness). Similarly, the 58% (0.58) of cocoa solids times 64% (0.64) of total chocolate in the bar means that 37% of the bar is cocoa solids (flavor). Adding cocoa butter (27%) to cocoa solids (37%) gets us back to the 64% of total chocolate.

(Math ends here.)

If you add milk of any kind to the chocolate, you get milk chocolate. The milk can take the form of liquid milk, milk solids, condensed milk, or a combination thereof. You’re adding the fat from the cream, making the chocolate even smoother, and the sugar from the milk, making it even sweeter. And you’re using less chocolate, so you get more sweetness and less chocolate flavor.

Generally speaking, milk chocolate is about 25-40% chocolate (the rest mostly sugar and milk) and dark chocolate is 50% or more chocolate (the rest mostly sugar).

Note that we’re not talking about what we refer to as “gas station” chocolate. If you buy chocolate at a gas station, there’s a good chance you’re going to get something else besides these ingredients, ranging from other oils (palm kernel oil is a cheap alternative to cocoa butter and gives it a waxy taste and texture) to artificial flavors.

What about white chocolate? Technically (and legally in the U.S.) it’s not chocolate because it doesn’t have any cocoa solids in it — so it has no chocolate flavor. It does have cocoa butter (if it’s real white chocolate), milk, sugar, vanilla and soy lecithin. So it’s flavor is…vanilla.

Semisweet and bittersweet? We’ll save that for later.