Food & Drink

Know your chocolate: the different types

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cacao seeds
Chocolate is made from the seeds of the Cacao tree.
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Cocoa content vs. milk, sugar, butter: how to distinguish chocolate varieties

If you are a chocolate lover, you have a lot of history to learn if you want to know your chocolate!

The history of chocolate dates back thousands of years to the Maya and Aztec cultures which flourished in South America and Meso America. These early civilizations were the first to cook with the sweet, flavorful seed pods of the tropical cacao trees.

Ancient Mayans and Aztecs ground the cacao seeds, combined them with other herbs and spices, and added the concoction to hot water or milk.The spicy, frothy drink was described by the Mayan's as "the drink of the gods." Eventually, the delicious cacao seeds were also used as a type of currency in many areas of central and south America.

Chocolate has evolved to become one of the world's most treasured flavors. Today, if you know your chocolate, you will be able to name the many types of chocolate, which range from dark chocolate to bittersweet chocolate, to milk chocolate and even white chocolate. All of these types of chocolate are used to flavor the most popular chocolate bars, chocolate fudge, chocolate flavored ice cream, and even hot chocolate.

Chocolate is used in cooking many meat dishes, especially in South American, and in baking.

Understanding the composition, origins and flavors so unique to the many different types of chocolate is important for chefs and for chocolate connoisseurs everywhere.

How to Distinguish Between the Many Different Types of Chocolate Produced Today:

Raw Cacao:

aka Cacao Nibs, Raw Cacao, Roasted Cacao, Ground Cacao
Raw, or Roasted Cacao is the healthiest form of chocolate there is, but it can taste somewhat bitter as it is not sweetened with sugar. Cacao is essentially the cacao bean, minus the shell.  Many gourmet food stores sell the exotic raw, roasted, ground or crunched up "nibs" of the cacao bean.


Cocoa is made by compressing ground cacao in a hydraulic press in order to expel the fat and natural oils.  This is why low-fat recipes often call for cocoa powder rather than unsweetened chocolate.  Dutch or "Dutched" cocoa is the term for cocoa powder that has been washed with an alkali solution of potassium carbonate which darkens the color of the powder and neutralizes it's acidity. Dutch cocoa is what gives cookies like Oreos their unique dark color.

Cocoa Butter:

When ground cacao is pressed to expel the fat and make cocoa powder, the expelled fat and natural oils are referred to as cocoa butter. Extra cocoa butter is added to various types of chocolate in order to give it that smooth, melt-in-your-mouth texture. Ironically, cocoa butter is frequently used in cosmetics and pharmaceutical products because it melts at body temperature, offers healing properties for the skin, and digestive tract, and is resistant to spoilage. For example, some sunblock lotions are fortified with cocoa butter. Cocoa butter is also used in the time release coating for some pills.

Sweet Chocolate:

Sweet chocolate describes any type of ground cacao that has been mixed with butter, extra cocoa butter and sugar in varying amounts.

Unsweetened Chocolate:

Unsweetened chocolate, also called baking chocolate is primarily used for baking as it gives chefs more control over the flavor and sweetness. Unsweetened chocolate is merely ground cacao that has been mixed with butter and/or cocoa butter but no sugar.

Bittersweet Chocolate:

Bittersweet Chocolate, also known semisweet chocolate contains at least 35% ground cacao, plus butter, cocoa butter and a minimal amount of sugar.

Milk Chocolate:

Milk chocolate is essentially sweet chocolate combined with at least 12% milk solids such as milk, cream or powdered milk.

Dark Chocolate:

Also called black chocolate, dark chocolate is produced by combining ground cacao, cocoa butter, and sugar, with no milk, or with much less milk than chocolate.

White Chocolate:

White chocolate is made without the ground cacao or cocoa powder. Instead, white chocolate is made only from the cocoa butter (pressed fats and oils) from the cocoa powder. This explains the absence of dark coloring in white chocolate. If you know your chocolate, you might consider this the "non-chocolate" item in this roster. Many true chocolate lovers do not consider white chocolate to be a true chocolate confection. In addition to cocoa butter, white chocolate includes sugar, milk, emulsifier, vanilla, and sometimes other flavorings.


Gianduia, invented when South American cacao was first brought to Europe, is a mixture of ground hazelnuts, ground cacao, cocoa butter, butter and sugar. Chocolate with hazelnuts has grown to become a preferred type of chocolate in the European countries. 

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