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What is Bittersweet Chocolate?

By S. N. Smith
Updated May 16, 2024
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Bittersweet chocolate is a sweetened form of dark chocolate that does not contain milk in either liquid or dry form. It is essentially a mixture of chocolate liquor, sugar, cocoa butter, and sometimes vanilla. Often, lecithin is added as an emulsifying agent. Chocolate liquor, despite what its name seems to suggest, contains no alcohol. Rather, it is a form of cocoa produced by grinding cocoa beans down into liquid form. Solidified chocolate liquor formed into blocks is known as unsweetened baking chocolate.

In North America, bittersweet chocolate is required, according to Standards of Identity established by the Food and Drug Administration, to contain a minimum of 35 percent chocolate liquor. In Great Britain, the figure is somewhat higher, rising to 43 percent. The more chocolate liquor the chocolate contains, the more intense its flavor will be. Especially high-quality chocolate may contain 65 to 70 percent, or more, of chocolate liquor.

Although the terms bittersweet and semisweet are sometimes used interchangeably, there is a difference in the standards that define the two. Although not formally regulated across the industry, bittersweet chocolate generally contains more chocolate liquor and less sugar than semisweet chocolate does. However, since semisweet chocolate can contain up to 35 percent liquor, the two chocolates can be very much alike. Bittersweet and semisweet chocolate can be used interchangeably in baking, with good results.

Both the semisweet and bittersweet chocolates are occasionally labeled “couverture,” which designation indicates that the chocolate contains not less than 32 percent cocoa butter. Couverture must be tempered, a process that involves manipulating the temperature of the chocolate during the process of fat crystalization in its cocoa butter, before using. It is a favorite for dipping, coating, and molding. When melted, it is smooth and fluid, and when it hardens, it has a lovely sheen and a creamy texture.

Recent studies have revealed certain health benefits from the regular consumption of small quantities of bittersweet chocolate. Due to its high cocoa content, dark chocolate is a good source of certain flavonoids — namely epicatechin and gallic acid — that may be protective for the heart.

Bittersweet chocolate also possesses antioxidant compounds and may also play a role in lowering blood pressure. It should be noted, however, that the flavonoids present in this chocolate are destroyed by processing with alkali, as with Dutch-processed cocoa powder.

Chocolate, including the bittersweet variety, is extremely sensitive to factors of temperature and humidity. The ideal—but relatively narrow—temperature window for storing chocolate is between 59 and 63 degrees F (15 and 17 degrees C), with a relative humidity at a finicky 50 percent or less. Conditions of varying temperature may cause changes in the appearance or texture of the chocolate, including a whitish “bloom” on the surface due to the presence of fat and/or sugar crystals there. Although the appearance of the chocolate may suffer, it is perfectly safe to eat.

Bittersweet chocolate, like other varieties, contains theobromine, an alkaloid found in the cacao plant. Theobromine is alternately credited with aphrodisiac and antitussive properties and blamed for sleeplessness, anxiety, and polyuria. Theobromine, even in small amounts, is poisonous to dogs and cats and care should be taken to keep all chocolate away from animals’ reach.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon925694 — On Jan 13, 2014

Because the term "dark chocolate" is so broadly defined, it would be hard to say if a particular brand could be used as a substitute for baking chocolate. Personally, I think if all you had on hand were 90 or 95 percent dark chocolate bars, you might be able to use them in place of 100 percent baking chocolate. But anything less than that would probably come out too sweet without ratcheting back on the recipe's sugar measurements.

By anon73187 — On Mar 25, 2010

Reply to anon71193: 1/2 oz Unsweetened chocolate plus one tablespoon sugar equals one ounce bittersweet chocolate.

I got caught in the same trap a moment ago and had to research the answer. Our chocolate souffle would have been an absolute disaster with unsweetened chocolate. Happy baking!

By anon71193 — On Mar 17, 2010

So if the recipe calls for bittersweet and all I have is unsweetened may I add more sugar to the recipe? How much for eight ounces of unsweetened chocolate?

By anon66923 — On Feb 22, 2010

If it calls for bakers chocolate, use bakers chocolate. If it calls for bitter-sweet or semi-sweet use one or the other interchangeably.

By breakofday — On Dec 30, 2009

So Dark Chocolate is a type of Bittersweet Chocolate, but is NOT Baking chocolate right, I can't use it as a substitute?

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