The Difference between Bittersweet and Semisweet Chocolate
There are many different types of chocolate on the market, including candy chocolate, baking chocolate, and liquid chocolate. At its most basic level, the term chocolate can refer to any food derived from cocoa, or cacao, that is mixed with a fat, such as cocoa butter or powdered sugar. Given this broad definition, there are many different types of chocolate. Some examples include milk chocolate (like Hershey’s processed milk chocolate), dark chocolate, white chocolate, cocoa powder, organic chocolate, raw chocolate, bittersweet chocolate, semisweet chocolate, couverture, compound chocolate, and modeling chocolate. Some of these terms or classifications are subject to governmental regulations and restrictions while some are not.[i] One of the most confusing aspects of chocolate is the distinction between bittersweet and semisweet chocolate.
The most notable difference between bittersweet and semisweet chocolate lies in the liquor content of each. In this context, liquor does not refer to an alcohol, but rather to the amount of liquid cocoa that is present in each form of chocolate. The liquid is produced by crushing or grinding the roasted cocoa beans; when it solidifies in its pure state, the result is unsweetened chocolate. However, if other ingredients, such as sugar, vanilla, or lecithin are added, eating and baking chocolate are produced. The difference between bittersweet and semisweet is regulated by European governmental standards: bittersweet chocolate must contain at least 35 percent chocolate liquor, while semisweet must contain between 15 and 35 percent. No such restrictions are imposed in the United States. The increase in the amount of chocolate liquor found in bittersweet chocolate is also typically coupled with a decrease in the amount of sugar—less in bittersweet and more in semisweet. While this is generally true, the sugar content is not regulated the same way that the liquor content is. Given these facts, it is still possible that there may be two brands that are labeled differently as bittersweet and semisweet while still having very similar chocolate liquor and sugar contents. Thus the two types of chocolate are often considered interchangeable in most recipes.[ii]
Both bittersweet and semisweet chocolate are primarily used for baking or consumed as a stand-alone food. Bittersweet chocolate is more commonly referred to as dark chocolate in Europe. It is usually darker in color and less sweet tasting than semisweet chocolate. When used for baking, bittersweet chocolate is typically found in chip form, but when eaten directly it could take other forms. Semisweet chocolate is considered to be the most versatile chocolate, which means that it is found in many different forms depending upon the needs of the user. Some examples include blocks, discs, squares, and chips. It is a bit lighter in color and sweeter than bittersweet chocolate.[iii] Semisweet chocolate is typically referred to as dark chocolate in the United States.[iv]
With both semisweet and bittersweet chocolates, the higher quality chocolates will exhibit slightly different characteristics than those of a lower quality. Good chocolate that has been stored correctly will exhibit a glossy shine. Conditions for proper storage include placing it in a covered container or sealed plastic bag, ensuring that it remains at temperatures below 65 degrees Fahrenheit, ensuring the humidity stays below 50 percent, and storing it for no longer than one year. Quality chocolate will have a very smooth feeling as it melts in your mouth. Chocolate itself has a melting point far below 98.6 degrees F, which is not true for ingredients that are commonly used with chocolate substitutes. Vegetable fat and solid shortenings have higher melting points and will leave a waxy feeling in one’s mouth.[v]
It is commonly thought that when a recipe calls for either semisweet or bittersweet chocolate that one may simply be substituted for the other. However, if you must substitute, there are ways to make the substitution taste closer to the original flavor. For instance, if you are substituting semisweet chocolate for bittersweet chocolate, you will get the best result by using the same amount of chocolate but adding a teaspoon of cocoa powder with every ounce of semisweet chocolate that is used.[vi]
If substituting for semisweet chocolate, you can use one ounce of unsweetened baking chocolate with 1 tablespoon granulated sugar for every ounce substituted. Alternatively, you may also use 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder combined with 3 tablespoons sugar and 1 tablespoon of butter, margarine, or shortening to equal one ounce of semisweet chocolate.[vii]
Selecting Each in the United States
Europe heavily regulates the chocolate manufacturing industry and ensures that each type of chocolate is appropriately labeled based on its liquor and sugar content. There are no such assurances in the United States, and chocolates are only restricted to 3 different groupings—milk, white, and dark chocolate.[viii] For this reason, some believe that the substitution of semisweet and bittersweet chocolate is equal, and indeed, in the United States it may be. It is possible that some bittersweet chocolates will actually have more sugar and less cocoa than some semisweet varieties, depending upon the brand. For this reason, to truly categorize the two, the safest method is to check the percentage of chocolate, or liquor, prior to purchasing. This will help you to determine which varieties are truly bittersweet and which are semisweet.
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[i] Types of chocolate. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Types_of_chocolate#Bittersweet_chocolate
[ii] Questions about cooking with chocolate. (2007, November 12). Easy Home Cooking Magazine. Retrieved January 3, 2017 from http://recipes.howstuffworks.com/tools-and-techniques/questions-about-cooking-with-chocolate4.htm
[iii] Chocolate: Types, selection and storage. (n.d.). Retrieved January 4, 2017 from http://www.bhg.com/recipes/desserts/chocolate/chocolate-types-selection--storage/#page=1
[iv] Semi-sweet and bittersweet chocolate. (n.d.). On Joy of Baking. Retrieved January 4, 2017 from
[v] Chocolate: Types, selection and storage. (n.d.). Retrieved January 4, 2017 from http://www.joyofbaking.com/SemisweetChocolate.htmlhttp://www.bhg.com/recipes/desserts/chocolate/chocolate-types-selection--storage/#page=1
[vi] Bittersweet chocolate. (n.d.). On Gourmet Sleuth. Retrieved January 4, 2017 from http://www.gourmetsleuth.com/ingredients/detail/bittersweet-chocolate
[vii] Chocolate substitution chart. (n.d.). Retrieved January 4, 2016 from https://whatscookingamerica.net/ChocolateSubstitutionChart.htm
[viii] Lennarz, D. (2015, October 28). “Chocolate, as defined by the FDA.” Retrieved January 4, 2017 from http://fda-news.registrarcorp.com/2015/10/fda-chocolate-standard-identity/