Best Baking Chocolate for Holiday Desserts

Choosing the right type for your recipe will give you the tastiest results

Chocolate GettyImages-145068090

Old-time brands such as Baker's used to be one of the only options for baking with chocolate.

But today the baking aisle often has a variety of choices, from unsweetened to semisweet to white. You also may find products that have cocoa contents of 70 percent or more (which can be pricier).

So how do you know which baking chocolate to choose for your holiday desserts?

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The right type to use in your cooking depends on the recipe. But experts say you can usually skip the most expensive option.

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“Unless a recipe specifies high-percentage chocolate, stick with chocolate in the 54 to 60 percent cocoa range," says Alice Medrich, author of cookbooks such as “Cocolat” (Dover Publications, 2017). "Otherwise, you’ll have to adjust other ingredients."

Here’s what else you need to know about baking chocolate to make delicious holiday treats.

(If you're reading this article on your smartphone, we recommend you rotate your phone to landscape mode to better view the tables below.)

TypeDescriptionBest for
Unsweetened ChocolateAlso known as bitter chocolate, it doesn't have sugar, flavorings, or added fat. It's composed only of chocolate liquor (the ground-up nibs) or the roasted and hulled cocoa beans (a paste that is solidified into bars).

Any recipe where you want a strong chocolate flavor, especially brownies and fudge. With a little sweetener, it also makes tasty hot chocolate.
Bittersweet and Semisweet ChocolateTechnically, they're the same. And if they have similar percentages of chocolate, they can be used interchangeably in recipes. Both types are made with sugar and at least 35 percent chocolate liquor.

Brownies, cakes, and other baked goodies. They're also good melted into dips, sauces, cake glazes, and hot chocolate.
Cocoa PowderUnsweetened chocolate liquor that is processed to remove most of the fat, then ground into cocoa powder. You can buy natural or Dutch-process, which has been treated with alkali to make it darker and less acidic.Brownies, genoise, and chocolate sauce. Natural or Dutch-process cocoa can be used interchangeably as long as the recipe doesn't call for baking powder or baking soda. Baked goods that call for baking soda require natural cocoa or the batter might not rise.

Milk ChocolateMilk chocolate is made with at least 10 percent chocolate liquor plus at least 12 percent milk solids (including milk, cream, and condensed milk) with added sugar, cocoa butter, and butterfat. Look for 32 to 45 percent cocoa for a more chocolaty flavor.

Snacking. Can be used in frosting, and cookies and other baked goods, but flavor is less intensely "chocolatey" than other types of chocolate. You can also melt it and use as a topping for ice cream.
70-Percent-Plus CocoaHigh-percentage chocolates have less sugar and more chocolate liquor (at least 70 percent), which makes the flavor more intense. But higher-percentage chocolate can soak up liquid in a batter, resulting in drier brownies and cakes, grainy mousses, and curdled ganaches.

Snacking and in recipes calling for higher-percentage chocolate.
White ChocolateWhite chocolate has none of the cocoa solids that make up the dark stuff, only the fat. By definition, it's at least 20 percent cocoa butter, 14 percent milk solids, and no more than 55 percent sugar. Vanilla and other ingredients are added. But check the ingredients to be sure you're getting real white chocolate; don't buy anything that has fats other than cocoa butter, such as palm oil, says Maricel Presilla, a chef and the author of "The New Taste of Chocolate," (Ten Speed Press, 2009).

Fruity desserts. Think cranberry and white chocolate chip cookies. Pastry chef Anna Markow of Esca in New York City says the subtle, sweet flavor balances the acidity in fruit.
Cocoa NibsThe crunchy pieces are hulled, roasted, and crushed cocoa beans. When ground, the nibs turn into the liquor and butter used to make all forms of chocolate.

Seasoning and baking. They add a sharp chocolatey taste and crunchy texture to baked goodies. They're also great ice cream toppers.

Melting and Storing Baking Chocolate

For safer melting: Chocolate burns easily, so use a double boiler or improvise by placing a metal bowl over a pot of simmering water. Be careful that water doesn’t bubble up into the chocolate during melting. Even a tiny splash can make it gritty and grainy. Break bars into smaller pieces for fast, even melting, and stir until shiny and smooth. The quick and easy way to go: Zap it in the microwave.

Store it right: Keep chocolate in a cool, dry spot; heat and moisture can cause discoloration or affect baking results. You can also double wrap chocolate and store it in the fridge or freezer. Dark chocolate can last for years; milk chocolate and white chocolate should be used within a year because of their milk content. All chocolate can pick up odors, so don’t keep it near anything stinky.

Smart Baking Chocolate Substitutions

If You Don't Have ...
Swap in ...
1 ounce of semisweet chocolate
1/2 ounce of unsweetened chocolate plus 1 tablespoon of sugar
1 ounce of milk chocolate1 ounce of semisweet plus 1 tablespoon of sugar
1 ounce of unsweetened chocolate3 tablespoons of unsweetened natural cocoa powder (not Dutch-process) plus 1 tablespoon of unsalted butter or vegetable oil
3 tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder1 ounce of unsweetened chocolate (reduce fat in recipe by 1 tablespoon)
3 tablespoons of Dutch-processed cocoa powder1 ounce of unsweetened chocolate plus 1/8 teaspoon of baking soda (reduce fat in recipe by 1 tablespoon)

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