How to Buy Chocolate (for melting, baking, or just straight eating)


dark chocolate 2If you want to remain in chocolate innocence, read no further. Because after reading this post your run the risk of becoming a chocolate snob. Then there’s just no going back.

I’m getting to be quite the dark chocolate junkie. Lately I’ve been adding unsweetened chocolate or natural cocoa when I have a cup of hot chocolate. How about you? Here is how chocolate flavors are divided up:

unsweetened chocolate (the other name for this is “chocolate liquor,” aka, straight chocolate, more on that below)
sweetened dark
(this includes extra bittersweet, bittersweet, semi-sweet, and sweet)
milk chocolate
white chocolate

Here’s a peek at the spectrum of ingreds:
bittersweet = at least 50% chocolate (or 50% cacao)
semisweet = at least 35% chocolate (or 35% cacao)
milk = at least 10% chocolate and 12% milk solids
white = at least 20% cocoa butter and 14% milk solids

Chocolates will label themselves with “bittersweet” or “semisweet” but standards vary between companies. The only way, then, to compare chocolates from one company another is to taste them (twist my arm).

types of chocolateStandards vary between companies, one company’s bittersweet is another company’s semi-sweet

Anyone have a brand you’re loyal to? Here are a few that are popular among pastry chefs and chocolatiers:
E. Guittard (USA), Cluizel (France), El Rey (Venezuela), Valrhona (France), Scharffen Berger (USA), and Callebaut (Belgium, USA).

The best way to find your favorite chocolate is to sample:
1. Smell it. Good chocolate will smell chocolaty.
2. Break it and look for a nice clean snap, not a grainy crumble.
3. Look it over, it should be pretty and glossy.
4. Taste it. Once in your mouth it should melt soft and smooth.

Consider having your culinary friends over for a chocolate tasting. Set out different types of chocolate and some water for cleansing y’alls pallets. Start with the darkest chocolate and work your way to the lightest. Look it over, hold it in your hand and smell it as it starts to warm, snap it, then let it melt over your tongue.

chocolate tasting partyHave your friends over for a chocolate tasting party. Have everyone  bring a bar and taste from dark to light.

We’re going to get hardcore here. Chocolate starts as ground up nibs found inside a cocoa bean. This pure chocolate is called chocolate liquor (it has nothing to do with alcohol, in case you were wanting to ask), and that is made up of nearly equal parts cocoa solids and cocoa butter (it has nothing to do with dairy). So there you have it.

real chocolate = cocoa butter + cocoa solids

Cocoa solids are just the nonfat part of cocoa, the chocolate-flavored part.

So a real chocolate bar, then, is just real chocolate plus sugar, extra cocoa butter to make it smooth and meltable, a little vanilla because chocolate is so much better in combo with another flavor, and usually soy lecithin to bind it all together. A milk chocolate bar will also have milk solids.

When you leave out the cocoa solids, you get white chocolate.

When you keep the cocoa solids but replace the cocoa butter with vegetable fats, you get confectionery coating, like the Wilton candy melts you buy at the craft store (which is why these are called “chocolate-flavored” wafers, they are not real chocolate ).

When you leave out the cocoa solids and replace the cocoa butter with vegetable fats, you get vanilla confectionery coating. Which is not any kind of chocolate any way you look at it. See the chart below.

cocoa nibs

Where it all starts, cocoa nibs. You can buy these raw at a place like Whole Foods.

real chocolate2cocoa butter + cocoa solids = real chocolate (bottom left)
vegetable fats + cocoa solids = chocolate-flavored confectionery coating (top left)
cocoa butter + vanilla = white chocolate (bottom right)
veg fats + vanilla = vanilla confectionery melts (top right)

white chocolate melts
White chocolate has a creamer color than vanilla melts because it is made with cocoa butter.

real chocolate ingredients
The ingredients for real chocolate will say “cocoa butter.”

wilton candy melts ingredients
Candy melts will have a vegetable fat, like palm kernel oil, instead of cocoa butter.

Candy melts are nice and easy to use. They melt easily, are hard to scorch, do not have to be tempered, and are otherwise very cooperative. The only problem is they taste waxy.

When you buy chocolate for melting, you want something that will melt quickly and smoothly. A chocolate that’s had a lot of extra cocoa butter added will do that ( it has a low viscosity, or low resistance). It will enrobe whatever you dip into it and hug the bumps and nooks and will cool quickly and be oh so pretty. The chocolate you really want for this job is called couverture. It’s super meltable (it has up to 39% cocoa butter). It’s also super expensive. So shop around. It’s often hard to find out how much cocoa butter is in a bar of chocolate in American bars. Chocolate makers figure this is part of their secret recipe. But you can pretty much guess by price. A high price often means a higher cocoa butter content. So pick your budget and go from there.

If you really want to get hardcore, bust out the calculator. You can usually get a good estimate of how much of the bar is cocoa butter (I saw this in a book called Bittersweet by Alice Medrich, p. 347):
grams of sugar per serving / grams per serving = percentage of sugar in the chocolate
whatever’s left is the percent of chocolate liquor
fat grams per serving / serving size = percentage cocoa butter
whatever’s left is the percentage of cocoa solids
if it’s milk chocolate you also need to account for up to 12 percent milk solids

The cheapest way to buy, which also happens to be the way to buy the best chocolate, is to buy it in huge slabs. I’ve gone in on a slab with friends (you can call a chocolate company headquarters and ask for a distributor in your area) and also bought chunks of a slab at the bulk section at my grocery store. I’ve also had great luck with chocolate meant for chocolate fountains, which I’ve bought at a restaurant supply store.

meltable chocolateAll of these versions of real chocolate will work for melting.

chocolate ingredients2This bar has plenty of extra cocoa butter and would be great for melting. Too bad most American chocolate bars do not make their cocoa butter level so clear.

While we’re talking about chocolate, I thought I’d throw in a quick note about cocoa. As you’ve probably figured by now, cocoa is made up mostly of the solids from choclate liquor,with a little fat left in. When you’re trying to decide what kind of unsweetened cocoa to buy, here are some guidelines.

Natural cocoa: This has the more intense taste of the original cocoa bean, and more acidic. Chocolate purists often prefer it. It is nonalkalized, so it’s used in recipes with baking soda, which is an alkali.

Dutch-processed cocoa: This cocoa has been mixed with chemicals to alkalize it. It smooths out the flavors and makes them less harsh, which was especially necessary when chocolate making was not as sophisticated as it is today. It also gives it a rich darker color. Because it’s already alkalized, you can use it in recipes with baking powder. If you use it with baking soda it will over rise—too muck alkali.

dutched vs natural cocoaDutched cocoa (on the right) is darker and richer in color, but the flavor is milder.

natural cocoa

natural cocoa (top) is nonalkalized, dutch processed is alkalized

dutched coacoa vs natural
Baking soda usually won’t work with dutch processed cocoa because you’ll have too much alkali.

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Carly December 18, 2009 at 4:15 pm

Chocolate…. two days in a row…. Sigh.

You are absolutely right about needing to taste the chocolate to tell if it’s going to suit your recipe. I find, too, when using unsweetened, you have to buy some of the semi-sweet as a tester so you know if the unsweetened will be any good. :-)


Mountain Mom (Rachel) December 18, 2009 at 5:18 pm

Hi. Wow. Thanks for going to the trouble to spell out the details there. And I see the next/older post is going to be about melting and tempering, which is my weak spot for sure. I can’t wait to taste test chocolate. Wish I had known this before putting wilton candy melty chocolate as the glaze for my beautiful bundt cake today. I can only scorch and seize so much real chocolate before going to the candy melts. But now you inspire me to practice some more.


Christina December 20, 2009 at 11:18 am

Woah, thanks for the (very welcome!) information overload! I love to read about anything chocolate. This was a kind of “How It’s Made” episode on chocolate!

Oh, and I SO plan on having a chocolate tasting party! Our co-op in town has an entire aisle of chocolate!


linda geertsen December 20, 2009 at 7:29 pm

I LOVE the amazingly long post on CHOCOLATE. MMMmmm. The attention is well-deserved.
Merry Christmas!
We miss you guys!


Stephanie December 22, 2009 at 8:10 pm

Dark chocolate is my favorite too. I’m actually kind of a chocolate snob. The regular grocery store variety (butterfinger, snickers, kit-kat, etc.) doesn’t even really tempt me anymore. ;)


Michelle November 1, 2010 at 12:56 pm

Amber, I can’t believe I missed all this great information. Definitely the best explanations and tips on buying chocolate that I’ve seen anywhere. Thanks!


admin November 1, 2010 at 1:09 pm

Michelle! You just made my whole day! I’m so glad you found these useful.


Barbara November 24, 2010 at 2:07 am

What a surprise! I am from Venezuela, and it is so exciting to see chocolates el Rey here!
And definitely agree, that is some good quality chocolate!!


Tess December 3, 2010 at 5:59 pm

This is excellent, thanks so much! I found your website through Apartment Therapy via The Kitchn, re: your hot cocoa on a stick recipe. Which I think it’s brilliant, btw. I’m bookmarking this for reference.

From a chocolate lover to another: THANK YOU!!! :)


Shelley September 22, 2011 at 5:49 am

Hi, thanks for the great tips! The trouble I’m running into is where to buy chocolate. If I want to buy 5 pounds of chocolate without spending A LOT of money, I don’t know where to look. I would like to make chocolates for Christmas gifts this year. I have the molds, but not the chocolate. I have some Bakers semisweet but I’d like a better quality chocolate. Can you help, please?



AmberLee October 4, 2011 at 8:18 pm

Hi Shelley,
I apologize I took FOREVER to respond. Yes, I recommend calling a restaurant supply store in your area. Around here I like Pacific Gourmet. They will often sell chocolates in 11-lb (5 kilo) blocks or bags, which you can split with a friend or use on your own, it should last for 8 months to a year. Good luck! And Christmas at your house sounds like fun : )


Amber Johnston October 18, 2011 at 2:04 pm

I live in Eastern Kentucky and there aren’t any good chocolate stores around. Any suggestions on where I could buy some good quality chocolate online? I am wanting to make some of your “hot chocolate on a stick” for Christmas presents this year.


AmberLee October 18, 2011 at 7:20 pm

Hello, Amber. You might try some restaurant supply centers. Especially during cold weather, you may be able to have it shipped. Usually blocks of chocolate come in 11-lb blocks, so you may want to split it with a friend! You can also try Their selection is fantastic, and endless! Good luck!


lori October 25, 2011 at 4:34 pm

I was wondering if you could help me. I would like to know where I can go to a website that sells chocolate in 5-10 lbs slabs. I do christmas candy and other candy that I use chocolate for. So can you find me a website to go to, to find discount prices. Thank you


AmberLee October 27, 2011 at 8:58 pm

Hi Lori!
I’d recommend either trying or looking in your local area for a restaurant distributor. usually you’ll be able to get an 11-lb slap, which you can either use up or share with a friend. Good luck!!


Lystessa January 4, 2012 at 10:43 pm

Now I’m wondering, if I just add straight cocoa butter when I’m melting the chocolate, would that work to improve the meltability? Could I combine cocoa powder and cocoa butter to make my own chocolate combinations (or would they end up utterly gross)?


AmberLee January 12, 2012 at 2:14 pm

Lystessa, you’ve got it! Yes, adding cocoa butter while melting would be the perfect solution. You could definitely play with cocoa powder and butter, but it wouldn’t be the same as actual chocolate, where the nibs go through a long conching and refining process to make them smooth and wonderful. best of luck!


denise September 29, 2012 at 8:45 am

Is it possible to purchase unsweetened white chocolate? I don’t mean the kind with artificial sweeteners or stevia, just plain unsweetened at all white chocolate..


AmberLee September 29, 2012 at 4:17 pm

Oh, Denise! That is a great question. I’ve never seen unsweetened white chocolate. Hmmm. I’ll have to look around a little more, but from all the chocolate catalogs I’ve seen (which is many) I never have!


Ann December 30, 2012 at 12:59 pm

A little extra comment ;-) it’s couveRture, like to coveR something in chocolate.


AmberLee January 6, 2013 at 7:30 am

oh, no! Thank you so much for catching these!!


Audrey February 27, 2013 at 11:28 pm

Wow Thank you so much for the info, I never thought working with chocolate can be so complicated, yet you made it easier and because I now understand the properties of chocolate! Im planning to make chocolate candies, so glad I found your page.. Thank you very much!


AmberLee February 28, 2013 at 5:30 am

thanks so much for your sweet note, Audrey! that was so nice of you to take a moment to write. best of luck with your chocolate creations!!


Leslie March 13, 2013 at 11:45 am

Thanks so much for these tips! They are super helpful.
There’s just one problem I’m still running into. If I melt chocolate and dip something into, after the chocolate hardens in the freezer and I take them out, the chocolate gets soft. It doesn’t stay hard. Prime example is Oreo truffles. Just Oreos and cream cheese blended and rolled into balls and dipped in white chocolate. But for some reason my chocolate is always soft. What am I doing wrong? I am using chocolate chips. Could that be it?


Moises March 16, 2013 at 7:09 pm

Great information here, im was looking for information on selecting good quality dark chocolate so i can include it in my diet and came accross this website. I havent seen scheffer berger chocolates sold in Australia but ill have to purchase them overseas, read a bit about the company and they sound like a great brand. Wikipedia suggests the founder started the business because of his research of dark chocolate reducing cancer which ill have to research

Great stuff!


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