semi-sweet chocolate

What percent cocoa is semi-sweet chocolate? Based on my googling, it seems to be around 35%

  • Posted by: ATG117
  • April 29, 2012


ChefOno April 30, 2012

With all due respect, I feel compelled to clarify a few things:

USDA labeling requirements for chocolate are no different than for any other product -- every ingredient is listed, no difference between bars and chips (except chips have a higher melting point but that's a different issue).

The percentage of cocoa listed refers to the total percentage by weight of cocoa solids and cocoa butter combined, i.e. the ingredients derived from cocoa beans. The remaining weight will be the other ingredients listed, e.g. sugar, dairy, emulsifiers and flavorings (typically vanilla). Low quality chocolate will include other fats (palm kernel oil, etc.)

The only thing these percentages don't tell you is the proportion of cocoa butter to cocoa solids. You can, however, refer to the nutritional label and make an educated guess. All other things being equal, the bar with the higher fat content will be the one with more cocoa butter, usually a good thing as it contributes to both flavor and mouthfeel. This will also typically be the more expensive chocolate, not because of fillers, but because cocoa fat is more valuable than cocoa solids.

You can prove this to yourself by reading the label on any package of chocolate or refer to this link:

ATG117 April 30, 2012
Thanks! I meant to write cacao, but I appreciate this thorough explanation. My experience with different chocolates of the same percentage (at least within the same price range and presumably the same quality level) now makes a lot more aense
Shuna L. April 30, 2012
Sorry, one more thing: there's no such thing as a "measurement of cocoa" in chocolate. The 70 in 70% refers to cacao solids or chocolate liquor (not a spirit, just the nomenclature). Cocoa is chocolate without the cocoa butter. But, again, that 70 can be very misleading because even a "high percentage" chocolate can be of lesser quality than a lower percentage-- if the beans or method or added stabilizers are low grade. A Hershey's 70% is not the same as a Callebaut 70% is not the same as a Michel Cluizel 70%.
Shuna L. April 30, 2012
"Semi-Sweet" is an incorrect American term for chocolate. If a chocolate lists 70% it means it's 30% sugar-- that's all. Percentages on chocolate can refer to the amount of sugar, only. Ten 70% chocolate bars will taste different because 1. Chocolate manufacturers choose different beans, roasting times and methods for their bars. "Semisweet" chocolate usually refers to chocolate chips, which open another can of worms because chocolate chip makers are not required by law to list what else, and in what percentages, they put in there besides chocolate and sugar.
All that said, when I need "semi sweet chocolate" and I don't want to use Nestle's choc chips, I go for chocolates in the 62-68 range. I love the TCHO 68% for cookies and Valrhona for baking. The less expensive your chocolate the more non-chocolate fillers (that are not listed) will be in there.
Chocolate is tricky, to say the least. Alice Medrich spells out a lot of chocolate issues/conversions/substitutions in her book Bittersweet, which I refer to when I need plain language explanations.
For buttercream it's important that the sweeter your chocolate, the less granulated sugar you will want in your initial emulsion. I use salt and vanilla extract to balance chocolate buttercream.
ChefOno April 30, 2012

Circular logic warning: Read this twice.

Since you asked for opinions, here’s mine: You're overthinking this. Pick the chocolate that tastes best to you and add a little sugar if the resulting frosting is not to your liking.

FWIW, I think of 60% as bittersweet / semisweet, give or take about 10 points.

Now for the food science lesson and the reason there are no strict standards: Cacao percentage does not necessarily relate to the sweetness of the chocolate. The beans have / can be processed to have different levels of bitterness. In other words, one brand of 60% might be sweeter than another's 50%.

ATG117 April 30, 2012
Any thoughts? It's for a buttercream frosting, and I'm going to get it under way this evening. Thanks!
HalfPint April 30, 2012
Use the 50% bittersweet Ritter bars. Not need to attempt the math that the Lindt chocolate would require ;)

Personally, I like a darker chocolate for frosting since you'll be adding a lot of sugar in addition to the chocolate. Milk chocolate might be too sweet for a buttercream frosting. Though my favorite chocolate frosting recipe uses milk choc and I prefer it that way, but it's not a buttercream.
ATG117 April 30, 2012
So I have two options based on what I have on hand, and I think I am going to aim for a 50% range, which is what it appears callebaut semi-sweet comes in at. I need 6 oz, so I can use a Lindt 3 oz bar of 70% one Lindt milk chocolate bar (at about 30%), or I have two ritter bars labeled bitersweet 50%.
Greenstuff April 29, 2012
Guittard is 61% cacao for their semi-sweet and 72% for their bittersweet, 38% for their milk. U.S. standards just aren't that much help. i'm really glad that so many producers have started to define their products by the percent cacao. It's another story, but I really wish the dairy industry would to the same for not just milk, but also cream.
ATG117 April 29, 2012
Thanks. I initially thought it would be a lot higher too because I've had milk chocolates at 50% (like Green and Black). Now I'm even more curious as to what others think. Ghiradelli's site does say there's is between 35-45, though granted I find theirs too fruity.
Greenstuff April 29, 2012
As far as I know there are no official percentages and your estimate is perfectly legal. But in my kitchen, 35% would be really really low for something I called semi-sweet. Scharfffen Berger lists its semi-sweet at 62% and its bittersweet at 70%. And even their milk chocolate is 41%.
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