Semi-Sweet Vs Bittersweet Chocolate: What's The Difference?

If you want to make a people-pleasing dessert, chocolate is the star ingredient you're looking for. We shave it into ice cream, powder it into our milkshakes, turn it into syrup for our Sundays, and frosting for our cakes. Chocolate, though relatively new to the food scene when compared with ancient eats like butter, has taken the world by storm over the past few centuries and is now our go-to treat.

And though most of us only see chocolate presented to us in a candy wrapper, thanks to a few educational cartoons growing up and our own research, we know that chocolate comes from the cocoa bean which is where we source the cocoa butter and powder we need to create cacao liquor (via Greatist). Sugar and other supplementary ingredients are then added to the cacao liquor to create the chocolate we are familiar with. But as we are all aware, chocolate isn't consistent. Depending on the brand, the percentage of cocoa, and even the type of cocoa used all affect how sweet or dark a batch of chocolate tastes.

What is Semi-Sweet Chocolate?

If you are one of those people that like to swoop down the candy aisle at the supermarket to snatch a chocolate bar, you are probably most familiar with milk chocolate. But what about semi-sweet? Hotel Chocolate describes semi-sweet chocolate as a kind of dark chocolate, but due to the market's variability in flavor and quality, there is no standard for how much sugar is in semi-sweet, though it does commonly often have vanilla added.

If you picked up a bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips from the Hershey's brand and compared it to the higher-end brand Lindt, you'd most likely note a difference in sweetness and in the percentage of cocoa in the chocolate itself. According to Baking Bites, as a general but not steadfast rule, semi-sweet chocolate does not have over 50% sugar and is supposed to be a balance between the natural bitterness of the cocoa, and sugary sweetness. It is the smooth taste of semi-sweet, which makes this style of chocolate easy to use in any recipe. Where milk chocolate can be too sweet, and dark chocolate too heavy, semi-sweet is the perfect in-between to bridge the gap.

What is Bittersweet Chocolate?

As its name suggests, bittersweet chocolate is on the darker side of the flavor sliding scale. Unlike semi-sweet chocolate, bittersweet chocolate is noticeably higher in cocoa percentage -about 70%- with comparatively very little sugar added to curb the natural intensity of the cocoa liquor (via MasterClass). If you've ever bitten into a chunk of bittersweet chocolate, you've probably noticed that it is a bit grittier and less sweet than what you're used to. It probably dried out your mouth a bit as well. But it is hard to mistake bittersweet chocolate for true dark chocolate which is above 75% cocoa. 

Bittersweet chocolate is considered a step up in chocolate intensity from semi-sweet but Fine Cooking tells us that it can be difficult to differentiate them at times because chocolate brands on the market can list semisweet and bittersweet chocolates anywhere between 54% to more than 70% cacao. This means that a semi-sweet chocolate bar from one brand may have the same intensity as a bittersweet chocolate bar from another and vice versa.

Can they substitute for one another?

Because of this vast lack of standardization when it comes to cocoa percentage and labeling chocolates semi-sweet and bittersweet, they can often be used interchangeably in recipes. Though bittersweet chocolate should traditionally have a darker flavor than semi-sweet, you must double-check your chocolate brands and compare cocoa percentages. Oftentimes a modern recipe will call for a chocolate with a preferred percentage of cocoa rather than a style of chocolate. 

Additionally, if you are substituting bittersweet for semisweet or the other way around, you should simply change the amount you'll add. But if you are working with an older recipe that doesn't list a specific percentage, Lazar's Chocolate advises that when you replace bittersweet with semisweet, you should combine semi-sweet chocolate with cocoa powder to give it that characteristic bitter note, and if you need bittersweet chocolate, but only have semi-sweet, reduce the amount of sugar in the recipe. While substituting these chocolates for one another we encourage you to taste the recipe as you go to make sure you don't over or underdo it. Mix and match to your preference, and at the end of the day enjoy your chocolatey treat!