With more varieties than ever before, your grocery store’s chocolate aisle can be overwhelming. Here’s how to come home with the right stuff.

In the mood for chocolate? Who isn't, these days? But with the explosion of delicious variations in chocolate, it can be hard to know exactly what to buy in the grocery aisle for your recipe. Picture it: You used to have just unsweetened, semi-sweet, milk, and white. Now you now might face a range of products that could include bittersweet, extra dark, au lait, caramelized, or blonde, or might just be ranked by a percentage of cocoa solids. So, when your recipe calls for "chocolate chips" or "chopped chocolate" without any other guidance, how are you supposed to choose? Here's your go-to guide to deciphering the chocolate aisle.

First, a word about eating chocolate versus cooking chocolate

First off, there is eating chocolate and cooking chocolate. You can absolutely eat baking chocolates (if they're sweet enough): We all snack on those bonus chips that "fall" out of the bag when we are measuring, but it is often not quite as refined as chocolate that is already designed for eating out of hand. If you're looking for chocolates to serve as is, hit the candy aisle and not the baking aisle for your best options.

What do cocoa solids mean?

Next, in a day and age when some folks are developing recipes that specify a certain percentage of cocoa solids, knowing what the percentages mean can be very useful. The higher the cocoa percentage, the darker and more bitter the chocolate. Unsweetened chocolate is 100% and white is at the other end in the 20-34% range. Every other variety lies between those two.

Baking Chocolate
Credit: Getty / nerudol

What to use if your recipe calls for "baking" chocolate

If your recipe calls for "baking" chocolate, you want unsweetened. This chocolate has no added sugar, and the sugar in your recipe will adjust for that, so this is one that should not be swapped out for anything else. The words you are looking for on packages will be "Baking, Unsweetened or 100%."

What to use if your recipe calls for "semi-sweet" chocolate

If your recipe calls for "semi-sweet" you are looking for a percentage in the 45-60% range. If you prefer darker chocolates, go for a higher number; if you prefer more of a Nestle Toll House flavor, go for the lower end of the range. Recipes that call for semi-sweet can often stand up to even darker chocolates, so feel free to experiment up the range, but be careful about going sweeter. Milk and white chocolates are much sweeter than darker ones, and usually recipes that specify a darker style of chocolate have more sugar in them, and if you add a sweeter chocolate, you risk throwing off the balance and getting a dessert that is cloying.

What to use if your recipe calls for "dark" chocolate

If your recipe calls for "dark" you are likely looking for something in the 60-75% range, or words like "bittersweet." These chocolates often have more complex flavors, fruity or spicy notes, and are wonderful for balancing dishes, especially if you prefer your desserts not too sweet. They are especially great in mousses, ice creams, and custards, where they are balanced by the dairy to provide depth and elegance.

What to use if your recipe calls for "milk" chocolate

Milk chocolate is creamier and sweeter than the darker chocolates, usually in the 35-40% range, and can sometimes be referred to as "au lait" (French for "with milk"). Use these when the recipe specifically calls for milk chocolate, or in recipes where you might want a pop of creamy sweetness or recipes that are for kids.

What to use if your recipe calls for "white" chocolate

White chocolate has cocoa butter but no cocoa solids, which is what gives it the creamy color and mild flavor. White chocolate can be a wonderful ingredient but has the most possible pitfalls of any chocolate. First of all, be sure you are buying actual white chocolate and not "white covering," which has no cocoa butter in it at all. You want cocoa butter in the ingredient list, and buy the highest quality you can find, or you risk chocolate that is greasy, waxy, or overly sweet. Look for names like Valrhona, Callebaut, Guittard, or Ghiradelli. The chocolate might be labeled white, blonde, or even caramelized, which is white chocolate that has been cooked until the sugars caramelize, giving it an amber hue and deep caramel flavor. As with milk chocolate, be careful using it in recipes that do not call for it, for both the sweetness level and flavor profile.