Cacao percentages: the dish on chocolate!

The days of cooking with chocolate squares are over. Today, grocery and specialty store shelves are filled with a variety of chocolate, all proudly displaying its country of origin, the plantation and especially the cacao percentage. What about the percentage? Is chocolate with 85% cacao better than chocolate with 55%? Here’s what we have learned from experience!

Understanding the percentages

All dark chocolate is made from cacao paste, to which the following ingredients are added in varying amounts: sugar, cocoa butter (to make the chocolate smoother), cacao (to intensify the flavour), vanilla and lecithin. The texture, smoothness, taste and flavour profile of chocolate depends not only on this mix of ingredients, but also on the type of bean, its origin and the manufacturing process used.

Contrary to what some may believe, the cacao percentage listed on the package does not only refer to the concentration of cocoa powder. Instead, it is derived from the sum of three cacao bean products used in the manufacture of chocolate:

  • cacao paste: the “mass” obtained by grinding the nibs of roasted cacao beans;
  • cocoa butter: the ivory-coloured fat extracted from cacao paste;
  • cocoa powder: obtained by pulverizing the solid mass remaining after the extraction of the cocoa butter.

It’s impossible to know the exact amount of each of these three elements by reading the list of ingredients — professional secrecy required! You can, however, deduce the amount of cocoa butter by checking the amount of fat indicated on the Nutrition Facts table (see our table). With regard to sugar, it’s easy: in the case of dark chocolate, the percentage left over is almost entirely made up of sugar (vanilla and lecithin represent just 1% of the weight of chocolate). So, dark chocolate with 85% cacao contains around 15% sugar (1 tbsp. per 100 g of chocolate) while dark chocolate with 50% cacao contains around 50% sugar (nearly 1/4 cup per 100 g of chocolate).

Fat and sugar content in dark chocolate

Here are the amounts of cocoa butter (fat) and sugar in chocolate baking squares and fine chocolate, according to their cacao percentage. Note that as the percentage of cacao increases, the amount of sugar decreases and the amount of fat increases. This is why you do not always get the same result when replacing one chocolate with another.

Type of chocolat - Fat (g/100g) - Sugar (g/100g) 

Chocolate baking squares (such as Baker’s)

  • semi-sweet (57% cacao) - 32g - 46g
  • bittersweet (67% cacao) - 39g - 35g
  • unsweetened (100% cacao) - 53g - 0g

Fine chocolate in tablets (such as Lindt Excellence)

  • 50% cacao - 37g - 50g
  • 70% cacao - 40g - 27g
  • 85% cacao - 47g - 13g
  • 90% cacao - 50g - 10g
  • 99% cacao - 50g - 1g

Temper the chocolate well

Why? Tempering chocolate is an essential step in obtaining a finished product that is evenly darkened. To temper chocolate, you have to heat it, cool it and reheat it, following a precise temperature curve. This step ensures that no faint, white lines remain on the surface of the chocolate. Unattractive, yes, but harmless to our health.

How? A simple way to achieve perfectly tempered chocolate is to melt drops (or chopped chocolate) in a bain-marie, stirring frequently until the chocolate is half melted. Remove the bowl from the bain-marie and stir the mixture until the chocolate is completely melted (this may take a few minutes). When you use a bain-marie, make sure water (or water vapour) does not come into contact with the chocolate. If this happens, the chocolate will seize.

It is interesting to know that popular chocolate baking squares (such as Baker's) contain between 57% (semi-sweet chocolate) and 67% (bittersweet chocolate) of cacao products.


The importance of cacao percentages in cooking

What would happen if you replaced semi-sweet squares in a recipe with a fine chocolate that has a higher cacao percentage? The result would certainly be less sweet and have more of a chocolate taste. Why? As the cacao percentage increases, the chocolate contains less sugar, but more powder and cocoa butter. Cocoa powder is a solid material that may absorb liquid from a recipe and make it drier, while cocoa butter may make the recipe too greasy. To get to the bottom of this, we conducted an experiment.

Semi-sweet chocolate: We made a ganache recipe found on the website. The recipe called for semi-sweet chocolate baking squares (57% cacao). It was smooth and creamy, as it should be.

Chocolate with 85% cacao: We made the same recipe, this time using chocolate with 85% cacao. The ganache had an oily appearance and a grainy texture. It also fell apart.

What happened?

Have you ever added too much oil to mayonnaise and it takes on a ‘split’ appearance? This is exactly what happened to our ganache. Like mayonnaise, ganache is an emulsion where cocoa butter is dispersed as fine droplets in the cream’s ‘aqueous phase’ (water). In this case, the surplus of cocoa butter in the chocolate with 85% cacao disturbed the delicate balance between liquid and fat, thus breaking the emulsion. In addition, cocoa powder absorbed the liquid, making the ganache doughy. When a chocolate maker creates a ganache recipe, he or she notes a chocolate’s cacao percentage… the higher the percentage, the more cream or liquid must be added to ensure proper emulsion. This is why it is better not to play around with the type of chocolate indicated in the recipe.

Keep in mind…

The team at Ricardo magazine normally uses chocolate containing between 57% and 67% cacao products in the recipes they make. If you decide to opt for a finer dark chocolate, choose a variety whose cacao percentage does not exceed 67%. If a recipe specifies the cacao percentage to use, you can make it with your brand of choice, as long as it contains the same cacao percentage.

Christina Blais

For Christina Blais, explaining food chemistry to the masses is as simple as making a good omelet. Holding a Bachelor and Master degree in Nutrition, she has been a part-time lecturer for over 30 years in the Department of Nutrition at the Université de Montréal, where she teaches food science courses. She has been sharing the fruits of her experience with Ricardo since 2001, during his daily show broadcast on ICI Radio-Canada Télé. And diehards can also read her Food Chemistry on our website. You can follow her on Facebook at @Encuisineavecchristinablais.