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Unsweetened Chocolate

Published January 2019

How we tested

Anyone who has eaten a piece of a baking bar knows that while unsweetened chocolate may look like candy, it's definitely not. But in fact, unsweetened baking bars—more than any other kind of chocolate—most closely resemble how chocolate has been consumed for the better part of its 3,500-year history. But it wasn't until 1847 that a British chocolate company called J. S. Fry & Sons began pressing chocolate and sugar into bars, making the very first “eating chocolate.” It would be another 30 years before other innovations—such as adding milk powder and other ingredients to reduce bitterness and using a method called conching to give chocolate a smoother texture—would result in the sweet chocolate candy we know today.

Perhaps the purest form of chocolate sold in supermarkets, unsweetened chocolate is typically made from 100 percent fermented and roasted cacao nibs that have been ground into a paste, melted, and solidified into a bar. While dark chocolate can have a cacao content as high as 85 percent, it still contains just enough sugar to make it palatable when eaten out of hand, whereas unsweetened chocolate contains no sugar or dairy—just processed cacao beans.

The Differences Between Unsweetened Chocolate and Cocoa Powder

We rely on unsweetened chocolate to pack in rich chocolate flavor while keeping sweetness in check. Though unsweetened chocolate has similar uses to cocoa powder, it differs in that it still has all the cocoa butter (fat) that is naturally in the cacao bean; cocoa powder has been mostly defatted and often undergoes a process called “Dutching” that changes the acidity of the chocolate. We choose unsweetened chocolate for baked goods such as brownies, chocolate volcano cake, and chocolate chess pie, in which the extra fat contributes to the fudgy, dense texture we're looking for.

We've long stocked Hershey's Kitchens Unsweetened Chocolate Baking Bar in the test kitchen, but in the years since we named it our favorite, it has become increasingly difficult to find. The manufacturer reports that this product is now sold in only 20 states (though it can be purchased online). Is there another unsweetened chocolate out there that's just as good (or even better) and more widely available?

Comparing Unsweetened Chocolate Bars

We rounded up five unsweetened chocolates—four nationally available products plus Hershey's—priced from $0.62 to $1.35 per ounce. Though we like to taste products in their plainest form, after a quick, ill-advised flirtation with plain unsweetened chocolate, we knew we needed at least a little sugar in the mix to take off the bitter edge. We settled on blind tastings of our One-Minute Hot Fudge Sauce—a very simple recipe of unsweetened chocolate and sweetened condensed milk—and our Classic Brownies.

In the sauce, our panel picked up on subtle differences in flavor. Some samples were rich and sweet, “like a superthick hot cocoa” or “melted candy.” Others were slightly bitter, with a hint of tang. One sauce, made with Scharffen Berger Unsweetened Dark Chocolate Baking Bar, was so acidic that it was almost sour, with fruity and tropical notes of banana and citrus. Flavor differences were also apparent when we tried the chocolates in brownies; our favorites had “classic,” “familiar” mellowness, with rounded warm spice notes and no overly bitter or sour flavors. While some tasters thought a hint of bitterness or tropical flavor added nuance to brownies, many found the fruity, sour notes in the brownies made with the Scharffen Berger chocolate to be too unusual.

The textures of the sauces and brownies, on the other hand, hardly varied at all. A few tasters picked up on a slight chalkiness in some of the samples of hot fudge sauce, but they didn't deem any of the sauces objectionable. All the brownies were noted as being perfectly fudgy and chewy.

A Chocolate's Flavor Depends On Many Variables

To determine why we liked what we did, we started by looking at nutritional labels, but they revealed few clues. All the products had similar amounts of fat, protein, and carbohydrates.

Chocolate's flavor can vary depending on a number of factors, including the variety of cacao bean used and where the beans were grown. We asked manufacturers to share information on the variety, origin, and fat content of the cacao beans they use, but most were tight-lipped. The manufacturer of our winning product told us that it uses a blend of bean varieties with varying origins to produce its desired flavor profile, but it wouldn't reveal more specific details.

While Scharffen Berger wouldn't tell us anything about its cacao beans or processing methods, our tasters have noted “fruity” and “acidic” flavors in previous tastings of Scharffen Berger's other chocolate products, including its milk chocolate bar, dark chocolate chips, and cocoa powder. It's likely that Scharffen Berger's overly tropical, sour flavors come from the unique blend of cacao beans the company uses and the way it roasts the beans. We also noticed that the Scharffen Berger chocolate's ingredient list included vanilla beans, while every other product in our lineup was made from only processed cacao beans. Since vanilla is a flavor potentiator, it's possible that the vanilla beans enhanced the tropical notes some tasters disliked in this product.

Our Favorite Baking Chocolate Is Steeped in American History

While we still like Hershey's, our new favorite unsweetened chocolate is Baker's Unsweetened Baking Chocolate Bar 100% ($0.75 per ounce). The first chocolate producer in the United States, Baker's started making chocolate in 1765—long before chocolate was ever sold sweetened—in Boston, Massachusetts. This chocolate was “familiar” and “classic” to our tasters, and it made brownies and a hot fudge sauce that were “perfectly balanced,” with just a “hint of bitterness” and “full fudgy flavor.”

Methodology

Twenty-one test kitchen staffers sampled five unsweetened chocolates, priced from $0.62 to $1.35 per ounce, in our One-Minute Hot Fudge Sauce and Classic Brownies. Ingredients are listed as they appear on product labels. Fat and cocoa solid percentages were provided by manufacturers. Results were averaged, and products appear below in order of preference.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*