When Cheap Chocolate Rules

That’s almost all of the time in my opinion. Expensive bar chocolate, to me, is the purview of candy lovers, not bakers. For bakers, chocolate is frequently just one component among many in a recipe, one that needs to be balanced against all the others. A sterling “grand cru” chocolate will be a hopeless distraction atop a doughnut, for example, and the doughnut will only undermine the qualities of the expensive chocolate. Sort of like washing a mouthful tandoori chicken down with a big gulp of Henri Jayer Richebourg — everybody loses.

A cheap chocolate — in fact the cheapest possible “chocolate flavored coating” — is what you want to blanket things like doughnuts and cookies. I might use something slightly better for dipping, say, the top an éclair, but then again maybe not. Cheap chocolate not only delivers a subtle chocolate flavor and texture that blends in well with baked (or fried) things, it also won’t give you those ugly gray-white streaks when it firms again. Nope, there’s no shame in the cheap stuff when it comes to baking. In fact it frequently makes baked goods better.

53 thoughts on “When Cheap Chocolate Rules”

  1. For dipping, I’m totally with you. I actually think the super-sweet taste of melting chips (like Wilton or CandiQuik) works really well on rice krispie treats, donuts, and dipped cookies. But when it comes to being an actual ingredient – like in brownies, chocolate chip cookies, etc. – I think high quality chocolate makes a big difference. That’s the chocolate-lover in me talking, I’m sure, but it’s like most things – if you’re into it, you can taste the difference (Godiva white chocolate v. Nestle white chocolate morsels, for example), and if you’re not, you probably don’t.

    For the same reason, I don’t eat milk chocolate. I can’t taste the actual chocolate under the milk, you know?

    1. I use the cheapest possible stuff for just about everything. For tempering I need something with more cocoa butter in it, so that’s an exception. Also I’ll buy good stuff for a flourless chocolate cake since it’s the star ingredient. But for brownies, cookies and such it’s Nestle and Hershey’s all the way! 😉

      – Joe

  2. I so agree! Once I decided to use a good-quality chocolate for a chocolate cake I’d done million times and the result had been superb every time, except that time: the batter ended up grainy, not smooth and the baked result was like burned saw-dust.

    1. Great point! Things like that happen when you go upscale with something that’s formulated for inexpensive ingredients. Best to stay cheap unless you absolutely can’t avoid it! 😉

      – Joe

  3. Joe, sounds like you are cheap AND easy. LOL I kind of go both ways. For the most part I use better cocoas and chocolates more for quality control than not. Some of them like Hershey’s now taste like soap to me. Maybe it doesn’t make a difference but I also don’t go for the high grade stuff either. Somewhere in the middle. Kinda like they say with wine you cook with…it should be something you’d drink. I feel the same about the chocolate. If I didn’t think I could eat it or that the quality control isn’t there…I go up a notch.

    1. Fair enough, Linda! I’m not saying you should use the very cheapest stuff in all circumstances, I think the middling approach is an excellent idea.


      – Joe

  4. French pedant here. Noooooo! Nice (not ultra-fancy) bittersweet chocolate is so so much better for chocolate chips in cookies, and for ganache-style frosting/icing. There. Feeling better.

    And many thanks for all the brilliant recipes.

    Happy Christmas!

    1. Every party needs at least one of those, Julie! 😉

      And you’re right about ganache, you need decent quality there. Good point.

      – Joe

    2. I totally agree, Julie B. A strong French/European background here, too.

      An American queen of chocolate, Alice Medrich, is on our side.

      Here are excerpts from a recent article whose conclusions I totally agree with.

      Alice Medrich’s 5 Essential Tips for Working with Chocolate

      1. Taste around.

      2. Understand percentages.
      When it comes to baking the different percentages behave differently. Higher percentage chocolates can add dryness since they don’t have enough sugar and sugar adds moisture. It can create a dry, crumbly textures or a mousse that is grainy or sauces that break. So it’s not just about flavor. It’s about the composition of the bar. Don’t always assume that the higher percentage chocolate is the best chocolate to use in a recipe!

      3. Use the 60% rule.
      So what do you do if you have a recipe that doesn’t specify the percentage of chocolate? “Many of our favorite older recipe don’t specify percentage. They probably just say bittersweet or semisweet. In that case, your safest bet is to use 60% chocolate. This is true of any recipe that doesn’t state the percentage: stick with the 60%. There’s no problem if it calls for unsweetened — just go for that 99% or 100%. and of course, if the recipe calls for a percentage be sure to follow it!

      4. Never melt chocolate chips for a recipe. Do know how to chop and melt chocolate.
      “People should never ever use chocolate chips in a recipe that doesn’t call for them. They’re not made for melting and blending in a batter. They’re usually a little too sweet and they’re formatted so they hold a shape, their viscosity is higher — they just don’t handle the same way, so don’t use them!”

      5. The more distinctive the chocolate, the simpler the recipe.
      “If you want to taste what’s distinctive about the nicer bars of chocolate, use a less complicated recipe. Not too much sugar, not too much fat, not too much egg. You want to highlight the chocolate. Chocolate soufflé is an excellent choice for highlighting a great chocolate.”


      1. You nerds knock yourselves out. Speaking for myself, unless I absolutely can’t achieve a specific result with the garden-variety stuff, I shall continue to use and enjoy it.

        Continentals…I tell you…

        1. lol. i thought you prided yourself on being a “nerd”, whence all the posts on science and history.

          actually, if you have access to a restaurant depot, you can get 11 lb bars of callebaut for $3/lb–which is about what you pay for a pound of nestle’s or hershey’s ersatz products at retail.

          and if you do use chips, they sell ghirardelli for about $2/lb, which is much cheaper still. and as far as i know ghirardelli still sticks with cocoa butter and doesn’t go the way of hershey and nestle using pgpr to cut costs and quality.


          i’m sort of surprised you don’t appreciate the difference.

          1. Oh there’s no question I’m a nerd, it’s just fun to call other people that. All that chocolate information is very good to know…thank you.

            And I definitely do appreciate the difference — I just don’t think it matters most of the time. 😉 PGPR can be a very handy thing in the right circumstances (see the latest post!).

            I’m enjoying getting to know you, Ascanius!

            – Joe

      1. Yes! I’ve already made the first batch. I used some Sharfenberger that I had and to tell the truth, I didn’t find it so superior in flavor that I would go over my budget to use it exclusively. Fudge will tell on the chocolate so I wouldn’t dismiss what you use entirely but if you haven’t mastered making fudge, use Hershey’s or Baker’s until you get more sure of your technique.

        1. That’s good advice Susan, and really gets to the heart of why I prefer cheaper chocolate for so many things: it’s freeing and permit experimentation. The better you get, the bigger the payoff for higher end ingredients. I’ll. et your fudge rocks!

          – Joe

  5. I’m sorry, NO! Maybe a crumby donut, maybe some cheap cookie but when I go to the trouble of using real butter, real extracts, the best nuts and all that, I am not topping it with some brown sludge with the thought that nobody will notice. I can tell the difference. The mouth feel alone makes it worthwhile. I certainly would not go for the top shelf imported small batch single source blah blah blah (but then I don’t do that for just eating either) but I’m not going with the store brand either.

    1. I’m sorry…crummy doughnut? I’m going to have to ask you to watch it bub, I don’t go in for that sort of language.

      Again I’m not saying the cheapest possible chocolate for all purposes, there’s a world of chocolate out there to choose from, especially not he commercial level. But my belief is you can generally do more with less.

      Thanks as always, Frankly!

      – Joe

  6. I have had baked goods that use inferior chocolate (those “smooth and melty” fake chocolate items…ick). I take one bite and throw out the item. The inferior chocolate often tastes “chalky” to me. I agree that unless you’re making truffles or some other highly chocolate oriented item, you can get away with several different brands (with differences in flavor and quality, but they are still swapable)…Nestle is tolerable. Hershey’s is ok. Ghiradelli is what I normally use (brownies, cakes, fondant, icings, ganache, etc). Sharffenberger is lovely, but way too expensive to use in anything other than homemade chocolates or chocolate covered candies (ie: chocolate covered caramels, etc) for the typical home cook. Of course, I’ve used Ghiradelli bars (never the chips!) in my truffles too, when I’m making more than 300 at a time (that’s already pretty pricey!).

    1. Hey Ria!

      Ghiradelli is a great middle-of-the-road chocolate that’s great for a lot of different uses. I like it for ganache especially. Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

      1. Hey Ria, not sure if you live near a Trader Joe’s or not but their “pound plus” bar is less than $5/pound and is nearly comparable to Scharffenberger…tempers quite easily, and is Belgian-style (i.e. not full of shortening).

          1. Highly recommend it as well! Where I live, the Pound Plus bars are actually more cost-efficient than the “cheaper” baking bars, but they melt wonderfully as well without much loss of flavor or texture/appearance. I swear by them for baked goods that require a large quantity of chocolate, where the quality of the chocolate matters too.

        1. Amen! I use Pound Plus for everything and keep a few bars of the 72% and 54% (Dark) on hand.

          Since I do the bulk of my shopping at Trader Joe’s and the price is so right, it’s just easy to rely on it.

          Has anyone tried the new seasonal one with ginger, cranberries and almonds? Pretty good! Reminds me of the Chunky candy bars (OK bricks) of my youth all spiffied and yuppied up. I loved Chunkies and think it was a sad day when they disappeared…

        2. Unfortunately, there’s no Trader Joe’s nearby, but I’m sure I can find those bars online and try it out. Thanks for the suggestion!

      2. I really, really like Ghiradelli’s 60% chocolate chips. I put them in a teapot, and my husband and I eat them when we need a quick chocolate fix. I think their bright flavor is quite good just by itself. And I used them all the time in baking.

        However, I don’t particularly care for Nestle or Baker’s. I agree that they can taste chalky or a bit dull (especially compared to the just-as-available Ghiradelli). I like to make hot cocoa with Hershey’s, but I think that’s because it should taste exactly like my childhood memories (and higher fat varieties like Valrhona clump a lot more).

        However, no one should put chocolate on doughnuts – lemon curd is the only acceptable filling.

        1. Ohhhh, lemon curd. I hope to die drowning in a vat of it.

          I like to munch Ghiradelli 60% too, Catherine! Nice to know someone else out there does that. To your comment I’d say that I don’t think Nestle or Baker’s should be judged by the standards of bar chocolate. They’re components, made to be blended with other things. As you’d expect, I’ve never been a big believer in the maxim that you should only cook with wine you’d be wiling to drink (the wines I use for my sauce reductions would also work great for de-greasing my lawn mower engine). There’s a use for everything, even the really cheap stuff. Corner cutting, judiciously done, can be a beautiful thing.

          Have a very Merry Christmas and happy New Year — and thanks for the comment!

          – Joe

          1. I guess I should have included that the brightness I taste in chocolate like Ghiradelli carries over into the finished baked product, and I definitely miss that flavor when I choose something like Baker’s or Nestle for my brownies or chocolate chip cookies. (Although I don’t know that my family and friends do.)

  7. I disagree as well. Particularly with regards to ganache and Dorie Greenspan’s tarte noire. Also, some of the cheap chocolates have too many additives for my liking.

    1. You’re very free to do that, Mark! 😉

      I think that anytime a specific ingredient is the star, it pays to go for quality. Good butter for laminated dough, good chocolate for a flourless. I haven’t tried the tarte noir, but I’m sure it justifies the investment!


      – Joe

  8. Whoa Whoa Whoa Joe. If I am gonna take the time to make your fabulous danish pastry, a pain au chocolat or a chocolate babka (how bout a recipe please?) I am damned if I am gonna use the cheap stuff. The time and effort of these intense recipes are worth the good stuff. Similarly if I make brownies or cookies, (which are considerably easier to make) I am gonna put the best possible choc chips in I can find inside (Callebaut’s are to die for). I mean why else bother???? Life is too short and cheap nasty calories are available everywhere! PS Seasons greetings … have loved every minute of your blog this year.

    1. Well when you put it that way, Rick! 😉

      Still I always think twice before I reach for anything other than Nestle or Baker’s. You’d be surprised how many things on this blog were made with either of those two!

      Thanks for the comment and Merry Christmas to you Rick! It’s been great to have you along for the ride!

      – Joe

  9. Joe, you are a very brave man. I mean this kind of honesty takes real guts. I almost suffered a stroke reading those 2 paragraphs…but now that I have composed myself (after much huffing and puffing), I must say that the best advice would be to follow your nose / palate and buy whatever does it for you. I mean who’s going to argue with his or her palate??? At the risk of stating the obvious, one likes what one likes!!! (P.S. were you sporting a defiantly smug look on your face while typing this post – ah, the joys of being a blogger, eh 😉

    1. Hey OB!

      Hehe…yeah I caught a lot of flak for this one — just check the comment fields! But then I’ve always been a big believer in OK-is-good-enough for most baking and pastry jobs. Ordinary ingredients handled well produce better results than sterling ingredients handled poorly. Starting out as a baker, I was a wreck when a failed project meant I also had to kiss $30 worth of premium ingredients goodbye. Who needs the pressure? I’d rather focus on good technique and all the pleasant surprises it brings.

      Thanks for the — ehem, very generous — comment. Merry Christmas and happy New Year!

      – Joe

      1. Seriously. Fess up, Joe! You just posted this to see how many people were reading amid all the Christmas rush, right? };>

        1. That’s right. Google Analytics be damned. I do this whenever I start to sense my numbers are going down. “Are you people paying attention???”

          Right now I’m nibbling on a 4-ounce, $28 piece of Ecuadoran grand cru and having a good laugh at your expense. This evening I’m going to shave the remainder over some leftover Indian food and wash it all down with shots of Jaegermeister. That’s what I call eatin’!

          1. Hehe…I think you’re pretty OK too, Rick!

            Your friend,

            – Joe

    2. Oh, and to answer your question, no! I was just blogging on my merry way as usual, not really realizing I was stepping out onto train tracks. I’ve done this with vanilla extract, iodized salt…all sorts of things. I just assume people are used to me by now! 😉

      Lots of merries!

      – Joe

  10. Wow.

    I am almost ashamed to admit that I use Bakers brand, because it’s what’s available in my local grocery store…

    1. Own it, Ted! Own it!

      Baker’s works great for a whole lot of things (see tutorials section of this website).


      – Joe

  11. This may be the most controversial post you have made! At least you know people are reading 🙂

    Having read down & see that you include things like Bakers when you speak of lower quality stuff I take back my earlier comment For most stuff those guys are OK. I thought you meant that really cheap stuff that really should just have a wick put in it and use it as a holiday candle.

    1. Ha! I’m going to use that one, Frankly! Though I will use that stuff from time to time! 😉

      – Joe

    2. And I think you’re right that this post has generated more comments and emails than any other. Though I think the imitation vanilla extract one was close.


      – Joe

  12. hoo boy, looks like you’ve stabbed into a vein on this one… I’m afraid I’m dead against you too Joe 😉

    I can buy high quality couverture for the same price as I would get low quality chocolate in the supermarket, there’s no question what I’m going to use!

    Compliments of the season and here’s to another successful year next year 😀 I’ll raise you a glass on Christmas Day 😀

    1. I shall do the same for you, Chris, despite your abandoning me in a desperate hour.

      Have a terrific Down Under Christmas. We read a funny Aussie Night Before Christmas to the girls every year about this time. It’s not Christmas unless they see Santa in a straw hat and Bermuda shorts.


      – Joe

  13. My only issue with extra cheap chocolate…the “bark”type is the hydrogenated fats. I may be using it as a crutch, but I’d prefer to choose my poison…the fats and calories in the rest of delicious chocolate, and leave the hydrogenated out of the mix…

  14. I think we’ve all ignored the most important question of this whole thread: Why don’t you have a recipe for chocolate babka?

    1. Darn good question, Elizabeth! Let me ponder that one a bit….

      May need to be next!

      – Joe

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