Don't be fooled by price tags, fancy labels, or country of origin when buying chocolate for cooking. Our results surprised us.

Selecting chocolate―with percentages of cacao, country-of-origin labels, or organic designations―is about as confusing as choosing a good German wine. And if you’re looking for chocolate that performs well in baking, the ante is upped again. Because of labeling laws, any chocolate with at least 35 percent cacao―the portion of weight contributed by the cacao bean, such as cocoa powder and cocoa butter―can be bittersweet, semisweet, or dark. We evaluated chocolates with a cacao percentage between 52 and 62 percent, and the results were surprising. Some had waxy textures and thin flavor, while one was campfire smoky. Here are the standouts.

OUR TOP PICK: E. Guittard Tsaratana Semisweet Chocolate (61% cacao)
Price: $2.50 (2.9 ounces)
Testers said: This option is sour and bitter, balanced by nice sweetness and a creamy mouthfeel. Raters noted its smooth cocoa flavor in the brownie. Bars easily break into 1-ounce portions, and they chop with little effort because they’re on the thin side. Use in a chocolate soufflé, ganache, chocolate pudding, or fondue.

GREAT VALUE: Baker’s Semi-Sweet Baking Bars (54% cacao)
Price: $3 (8 ounces)
Testers said: We loved this choice for its rich, good, clean chocolate flavor; smooth mouthfeel; and nice, dry finish. The brownies were rich and full-flavored. This slightly less-nuanced chocolate would be dependable in brownies, chocolate chunk cookies, chocolate cake, s’mores, mole sauce, or ice cream.

SPLURGE WORTHY: Valrhona 61% Dark Chocolate
Price: $11 (8.8 ounces)
Testers said: Raters enjoyed this chocolate’s round, bright, intense flavor that gives way to a pleasing dryness on the palate. We liked the brownie, too, but save this choice for baking applications where the premium quality shines through, as in a chocolate soufflé with chocolate sauce, gourmet hot chocolate, or truffles.

From the Test Kitchen: Tips for working with chocolate 

  1. Keep it real. In our recipes―and on our palates―small amounts of genuine chocolate always trump fat-free or sugar-free substitutes.
  2. Choose Wisely. To obtain optimal flavor and texture for baking, don’t use chocolates higher than 62 percent cacao for recipes calling for semisweet chocolate; results could be dry, chalky, or bitter.
  3. Watch the bloom. A gray, dusty coating known as “bloom” may develop on chocolate stored in warm or humid conditions. It doesn’t always affect quality, but taste your chocolate before baking.
  4. Bake with care. Check a chocolate dessert 5 minutes before the recipe directs because oven temperatures can vary, and low-fat baked goods dry out easily.

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HOW WE TEST

Method: We held a blind tasting of 10 room-temperature chocolates. To see how the samples fared in baking applications, brownies were made from and served with each chocolate sample. Seven food editors and chefs rated.

Nutritional considerations: A higher cacao percentage means more cacao bean elements (cocoa butter, cocoa powder, cocoa liquor) per ounce. But the amount of fat varies from chocolate to chocolate, even if the cacao percentage is the same: The balance of cacao elements is key to the crafting of chocolate. Sugar supplies the remaining portion of the candy’s weight, with a fraction of that from vanilla and emulsifiers. These chocolates range from 140 to 163 ­calories and 2.5 to 6 grams saturated fat.