Bid bittersweet goodbye. Say so long to semisweet. Instead, shop for chocolate by cocoa percentage, which affects the sweetness, texture and flavor of recipes. Alice Medrich, author of Seriously Bitter Sweet: The Ultimate Dessert Maker's Guide to Chocolate, explains.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: How is our chocolate different today?

Alice Medrich
Alice Medrich

Alice Medrich: We have a lot of chocolates, both domestic and from all over the world, that have more pure chocolate in them and less sugar. That can profoundly affect the recipes that we make with them.

LRK: What do those numbers mean? That's the new thing -- the percentages.

AM: The percentages on the bar are telling us how much of the bar is pure chocolate as opposed to sugar. When I say that, I'm really talking about dark chocolate. Let's put milk chocolate aside for now because there are more complications there. But if you see a bar called dark chocolate, semisweet chocolate or bittersweet chocolate and it has a number on it, that's telling you the percentage of that bar that is pure chocolate.

LRK: The more intense chocolate flavor will be at higher percentages?

AM: Yes, exactly, because they have less sugar. The chocolate is bitter to begin with. If you increase that and decrease the sugar, you're getting quite a bit of extra flavor and bitterness, which can be a very good thing or can be a problematic thing for baking and making desserts.

LRK: This is a time of year when we look at a lot of old family recipes. The big deal now is a 70 percent chocolate -- in a recipe that used to just call for bittersweet, will it be the same?

AM: No, it will not. If you have old recipes from family or things you've been making for dozens and dozens of years that you love, regardless of the fact that they may call for semisweet and bittersweet chocolate, you should look for chocolate with 60 percent or even less cacao percentage. Back in the day when that recipe was published, whether it was in a magazine, a newspaper or in a favorite cookbook, the chocolates that we had available and the chocolates that were used to create these recipes were all under 60 percent cacao.

LRK: They were sweeter?

AM: They were sweeter. That's not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing, but the recipe was perfected with a sweeter chocolate. If you switch to a much less sweet chocolate, you're not just going to get more chocolate flavor, unfortunately you might get some textures that don't work and maybe even too much bitterness. The cacao percentage doesn't just affect sweetness, it profoundly can affect textures and how it feels in your mouth as well as sweetness and flavor.

LRK: If I do want to up the chocolate intensity of that old recipe and I do want to use a 70 percent chocolate instead of a 60 or 50 percent chocolate, what do I need to do?

AM: That puts you into the realm of experimentation. My book deals with that.

LRK: You have formulas, don't you?

AM: I have formulas that put you in the ballpark and help you make those translations. But getting back to your specific question, you would have to use in most recipes less chocolate and maybe adjust the sweetness a little bit. Even if you want a more bittersweet flavor, you often have to adjust a little sweetness, use less chocolate and sometimes you need to increase a little liquid. It's a little more complicated than "here's the how-to." Those percentages mean so much to how the chocolate performs in a recipe. It's better now to shop by percentage and disregard the terms bittersweet and semisweet.

LRK: You took a beloved old recipe, a great French classic, and you threw pastry chefs a real curve. What did you do?

Albert's Mousse
Medrich's recipe: Albert's Mousse

AM: I was interested in all the new kinds of chocolate coming into the market. As I tasted them, I realized that they all had different kinds of flavor profiles. I thought, "If these flavors are going to come through in the recipes that we want to make, what kind of recipes do we need to not bury the distinctive flavors in the chocolate?"

I decided less fat, less cream and less dairy. I ended up with chocolate mousse made with water partly because I wanted to taste all the nuances in the chocolate, partly because my brother was coming over and he is lactose intolerant. It was stunningly good -- the chocolate flavors were very clear, clean and delicious. Then I put whipped cream on top of some of them and not on his.

LRK: You put whipped cream on top of something that's very pure chocolate. The effect is completely different than if you fold the cream into it.

AM: Exactly. I love this comparison -- think about it, what tastes more chocolatey: chocolate ice cream or vanilla ice cream with great chocolate sauce on it? I personally love the contrast that goes on. I think if you take a chocolatey dessert that's not too loaded with butter and cream itself and put whipped cream next to it, you intensify that chocolate flavor because there's this huge and wonderful contrast going on.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper

Lynne Rossetto Kasper has won numerous awards as host of The Splendid Table, including two James Beard Foundation Awards (1998, 2008) for Best National Radio Show on Food, five Clarion Awards (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014) from Women in Communication, and a Gracie Allen Award in 2000 for Best Syndicated Talk Show.