Perhaps no dessert (or dessert ingredient) is quite as diverse as chocolate. In all its different varieties — dark, milk, white — to its varying degrees of sweetness — unsweetened, semisweet, bittersweet — this decadent ingredient proves delicious in many forms, while adding a bit of depth, richness to sweet and savory dishes alike.

Different types of chocolate don’t just provide different levels of sweetness and chocolate flavor, but have different properties that can make or break a dessert’s texture. If you’re venturing into the kitchen to try your hand at chocolate, here’s what you need to know.

Origins

All real chocolate comes from the cacao bean, the fruit of the tropical Theobroma cacao tree. Chocolate is made from roasted, pulverized cacao beans, which are then combined with sugar and in some cases vanilla, milk and other ingredients. Much of the chocolate’s quality will depend on the origin and quality of the beans used. Based on the percentage of cacao, the chocolate is labeled unsweetened, bittersweet or semisweet.

For Baking

Chocolate for baking is most commonly found in squares, bars and/or blocks. Bars are the most versatile, are convenient to store, and can be easily chopped into smaller pieces for melting, folding into dough, etc. For anything that requires melted chocolate — frostings, glazes, dips, etc. — small, disc-shaped chocolate wafers are ideal. They’re frequently available in bittersweet, semisweet, milk and white varieties, and are great if you’re in a hurry. Chocolate chips are, of course, iconic in cookies as well as breads, brownies and anything you want to add a hint of chocolate flavor to. Some recipes — namely cake-like treats and brownies — may call for cocoa powder, which can also be used in lieu of flour to coat pans before adding batter. Ounce for ounce, cocoa powder packs more chocolate flavor than any other form of chocolate, so if you’re looking for big chocolate flavor or to control sweetness, cocoa powder is a safe bet.

If a recipe calls for a specific cacao/chocolate percentage, stick to it. If not, don’t choose one higher than 75 percent cacao; otherwise, there may not be enough sugar in the recipe to produce the ideal finished texture.

Storage

Dark chocolate has a longer shelf life than other chocolates and can usually retain its flavor for longer. White and milk chocolate should only be kept in storage for a year or less.

Store chocolate in a cool, dry place. It will keep for a year at room temperature, if kept below 70°F. Keep it airtight by wrapping it in a few layers of plastic wrap, and also be sure to store it away from strong-smelling foods, as it can absorb strong aromas. Though not necessary, you can store chocolate in the refrigerator or freezer, if you desire. If you do chill your chocolate, again, keep it airtight and when you decide to use it, bring it to room temperature while still wrapped to prevent condensation from forming, as any water on the chocolate can interfere with its ability to melt smoothly.

Types of Chocolate

Bittersweet & Semisweet. With its strong chocolate flavor and smooth texture, bittersweet and semisweet chocolate is great for most baked goods and desserts and for dipping and coating. The two are often used interchangeably (though semisweet does offer a slightly sweeter result) and are ideal for recipes where chocolate is the star of the dish.

Milk Chocolate. Milk chocolate is used less widely in baking than semi- or bittersweet chocolate, and is more commonly used for “out of hand” eating in treats like candy bars, chocolate squares, etc. With only 10 percent cacao required, milk chocolate can taste more milky than chocolaty. Milk fat, along with cocoa butter, gives it its ultra creamy texture.

White Chocolate. There’s no cacao in white chocolate — just cocoa butter, milk and sugar — so it isn’t technically classified as chocolate. While its super-sweet flavor can be polarizing to some, it’s that sweetness that gives it the ability to balance out salty or bitter flavors.

Unsweetened. Unsweetened chocolate contains no sugar and so is about 99 percent pure chocolate liquor. It’s extremely bitter and cannot be used interchangeably with semisweet or bittersweet chocolate.