Is Hershey’s Special Dark Dark Chocolate real?

Hershey’s Special Dark chocolate has been a popular candy bar option for decades. With its rich, dark chocolate flavor, Special Dark stands out from milk chocolate and has a unique, intense taste. But some candy aficionados have questioned if Special Dark can really be considered true dark chocolate. Let’s analyze the ingredients, flavor profile, and manufacturing process behind Hershey’s famous candy bar to find out if Special Dark delivers on its dark chocolate promises.

What makes dark chocolate “dark”?

To understand if Special Dark counts as real dark chocolate, we first need to explore what defines dark chocolate in general. Dark chocolate gets its signature flavor mainly from higher cacao content and less sweeteners than milk chocolate. Here are the key criteria that classify dark chocolate:

  • Higher percentage of cacao: Dark chocolate must contain at least 35% cacao, while milk chocolate has around 10-12% cacao.
  • Less or no milk solids: Milk chocolate gets its creamier texture and sweeter flavor from added milk solids like powdered milk. Dark chocolate contains little or no milk solids.
  • Less sugar: Dark chocolate relies more on the natural flavor of cacao and contains less added sugar than milk chocolate. Many dark chocolate products have little to no added sugar.
  • Higher cacao butter content: Quality dark chocolate contains more pure cacao butter from cacao beans. This gives it a richer mouthfeel.

So in summary, authentic dark chocolate will be significantly more cacao-heavy and less sweet than milk chocolate. Keeping these standards in mind, let’s see how Hershey’s Special Dark stacks up.

Analyzing Hershey’s Special Dark ingredients

Here is the listed ingredient breakdown for a Hershey’s Special Dark Chocolate Bar:

  • Sugar
  • Cocoa butter
  • Chocolate
  • Cocoa processed with alkali
  • Milk fat
  • Lactose
  • Soy lecithin
  • PGPR (an emulsifier)
  • Natural and artificial flavor
  • Milk

This blend of ingredients definitely places Special Dark into the dark chocolate range. It contains chocolate liquor, which is pure cacao solids and cocoa butter from cacao beans. The alkalized or “Dutched” cocoa provides a signature dark color and flavor.

Compared to milk chocolate, Special Dark has more cocoa butter, chocolate liquor, and cocoa. It does contain milk ingredients like milk fat and lactose, but at a lower level compared to Hershey’s standard milk chocolate. The addition of soy lecithin also boosts the rich, velvety mouthfeel that high quality dark chocolate is known for.

Overall, while Special Dark features some milk components for creaminess, its predominant ingredients are dark chocolate elements like chocolate liquor and cocoa solids. This aligns with dark chocolate standards.

Cacao percentage – how dark is Hershey’s Special Dark?

The exact cacao percentage of Hershey’s Special Dark is not publicly listed. However, based on the ingredient profile, experts estimate it ranges from 40-50% cacao content. This places is safely within the over 35% cacao minimum to qualify as dark chocolate.

As a comparison, here are cacao percentages for different types of chocolate:

Milk chocolate 10-12% cacao
Dark chocolate 35-99% cacao
Semi-sweet chocolate 35-65% cacao
Hershey’s Special Dark 40-50% cacao (estimated)
Baking chocolate 99% cacao

While it might not contain the 60-80% cacao content of some gourmet dark chocolate, Special Dark has significantly higher cacao than any milk chocolate product. Given its ingredients and estimated 40-50% cacao content, Hershey’s Special Dark meets the criteria for true dark chocolate.

Flavor profile – rich dark chocolate taste?

In addition to technical specifications, Special Dark needs to deliver that signature deep, cocoa-forward dark chocolate flavor. According to reviews, Hershey’s Special Dark has a noticeably darker, bittersweet taste than milk chocolate.

It forgoes the sweeter, creamier milk chocolate experience for a bolder cocoa flavor with some natural bitterness. While the milk components provide a smoothness, Special Dark retains a complex, less sweet profile in line with dark chocolate. It strikes a balance between semi-sweet and bitter taste notes.

When compared to higher percentage artisan dark chocolate, Special Dark may not offer the same intense chocolate punch or complexity. But it’s a major step up in rich cocoa flavor from Hershey’s milk chocolate products. The use of alkalized cocoa particularly boosts the classic dark chocolate taste.

Production process

Hershey’s Special Dark is produced in similar large-scale batches as their milk chocolate brands. However, Hershey’s has noted a few key differences that set their dark chocolate manufacturing apart:

  • Separate machinery: Special Dark is produced on equipment dedicated to dark chocolate to prevent flavor cross-contamination.
  • Sourcing: The cocoa beans for Special Dark are sourced from West Africa to achieve the desired bold, deep chocolate flavor.
  • Alkalization: The chocolate liquor undergoes Dutch processing with alkali to bring out darker, more complex notes.
  • Blending: Hershey’s expert chocolate blenders mix specific amounts of chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, milk ingredients, and sugars to create the Special Dark taste profile.
  • Conching: The Special Dark chocolate is conched for hours to ensure a silky smooth texture.
  • Tempering: Precise temperature controls give Special Dark chocolate its glossy sheen and characteristic “snap” when broken.

Hershey’s mastery of large-scale chocolate manufacturing enables them to produce Special Dark with a balanced dark chocolate flavor. Their focus on sourcing quality cacao and managing the alkalization, conching, and tempering processes allows Special Dark to deliver a truer dark chocolate experience than other mass-market brands.

Does Special Dark satisfy expert dark chocolate standards?

When evaluating among chocolate experts and connoisseurs, Hershey’s Special Dark generally meets the criteria for authentic dark chocolate.

  • Significantly higher in cocoa and cocoa butter compared to milk chocolate.
  • Contains chocolate liquor for pure chocolate flavor.
  • Alkalized cocoa boosts rich dark chocolate taste.
  • Estimated 40-50% cacao content exceeds 35% minimum for dark.
  • Complex bittersweet profile preferred over sweeter milk chocolate.
  • Slight milk content improves texture but doesn’t overwhelm dark notes.

Chocolate expert Clay Gordon has said Special Dark has “sufficient cocoa flavor intensity and depth” to be labeled as dark chocolate. Award winning chocolatier Jacques Torres has agreed it meets the standards of real dark chocolate, even if it is a basic product.

Among American mass-produced chocolate brands, experts confirm Hershey’s Special Dark delivers a legitimate dark chocolate experience.

How Special Dark stacks up to artisan competitors

Hershey’s Special Dark certainly satisfies general dark chocolate qualifications. But how does it compare to luxury competitors when it comes to quality?

Against premium brands like Lindt, Green & Black’s, or Michel Cluizel, Special Dark pales in cacao content and nuanced flavor. But at a fraction of the price, Special Dark offers an affordable, widely available dark chocolate option:

Hershey’s Special Dark 40-50% cacao ~$0.50 per 1.55oz bar
Lindt Excellence Dark Chocolate 70% cacao ~$4 per 3.5oz bar
Green & Black’s Dark Chocolate 70% cacao ~$3 per 3.17oz bar
Michel Cluizel Noir de Cacao 72% cacao ~$9 per 2.75oz bar

Compared to mass-market milk chocolate like original Hershey’s bars or Nestle Crunch, Special Dark is a major step up in cocoa content and pure chocolate flavor. It successfully elevates the average chocolate experience to real dark chocolate territory. Against other processed dark chocolate brands like Dove or Cote d’Or, it’s a top contender for their category.

For those desiring complex, premium dark chocolate, Hershey’s Special Dark won’t satisfy like French or Italian high-end brands. But it undeniably delivers an affordable, quality dark chocolate product to the average consumer.

Is Special Dark suitable for baking?

With its boosted cocoa content and bittersweet profile, Hershey’s Special Dark can work well in recipes calling for dark chocolate. Here are some tips for baking substitutions:

  • Reduce any added sugar in the recipe slightly to account for Special Dark’s natural sweetness.
  • The milk content means you may need to add a touch more dairy or oil for moisture.
  • Ideal for cookies, brownies, cakes, and other treats focused on chocolate flavor.
  • Can be used for ganache or frostings, but may produce a slightly thinner consistency than higher cacao chocolate.
  • Avoid ultra-delicate desserts like mousse or souffles. Premium chocolate is still preferred for pure chocolate flavor in these.

For cost savings and convenience without sacrificing too much on chocolate intensity, Special Dark is an accessible swap for dark chocolate chunks, baking bars, or cocoa powder in recipes. Avoid precision desserts that rely on very concentrated chocolate. But for most everyday baking needs, Hershey’s Special Dark has enough cocoa punch to satisfy.


When it comes to being “real” dark chocolate, Hershey’s famous Special Dark candy bar passes the test. With its relatively high cacao content, use of chocolate liquor, complex cocoa flavor profile, and dark-focused manufacturing, Special Dark meets the standards of genuine dark chocolate.

It may not offer the nuanced taste or ultra-high cocoa content of artisan brands. But it delivers a legitimate dark chocolate experience at a fraction of the price for the average consumer. Next to mass-market milk chocolate, Special Dark is significantly richer and more chocolatey. For everyday snacking or baking needs, Hershey’s Special Dark stands up as an accessible, quality, trusted brand of authentic dark chocolate.

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