The Rise of Awesome Milk Chocolate

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

White wine, light roast coffee, and milk chocolate walk into a bar.

There's no punch line here; just three underappreciated edibles commiserating about their feelings of inadequacy. You see, somewhere along the way, our culture dismissed milk chocolate as kid's stuff, relegated to cheap bunny rabbits, s'mores, and wildly sweet confections, while we reserved dark chocolate for more refined palates.

Doing so has led to a prejudiced belief that dark chocolate is somehow inherently more sophisticated and high-quality than milk chocolate. I'm here to tell you that's bunk.

High Cocoa Doesn't Mean High Quality

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There's plenty of beautiful dark chocolate out there, but also some that's near-inedible. The exact same thing is true of milk chocolate. Bad milk chocolate is bland and toothachingly sugary. But a well made one celebrates cocoa's complex character while offering all the versatility of milk, which has flavors ranging from warm caramel to acidic twang.

Let's take a step back and see just what milk chocolate actually is. Like all chocolate, milk chocolate is a suspension of cocoa solids in cocoa butter and sometimes other fat, with sugar added for sweetness. In the U.S., milk chocolate must be at least 10% cocoa solids and 12% milk solids; dark chocolate has a higher cocoa percentage and may contain no more than 12% milk solids.

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As we detailed in our guide to baking with chocolate, a chocolate's cocoa percentage has nothing to do with its quality:

Although [cocoa] percentage reveals some information about how much cacao you're getting, it doesn't tell you anything about the ratio of chocolate liquor to cocoa butter. Therefore, one chocolate labeled with 75% could contain all chocolate liquor with no added cocoa butter, while another 75% bar could contain only 60% chocolate liquor and 15% cocoa butter...The darker bar is not necessarily better than the other. It simply offers a different intensity and texture.

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What does make good chocolate? It comes down to a multifaceted production process from choosing quality beans to artful processing, tempering and handling. Every decision of the chocolate maker impacts the final flavor. Control over roasting times, the selection of additional ingredients and even allowing the final product to age before it reaches customer can drastically alter the chocolate bar's quality. And that's just as true of milk chocolate as dark.

As American consumers become more curious about quality chocolate—breaking out of their chocolate shells, if you will—craft chocolate makers are meeting them with a greater variety and range of products. Some of that means dark chocolate bars flavored with sea salt, coffee beans, and dried fruit and nuts. But it also means higher quality milk chocolate just as good as the dark stuff.

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My advice for those who are still skeptical of milk chocolate's allure? Eat more milk chocolate! Especially some of the new milk chocolates that craft chocolate makers have been developing, which are leaps and bounds above mass-market milk chocolate (we have some recommendations below).

The New Milk Chocolate

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Brian Graham, the owner and chocolate-maker at Fruition Chocolate, a bean-to-bar chocolate company based in the Hudson Valley, describes the ideal milk chocolate as smoother and creamier than dark chocolate. "The presence of milk fat lowers the melting point of the chocolate so when you place a piece on your tongue, it just explodes with flavor," he told me.

Rather than seeing milk as an ingredient that distracts from the chocolate flavor, he approaches it as an opportunity to develop new flavors. "Because of the additional ingredients, there is more opportunity to manipulate them. For instance, by processing the chocolate at a higher temperature, we can develop a lot of caramel-like flavor through maillard reactions to the milk powder."

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Milk chocolate is traditionally made with innocuous, low-acid cocoa beans compared to dark chocolate, which makes a mellow but blandly sweet bar. But many of today's small-batch producers (as well as a few top-notch big guys) have turned to more flavorful beans that highlight the chocolate's intensity. Graham gives his beans a slightly darker roast, so the chocolate flavors can still cut through the milk.

To amp up the chocolate factor even further, many chocolate makers, including Graham, have started using higher percentages of cocoa in their milk chocolate. By definition, milk chocolate must contain at least 10% cocoa (and 12% milk solids), but that's only the minimum requirement. Who's to say you can't have a high cocoa percentage plus the creaminess of milk? That's why many chocolate makers have developed something called dark milk chocolate, which has the best of both worlds: dark chocolate's pronounced cocoa flavor and bitterness plus all of milk chocolate's creamy texture.

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Fruition makes milk chocolates with up to 56% cocoa, so the bars maintain their deep chocolate flavor. Chocolate maker Sam Ratto of Videri Chocolate Factory, a bean-to-bar operation in North Carolina, calls their 50% dark milk chocolate bar "a labor of love."

"We take all this time getting the cocoa to a certain place and we don't want to mask it with sugar and milk," Ratto says. "We still want you to taste the cocoa and the roast, but get the sweetness of the milk and sugar." He's redeveloped and adjusted the formula for the dark milk chocolate 20 to 30 times, building the recipe based on the nutty flavor profile of the particular beans. The key is creating a concert of flavors, maintaining a balance between the cocoa, sugar, and milk.

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Outside the world of artisan bean-to-bar producers, larger manufactures are also turning away from super-sweet flavors toward the trend of darker milk chocolates. At Valrhona, the U.S. Brand Manager Marine Leman explains how the company approaches milk chocolate with the same expectations of quality as their finest dark chocolate, making each chocolate distinct and balanced with long lasting taste.

"What is specific to milk chocolate is that we have to pay attention to the balance between cocoa and milk," she explains. "We need to make sure that it doesn't taste like sugar. We have to be more careful with milk chocolates since they have a lighter flavor; flavor intensity could be lost in certain recipes, or with other ingredient pairings."

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The milk chocolate cocoa percentages at Valrhona range from 33% to 46%, with each bar offering distinct characteristics. Some bars highlight single origin beans, like the Bahibé (46%) which sources from the Dominican Republic and still maintains some bitter, acidic notes, while bars like the Caramelia (36%) have a pronounced buttery flavor. To those who associate milk chocolate with bland, overly sweet confections, Leman reminds consumers, "every milk chocolate is different and all have their own character. The percentage is not a token of quality."

Over in Vermont, Lauren Deitsch, the Director of Research and Development at Lake Champlain Chocolates, embraces milk's versatility as an enhancing ingredient to chocolate. She notes how "dairy flavor in the chocolate itself can range from cooked milk to fresh milk, to cream cheese or buttermilk. Sometimes you can even taste the seasonality of the milk depending on what the cows were eating!"

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She finds that when developing new confections, she uses milk chocolate almost just as much as dark. "It just pairs well with different things. Whereas red wine might pair better with dark chocolate than milk chocolate, milk chocolate pairs better with hazelnuts or malt. It's all in what flavor you're going for."

Liz Gutman, the co-founder of Liddabit Sweets in Brooklyn, admits, "I definitely like milk chocolate the best. It's not the most fashionable answer, but it's an honest one." Just like when a chef composes a plated dessert, Gutman creates her products by working with multiple textures and complementary flavors. "Milk chocolate tends to be sweeter, so you want to find something to cut that—a little bitterness, smokiness, saltiness—that will cut through the sugar."

For example, Liddabit's "The King" candy bar (enrobed in milk chocolate) uses a lightly salted peanut butter nougat sandwiched between brown sugar-brown butter cookie and fresh banana ganache. "I look for very different things in milk chocolate depending on the application. The milk chocolate we use to dip our candy bars is a 38%; it's a high percentage for milk, but fairly sweet and uncomplicated. By that I just mean that it has a pretty straightforward cocoa flavor—nothing particularly surprising about it. Since the center of the bar is what we want to highlight, we're not looking for a chocolate that stands out too much on its own."

Milk Chocolate to Seek Out

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If there's one thing to know about today's high quality milk chocolate, it's how diverse the field has become. Some milk chocolates are simply solid and dependable, good for general purpose baking. Others are nuanced and fascinating to nibble straight from the bar. But all of them using their added dairy components to showcase cocoa's flavor rather than mask it. Here are some producers to look for.

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Valrhona (Lait Bahibé, 46%): This dark milk bar offers a nutty essence and slightly bitter flavor. It's smooth and rich without an overly fatty or waxy texture, though the finish is pleasantly buttery. The chocolate's sweetness is distinct, but it enhances the cocoa's natural flavor rather than overwhelms it.

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Scharffen Berger (41%): This is a perfect entry-level milk chocolate for dark chocolate lovers. With deep cocoa and earthy flavor, it has a bitterness akin to dark chocolate that's softened by a very mild milk flavor and acidity.

Tcho (Milk Chocolate "Classic," 39%): Tcho's texture is extraordinarily smooth and melts evenly on the tongue. With strong milk and caramel flavor, it's minimally sweet with a bitter finish.

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Fruition (Dark Milk Chocolate with Fleur de Sel, 56%): With an intense balance of cocoa, salt, and acidity, Fruition's dark milk chocolate is an intense showcase for its Peruvian cocoa beans. The deep chocolate flavor combines with mild fruitiness and a bitter finish. As the chocolate quickly melts, fleur de sel sneaks out to surprise the tongue, bringing the bar's flavors into sharp focus. Though it's a milk chocolate, it recalls the sharpness of some dark bars.

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Fruition (Brown Butter Milk Chocolate, 43%): Softer and creamier than the dark milk bar, this Fruiton bar has a milder cocoa bite but a generous addition of browned butter. It's full of rich dairy flavors with a pronounced toasted milk solid finish.

Videri (Dark Milk Chocolate, 50%): Woodsy and earthy, the dark milk chocolate at Videri is milk-forward yet not overly sweet. At times the texture is slightly grainy, but the flavor is deep and toffee-like.

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Theo (Pure Milk Chocolate, 45%): Although not the smoothest bar on this round-up, Theo's slightly gritty finish is made up for in its flavor. It's packed with a strong cocoa bite and has a subtle acidic tang reminiscent of sour cream.