Everything you want to know about chocolate
It's impossible to speak of milk chocolate in broad strokes—its quality and character span a maddeningly vast spectrum. For many folks, traumatic experiences with poor-quality milk chocolate have been enough to convince them to go dark or bust. But there's so much more to discover in the realm of milk chocolate; when done well, the addition of dairy fat brings out a whole new range of flavor. It's an expression of cocoa that's mellow, soft, and nutty, able to furnish desserts with a sweet richness and creamy consistency distinct from dark chocolate. Those characteristics make milk chocolate ideal for recipes that are otherwise low on sugar and fat (think chocolate-covered pretzels or whipped ganache), as well as those with a strong salty or bitter element, such as peanut butter, burnt sugar, or coffee.
As much as I love splurging on high-end milk chocolate couverture from brands like Valrhona, I'm hard-pressed to justify spending that kind of money unless it's for tempering. For a low-key batch of chocolate chip cookies, in a pinch, I'm willing to turn to the offerings of well-stocked supermarkets and specialty stores. With a little forethought, though, I'm happier to wait on a shipment of milk chocolate that I've purchased online, where bulk buying power helps drive the cost down. These eight milk chocolates are available nationwide and/or online, and are my favorites for baking at home—though they're but a small sampling of what's available in any given market.
At 26%, Divine Milk Chocolate is the sweetest option on my list, but not obnoxiously so—a great choice for folks who have fond recollections of hanging off a shopping cart in the checkout aisle, begging for a chocolate bar.
Thanks to the addition of powdered cream along with milk, this chocolate has a dairy-forward flavor and a richness reminiscent of a truffle. I can always count on my local Kroger to keep it in stock, but I've seen it in wine shops and fancier groceries as well. Use it for a burst of sweetness in low- to no-sugar recipes, like cream scones and ganache, or just smear some inside a fresh baguette along with a sprinkling of sea salt for a midnight snack.
In culinary school, Callebaut's 33.6% was my gateway to milk chocolate, which I had once scoffed at with all the sanctimony of a newly minted food snob. ("Milk chocolate? Oh. My word, haven't touched the stuff since I was five!") Mercifully, I got over myself and learned to appreciate what different types of chocolate have to offer in flavor, melting point, and richness, and the versatility of this milk chocolate is a great jumping-off point if you're still warming up to the idea. It's easy to find in large, shrink-wrapped chunks at supermarkets like Whole Foods and The Fresh Market, and it can also be ordered as callets (drops) in bulk online; the latter is simply a convenient, no-chop incarnation that's formulated the exact same way.
Callebaut is easy to temper (a skill you can master with Kenji's excellent guide), so it's a tasty yet affordable option for any of the classic candy bars in my cookbook, such as homemade Reese's Cups and Crunch bars. But its sweet, nutty notes are just as welcome in bold and bitter desserts, like these double-chocolate cookies.
I can reliably find Lake Champlain's 38% milk chocolate in the candy aisle of my local supermarket, but it turns up in all types of specialty stores as well. Though it's not terribly distinctive, it's that middle-of-the-road quality that makes it an easy choice for desserts ranging from hazelnut cookies to all types of sauces and ganache.
I first picked up this fair-trade milk chocolate at an organic supermarket in Brooklyn, so it wasn't until I spotted it at a wine shop in Kentucky that I realized it wasn't a local specialty. At 36% cocoa solids, Jelina's Au Lait milk chocolate has a rich mouthfeel and balanced sweetness, with a profile that's a little brighter than the mellow earthiness that characterizes most milk chocolates. I dig it in fruitier applications, like chocolate cherry muffins or orange chocolate cookies, but its creaminess is well suited to leaner scenarios, such as homemade digestive biscuits or chocolate-covered pretzels.
There was a time when a supermarket's house brand was the least likely source for good chocolate, but Whole Foods' 39% milk chocolate isn't joking around. It's earthy, rich, and darker than I expected given the percentage, a profile that works nicely to balance its sweetness. Give it a shot alongside something a little darker—say, as part of a blend for chopped chocolate chip cookies—or sandwich it between some graham crackers to tame the sweetness of toasted marshmallows in your next batch of s'mores. For folks who don't live near a Whole Foods (e.g., me), it's available online as well.
Theo's a Seattle-based, fair-trade, bean-to-bar chocolate company that sources most of its cocoa (and vanilla, too) from the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Befitting that heritage, its 45% milk chocolate bar has a strong cocoa profile that veers toward the darker side of milk chocolate with its nutty toffee notes. For those whose primary objection to milk chocolate is textural, this option has a cleaner mouthfeel than more dairy-forward brands; it's still creamy, to be sure, but not as tongue-coating as milk chocolate can often be. Try it as part of a blend for chocolate chip skillet cookies, as a chunky mix-in for banana bread, or in any recipe that would benefit from a hit of chocolate flavor without the bracing bitterness of dark.
Alter Eco (RIP)
I'm heartbroken to report that Alter Eco's 47% "Dark Velvet" was recently discontinued, so this is more of an "in memoriam" than a useful recommendation. Still, it may linger for a few weeks more as supermarkets sell off their stock. If you happen to spot some, this nontraditional, Swiss-made milk chocolate is like no other, with just enough milk to disqualify it as a dark chocolate and a touch of cultured butter for richness and flavor. It has the bold, bitter, slightly molasses-y notes you'd expect from a dark chocolate, but the smooth melting point and lingering richness of a milk. I'm truly sorry to see such a unique chocolate exit the market, and hope the remaining bars left in the wild will find a good home.
Endangered Species is a fair-trade chocolate company that sources its beans from West Africa, and each of its chocolate bars comes with its own animal mascot—none more worthy of attention than the humble sea otter. This 48% milk chocolate is among the darkest around, and strong enough to make milk chocolate skeptics rethink their stance.
While it's darker than any other milk chocolate on this list, its overall flavor profile is somehow more traditional, what I imagine other milk chocolates strive to be—buttery, rich, and nutty, with a backbone of pure cocoa. It's sweet enough to take the place of dried fruit in oatmeal cookies, but bold enough to stand on its own in truffles or a whipped-ganache frosting. Look for it in the snack or candy aisle of supermarkets like Kroger and Whole Foods, as well as slightly fancier groceries and specialty shops.
Remember that the milk chocolate selection can vary from store to store and even state to state, so be on the lookout for unique offerings at your local supermarket. For baking, aim for milk chocolates that list a cacao content of at least 20%; if you can't spot that information on the packaging, it's a solid indication of a brand scooting by with the FDA minimum of 10%, making it too sweet and mild to lend much chocolate flavor to baked goods. Also, steer clear of any brand that lists palm oil or added fats other than cocoa butter on its label, as these will affect its behavior in recipes designed around pure milk chocolate.
As you explore, keep in mind that few milk chocolates can be a one-size-fits-all ingredient for every recipe—a bar that's too sweet to enjoy on its own may be perfect for an unsweetened ganache frosting or a bitter chocolate cookie, while one that's too lean for tempering may be spot-on in a richer cookie. As you taste your way through new varieties, try to imagine how the specific qualities of a given brand can be used as a counterpoint in desserts that are salty, bitter, bold, or otherwise in need of the creamy sweetness of milk chocolate.