Straight to the Point
On more than one occasion, I've been chastised for using obscure ingredients that only Brooklyn hipsters can buy, an accusation that never fails to crack me up—I live in rural Kentucky. Aside from the Dutch cocoa and instant yeast that I order online, virtually all of my grocery shopping happens at a tiny Kroger that anchors the local strip mall.
But you won't find me shopping for chocolate in the baking aisle, which is stocked with some truly abysmal stuff. No, I'll be a few aisles over, where chocolate bars are lined up next to other fancy snacks. If you can sift through the flavored options loaded with blueberries or mint, you'll find a decent array of plain chocolate bars that happen to be excellent for baking.
Of course, the exact selection will vary depending on the buying practices of any given grocery manager, but it takes a national distribution network to get these chocolates to Kentucky, which means there's a reasonable chance you'll find them nearby as well. And if that's not the case, all of these brands are just one click away.
Pick up a few bars and enjoy the variety. Mixing and matching different chocolate percentages, origins, and styles can produce a greater depth of flavor in dessert compared to those made with only one type. (Which isn't to say one can't focus on the profile of a single chocolate within a recipe! But, generally speaking, this works best when the chocolate in question is exceptional.)
The real point is to get to know the types of chocolate are available, and find out for yourself what works best for your baking routine (and your budget). Though the selection of supermarket chocolate chips has definitely improved, bars are often the superior choice, and many supermarkets carry unique regional gems—and there's a whole world of small-batch chocolate to explore. So play the field, experiment with some different chocolates, and remember that their flavor will evolve in the recipe. You may not gravitate to the same types of chocolates that I do, but taking the time to buy a good-quality bar will make even the simplest desserts a lot better.
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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 at Amazon, 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 tempering guide), so it's a tasty yet affordable option for any of the classic candy bars in my cookbook at Amazon, 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 toasted 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.
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.
Virtually all of my recipes for chocolaty desserts call for chocolate bars in the 70% range. In part, it's because 70% chocolates are great for both snacking and baking.
But I also gravitate to that percentage because supermarket snack-food aisles typically offer a huge range of chocolates in the 70% range, most of which represent a major step up from the low-end options that are typically quarantined in the baking aisle.
Theo 70% is a sweet and fruity but versatile chocolate. Try it as part of a blend for chocolate chip cookies, or incorporate it into sauces and ganache to pair with lighter desserts, like strawberry cake or even an orange twist on this Meyer lemon ice cream.
Green & Black's
Green & Black's is another fair-trade chocolate that's easy to find in most supermarkets and bodegas. Its organic line is sourced primarily from Trinitario beans grown in Belize and the Dominican Republic.
Green & Black's 70% is smooth, rich, and none too sweet, with just a hint of fruitiness to round things out. It's a chameleon that works well in just about any recipe that calls for dark chocolate, whether it's chocolate popcorn or chocolate cream pie.
Equal Exchange is a worker-owned, fair-trade chocolate company based in Massachusetts, though its bars are manufactured in Switzerland. According to its website, its dark chocolate is kosher and vegan.
Equal Exchange 71% is rich and cocoa-forward, with a mellow bitterness and earthy flavor that feels super classic—my perfect chocolate bar for s'mores. Its straightforward profile suits a range of recipes, from fudge brownies to devil's food cake, but its simple cocoa flavor makes Equal Exchange perfect for slicking across the back of a digestive biscuit or graham cracker, too. It also makes a balanced counterpoint to the sweetness of a homemade Pudding Pop.
Chocolove is a fair-trade chocolate company based in Boulder, Colorado. The name and cute packaging certainly suggest chocolate bars meant for snacking, and, to that end, these bars are indeed freakishly smooth and creamy. But to me, their true value is in the kitchen, where their consistency is an asset to just about any baking project.
Chocolove 65%, on the lighter end of the spectrum, is sweet but complex—the sort of thing you'd toss into a batch of double-chocolate cookies or melt into a ganache to drizzle over a chocolate cherry layer cake. If you've got my cookbook, try it as the topping for my homemade Hostess-style cupcakes.
Chocolove 70% has a tawny, dare I say tobacco-like quality that gives it an alluring depth. It's great for dairy-centric applications, like pots de crème, ganache, and chocolate buttercream, where fruitier chocolates can make the finished product seem weirdly tangy or sharp.
Chocolove 77% is bold and bright, but a little astringent; while not my favorite for snacking, it's a great chocolate for sweeter desserts that could use its acidity for balance. It works especially well in baked goods, whether melted into cake or brownie batter or chopped into chunks for cookies and quick breads, where it'll maintain its creaminess as well as any commercial "morsel."
Unsweetened chocolates tend to be unbalanced or one-dimensional, so 88% is about as dark as I like to go. It used to be difficult to find high-quality chocolates this dark without placing a special order, but whether I'm at home in Kentucky or visiting the Serious Eats test kitchen in New York, I've noticed my options have improved considerably over the past few years.
The selection will differ from store to store, but broadly speaking, these brands are relatively easy to find in major supermarkets (again: look in the snack, not the baking, aisle!), while ordering in bulk online will often bring their price down considerably.
While the cocoa beans themselves come from Madagascar, this bar is produced in Italy. It has a bright and fruity profile that's distinctively tart, with enough sugar to keep the chocolate's bitter, tannic qualities at bay.
It's a pretty smooth experience overall; this chocolate would work well in any recipe with a citrusy profile or else as a sauce or accompaniment to contrast mellow desserts centered around flavors like almond, banana, or vanilla.
This chocolate is soy-free as well as vegan- and kosher-friendly. It's easy to find at Whole Foods, but it can otherwise be ordered online.
Theo's 85% bar has a texture that's more tender than snappy, one that's quick to melt on the tongue. It has a woodsy sort of earthiness, with a finish that's unexpectedly citrusy and bright. It would be right at home as part of a chocolate chip cookie blend or in recipes with plenty of sugar to balance its darker profile, like devil's food cake.
While on the drier end of the chocolates we tried, Divine's 85% bar is still creamy and smooth, with a subtle sweetness on the finish. It has a classic chocolate flavor that's somewhat mellow, neither excessively bitter nor bracing.
This would be a good option for folks venturing into the eighties for the first time; it's a solid, multipurpose chocolate that would suit almost any sort of project calling for a cocoa percentage this high. It's creaminess would be ideal in a batch of vegan chocolate chip cookies or smeared across the back of a homemade digestive biscuit.
Without any sugar at all, this stevia-sweetened chocolate is bracing and dry, with an intense chocolate flavor backed by a curiously floral vanilla note. I found Lily's 85% to be a welcome departure from the typically low-end chocolates resigned to a sugar-free fate, and it would be great in any of my low-sugar baking projects that call for chocolate.
This chocolate is certified kosher and vegan-friendly, but it does contain soy.
Endangered Species 88%
This chocolate has a sweet and mellow vibe that's a little nutty with a big vanilla aroma that stands out up front. While not as high in cocoa butter as some other bars, it melts smoothly and manages to feel more velvety than most, keeping its bitterness in check.
Though technically not as dark as Endangered Species 88%, Alter Eco's 85% packs a far stronger punch. What it lacks in nuance it makes up for in bitterness, with an intensity that could cut through even the most sugary block of fudge. Used sparingly, it can bring balance to your favorite candies, or simply offset the sweetness of a skillet cookie.
Equal Exchange 88%
Equal Exchange's 88% bar is astringent and dry, yet rich and creamy as it melts. It has a chocolate-nibby character with some mushroomy depth that gives way to a strong vanilla aroma. It would work well in creamy, dairy-forward desserts, like hot chocolate, while its funky depth would be a treat when flecked through a scoop of homemade stracciatella.
Chocolove 88% has a leathery aroma and a surprisingly sweet finish. Thanks to its creamy texture, this would be a great option for the snappy chocolate shell of a homemade Klondike bar, where its intensity would shift the focus from the ice cream to the chocolate.