For years, artisanal dark chocolate bars have hogged all the glory, prominently displaying bean origins and high cacao percentages on their fancy wrappers. But who’s to say milk chocolate bars can’t be artisanal, too? In 2018, the Specialty Food Association noted that more manufacturers than ever are making “dark milk” chocolates—products that feature higher cacao percentages but still have enough milk for a smooth, creamy texture and nuanced flavor. These products are meant to appeal to those looking for something more robust than classic milk chocolate, but not quite as bitter as some dark chocolates. When we last tasted milk chocolate, we named Dove Silky Smooth Milk Chocolate as our winner. But with so many new products pushing the boundaries of milk chocolate, it was time to take another look.
While the majority of milk chocolate is consumed in the form of holiday candy and chocolate coatings, we went in search of milk chocolate bars that could be savored both by the piece and chopped up or melted as a cooking ingredient. We gathered 10 nationally available products, priced from about $0.40 to about $1.20 per ounce, and sampled them plain and in milk chocolate pots de crème.
The chocolate making process begins with fermenting, roasting, and grinding cacao nibs into a chocolate liquor that contains near-equal parts of cocoa solids and cocoa butter. The liquor is then blended with additional cocoa butter and mixed with sugar to make dark chocolate, or processed with both milk and sugar to make milk chocolate. At this stage, some manufacturers also add emulsifiers such as lecithin or flavoring agents such as vanilla beans. The higher the proportion of sugar or milk there is in a given chocolate, the less room there is for chocolate liquor or cocoa butter, so milk chocolate tends to have a lower cacao percentage than dark chocolate. (The cacao percentage is the proportion of the finished chocolate made from the cacao bean and includes chocolate liquor and any added cocoa butter). While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t police the term “dark chocolate,” it does mandate that bittersweet or semisweet chocolates (terms often used interchangeably to refer to dark chocolates) must contain at least 35 percent cacao. (Some dark chocolate bars contain more than 85 percent cacao.) By contrast, the FDA requires a minimum of only 10 percent cacao in milk chocolate. The amount of milk also distinguishes dark and milk chocolates. The FDA mandates that milk chocolate must contain at least 12 percent total milk solids, while semisweet and bittersweet chocolate cannot have more than 12 percent total milk solids.
We can recommend all the products we tasted, at least for eating plain. However, in both the plain and pots de crème tastings, we preferred milk chocolates that we perceived as having a complex, rich chocolate flavor. We wanted to actually taste the chocolate in the bars, and gave higher marks to products that had balanced sweetness, prominent cocoa notes, and just a hint of bitterness. Since cocoa flavor is directly related to the percentage of cacao in the chocolate, we looked at packaging and contacted manufacturers to find out the cacao percentages of each product. Many manufacturers would not disclose this information, and independent labs we contacted said they could not measure cacao percentages in milk chocolate. However, we were able to determine the cacao percentages of six products, which ranged from 27 to 48 percent. Our higher-rated products were at the upper end of that range, with 40 percent cacao or more. Our winning chocolate had the most cacao of all: 48 percent. While these percentages are still relatively low compared to our favorite dark chocolate bar and dark chocolate chips, which both contain 60 percent cacao, tasters thought milk chocolate with a high percentage of cacao packed the most flavor and was rich and complex without being too bitter.
There was one exception to our preference for higher-cacao milk chocolate: a product from Theo containing 45 percent cacao, which ranked at the bottom of the plain tasting. Though it had a bit less cacao than our favorite product, tasters thought the cocoa flavor was too overwhelming and bordering on acidic and bitter. Our senior science research editor explained that these flavors aren’t necessarily defects, but could be due to a variety of factors including the type and origin of the beans, how the beans were processed, and what additives were used. While some tasters like a more acidic and bitter flavor in dark chocolate, they thought these flavors were a little too overwhelming for what they expect of milk chocolate. That said, the acidity and bitterness mellowed a bit when we melted this product into pots de crème.
A higher cacao percentage was also key to producing the signature thick and fluffy texture of chocolate pots de crème, a simple pudding made of heated milk, cream, eggs, and chocolate. We measured all ingredients to the ounce and heated every batch to the same temperature. However, the texture of the puddings varied greatly depending on the chocolate used to make them: some were thick and dense, while others were drippy and ran right off our spoons. This difference correlated directly to the cacao percentage of each chocolate. Products with a higher cacao percentage made very thick, luscious puddings. Products with higher cacao percentages have more cocoa solids, a feature which helps puddings set up thicker. Our senior science research editor also explained that cocoa fat stiffens better than milk fat, providing additional thickness. By contrast, products with lower cacao percentages (and lower amounts of cocoa solids and fat to help the puddings set) were runny and drippy. Our takeaway: it’s important to use a milk chocolate with a high cacao percentage if you’re making a recipe that relies heavily on the chocolate for its texture. However, we ultimately chose not to factor the pots de crème test into our final rankings since it’s a less common usage that doesn’t reflect the way we most often eat milk chocolate—plain.
Milk chocolates with lower cacao percentages had more sugar than those with higher cacao percentages. Our winning product contains 35 percent sugar (14 grams per 40 gram serving), while lower-ranked products contain as much as 58 percent sugar (23 grams per 40 gram serving). While not unpleasant, products that contained more sugar were described by tasters as “one-note” and “sweet,” “like Easter candy.” Chocolates with less sugar were “balanced” and “nuanced,” with “subtle sweetness.”
To see how the chocolates would perform in a more typical baking recipe, we used the product with the lowest percentage of sugar (our winner) and the product with the highest percentage of sugar to make two types of cookies: Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies and Chocolate-Chunk Oatmeal Cookies with Dried Cherries. Both products produced cookies with perfectly acceptable textures; however, we preferred the cookies made with our top-ranked chocolate for their nicely balanced, complex chocolate flavor. Cookies made with the other product tasted overly sweet.
So how can you tell if your milk chocolate has a high cacao percentage? Fortunately, our highest-ranking products each have their cacao percentage conveniently listed on the wrapper. However, if the chocolate you’re eyeing doesn’t, the ingredient list can help. Our lower-ranked products almost all list sugar and milk before any trace of chocolate, meaning the cacao percentage will be low. By contrast, our top products list “chocolate” or “chocolate liquor” as their first ingredient, meaning there is proportionally more of it than any other ingredient. For the most robust chocolate flavor, we recommend purchasing a product that lists “chocolate” as the first ingredient over products with milk or sugar listed first.
While we can recommend every chocolate we tasted, top honors went to Endangered Species Chocolate Smooth + Creamy Milk Chocolate. The winning bar and our runner-up from Scharffen Berger were among the most expensive products in our lineup at more than $1 per ounce, but both featured rich, deep cocoa notes and a smooth, creamy texture. Tasters loved the bar from Endangered Species Chocolate—which, at 48 percent, had the highest cacao percentage of the bars we tried—for its nuanced chocolate flavor and balanced sweetness.