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Most of us associate milk chocolate with supermarket candy bars and foil-wrapped kisses, but does this sweet and creamy chocolate deserve a spot on your baking shelf, too?
Which came first, the Toll House cookie or the chocolate chip? Surprisingly, it was the cookie. The original 1938 chocolate chip cookie recipe invented by the owners of the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts, called for chopped semisweet Nestlé chocolate. The cookies became so famous that Nestlé gave the owners a lifetime supply of chocolate in exchange for the right to print the recipe on the back of its bars’ wrappers. At first, Nestlé sold a chocolate chopping tool with each bar to market the cookie recipe, but the cookies became so popular that in 1941 the company began making the teardrop-shaped chips that are ubiquitous today.
Chocolate chips, like bar chocolate, are now available in a host of varieties besides semisweet. Though decadent dark chocolate chips may hog all the attention, we think milk chocolate chips deserve some of the spotlight, too. After all, a good milk chocolate is creamy, delicate, and sweet, with a melt-in-your-mouth smoothness you just don’t get from dark chocolate.
Milk chocolate chips are made from four key ingredients: sugar, cocoa butter, cocoa solids (the part of the cacao plant left over once the cocoa butter is extracted), and milk. Contrary to popular belief, they don’t contain any wax or special stabilizers other than lecithin, which is also present in bar chocolate. Instead, they usually contain a lower percentage of cocoa butter (i.e., fat) than bar chocolate does, which helps the chips hold their shape during baking. For this reason, we usually prefer to chop bar chocolate for recipes where the chocolate will be completely melted—such as brownies, chocolate sauce, or chocolate cake—so that we get an even, smooth melt. We save the chips for cookies, muffins, and bars, where we want distinct morsels of chocolate speckled throughout.
With that in mind, we rounded up four nationally available milk chocolate chip products. We tried each plain, in our Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies, and in our Chocolate Pudding, which is formulated to work with chocolate chips.
The pudding was a wash; once melted and chilled into pudding, all the chips were perfectly rich and milky, with only minor differences in texture. Tasters had clearer preferences in the plain tasting, where we could zero in on nuances. Though milk chocolate is characteristically mild and creamy, we gave the edge to products with fruity and floral notes.
Beyond those minor flavor differences, we were stumped as to why tasters preferred some chips to others. Cacao percentages weren’t helpful. Unlike dark chocolate and semisweet chips, milk chocolate chips don’t usually have cacao percentage listed on the label, and some manufacturers wouldn’t disclose the percentages when we asked. Sugar also varied among the products—from 8 to 10 grams per serving—but our tasters showed no clear preference for more or less sugar. Not even the type of milk mattered; the chips used a variety of milk products, from whole milk to milk powders to milk fat, but these didn’t seem to sway our tasters one way or another. So far, all that was clear was that our tasters really liked chocolate.
We moved on to the size of the chips and discovered that it made a difference, especially in chocolate chip cookies. Some chips were so big that they either overwhelmed each bite of cookie or left large patches where there wasn’t a single chip to be found. We preferred smaller chips, which ended up dotted throughout the cookie, creating the perfect balance of chocolate and cookie in each bite. We went so far as to count the number of chips in 1 cup and found that, on average, 139 of the biggest chips equaled 1 cup, while 394 of the smallest (not mini) chips equaled 1 cup.
Though we liked all the chocolate chips we tried, our favorite was Hershey’s Kitchens Milk Chocolate Chips; at $0.27 per ounce, these chips were one of the least expensive options in our lineup. They were the smallest of the bunch, and tasters loved that they made perfectly balanced cookies with a classic, milky flavor.
Twenty-one America’s Test Kitchen staff members sampled four nationally available milk chocolate chip products plain and in our Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies and Chocolate Pudding. Prices listed were paid in Boston-area supermarkets. Scores were averaged, and the products appear in order of preference.