Dark chocolate has been in vogue for more than a decade. Now, milk-chocolate manufacturers are taking their cue from dark chocolate, reformulating recipes and developing new milk-chocolate bars complete with cacao percentages on the label. Is milk chocolate just getting fancy? Or is it getting better?
To find out, we bought 10 national brands of top-selling milk chocolate (from a list compiled by the market research firm SymphonyIRI Group), including our previous favorite, and we asked 21 staffers to taste them plain and in chocolate pudding. Colors ranged from tan to deep mahogany, textures from waxy or gritty to lush and creamy. A few samples had the mild, sweet, milky taste we expected; others were deeper, cocoa-y, and less sweet—dead ringers for dark chocolate.
Why so different? Milk-chocolate makers have lots of latitude. Federal standards require milk chocolate to contain at least 10 percent cacao, which is the actual chocolate in the candy bar. (Cacao, also called chocolate liquor, is roasted, ground-up cacao beans, containing both cocoa solids and cocoa butter.) In comparison, dark chocolate, both bittersweet and semisweet, must have at least 35 percent cacao. Those percentages are the legal minimums, but most chocolate brands contain more. In fact, we tasted several brands of milk chocolate that would qualify as dark chocolate if not for the presence of milk. Note: Our figures for cacao content also included the milk protein (ranging from 4% to 7%), which is difficult for laboratories to isolate in milk chocolate. Therefore our cacao measurements cannot be exact.
Beyond the amount of chocolate, manufacturers can choose among cream, whole or reduced-fat milk, and powdered, condensed, or evaporated milk. The dairy ingredient is heated with sugar to caramelize it and remove water before it’s blended with cacao. Manufacturers may add extra cocoa butter or milk fat, lecithin to keep the fat from separating, and flavors such as vanilla or malt. (Some companies even add a sour flavor compound that’s present in spoiled milk.) The liquid chocolate goes into machines called conches, where heavy rollers grind it and coat the solids with fat. The longer chocolate is conched—from a few hours to several days—the finer, creamier, and mellower it becomes. Finally, the chocolate is tempered—heated and cooled to create a crystalline structure for the perfect “snap” when it’s bitten or broken.
Our tasters preferred smoother chocolate and downgraded brands for grittiness. We sent samples to a lab (chocolate makers never divulge recipes or methods) and learned that the chocolates we liked were also higher in fat. Cocoa butter melts at body temperature, adding to the creamy sensation you get when you let chocolate melt in your mouth. But milk fat is also present in milk chocolate. Chocolates with less milk fat are firmer, to the point of being “hard.” Abundant milk fat creates a super-creamy softness but can overwhelm chocolate flavor without proper balance. Tasters preferred plenty of both fats: Our recommended chocolates have at least 31 percent total fat.
But creamy texture wasn’t everything. Our three top-ranked milk chocolates shared one thing: intense chocolate flavor. Classic milk-chocolate lovers praised one brand, while those who secretly wanted dark chocolate in milk-chocolate clothing singled out another for its roasted-chocolate taste. Extra cacao was no guarantee either. Case in point: One milk chocolate in our lineup had a high cacao percentage and low scores. Each maker processes cacao beans to create distinctive nuances. This chocolate’s characteristic fruity, acidic notes may suit dark chocolate, but apparently not milk chocolate. Finally, too much sugar was a turnoff even in milk chocolate. The brand with the highest total sugar fell to the bottom of our rankings.
Once again, one milk chocolate topped our taste tests for its full chocolate flavor, creamy texture, and moderate sweetness. But two other brands were close behind, introducing dark-chocolate characteristics and scoring points with chocolate lovers.