Milk chocolate gets a
Myth #1: milk chocolate is too sweet. This is sometimes true, but only because there’s so much bad milk chocolate out there. And, the FDA only requires milk chocolate to contain a minimum of 10% cacao solids (from the cacao bean) and 12 percent milk solids, leaving the door wide open for mass-market chocolate companies to add a bunch of sugar, fake flavors, and additives you can’t pronounce.
Myth #2: milk chocolate is juvenile. Dark chocolate is perceived as more sophisticated and therefore, inherently better than milk. All those research studies linking dark chocolate to heart health don’t help, either.
The truth is, it’s harder to make good milk chocolate than good dark. The simplest dark chocolate is made from cacao beans and sugar, maybe with a bit of lecithin (an emulsifier), and vanilla. Milk chocolate is made from the same ingredients, plus milk powder. It sounds simple enough, but that one ingredient introduces many complications for flavor, texture, and processing.
A few chocolate makers are up for the challenge, and they’re making dark milk chocolate: high-percentage chocolate that contains some milk powder. The result is all the flavor and subtlety of dark chocolate, tempered with a light sweetness and the creaminess of milk chocolate.
Bonnat actually makes two dark milk chocolates — Surabaya and Java — both 65% bars made from Indonesian cacao beans. Both bars have a characteristic smokiness that’s typical of Southeast Asian cacao, where beans are dried mechanically (as opposed to sun-drying, which is done in dryer climates). If the area isn’t ventilated properly, the beans can absorb some of the smokiness. In small doses, it can be pleasant; in large doses, it tastes like a campfire.
Of the two, the Surabaya is less smoky, with a slightly savory undertone and just enough sweetness. The texture is ultra-creamy and super melty, which is typical for chocolate from Bonnat, which is one of the oldest bean-to-bar companies in the world. Chocolate maker Stephane Bonnat is a fourth-generation chocolate maker for his family’s company, which is based in Isere, France, just outside of Grenoble.
Columbia, Missouri-based chocolate maker Alan McClure likes dark milk chocolate for the subtle sweetness that milk powder adds. “Milk powder isn’t as sweet as cane sugar. By adding milk [powder] you get a sweetness that isn’t too sweet, but that counteracts the bitterness of the cacao.”
McClure’s Signature Dark Milk Chocolate clocks in at about 60% cacao solids. It’s distinctly fruity, with a burnt sugar and butterscotch backbone that comes from his choice of whole, rather than nonfat, milk powder. He explains that there are three types of milk powder: spray-dried, roll-dried, and crumb. McClure opts for spray-dried because “it’s dried as simply as can be. It’s the closest to fresh milk.”
The Signature Dark Milk bar is part of Patric’s diverse line, which includes single-origin bars from Madagascar and Venezuela, and an expanding line of fun bars with inclusions like peanut butter, habanero sea salt and banana chips. It’s proof that seriously good chocolate doesn’t have to take itself too seriously.
Also in Missouri is Springfield-based Askinosie Chocolate. “I made [this bar] because I like the taste of [dark milk chocolate],” says chocolate maker and company founder Shawn Askinosie. “That’s usually how these things start.”
Of the chocolates profiled here, Askinosie’s dark milk tastes the most like dark chocolate. Think cocoa and brownie notes, kicked up with just a hint of salt. The finish is tangy, complex, and maddening, until you read the package and learn this dark milk is made with goat’s milk.
Askinosie buys goat’s milk powder from Meyenberg Goat Farm in California. “I know some people who tastes goat’s milk and it’s sour, real tangy — but the balance of sugar and goat’s milk give us this caramel note that we really like,” he says.
And what do their customers think? Both McClure and Askinosie report that their dark milk bars are best sellers. “People on both ends of the chocolate spectrum [like it] — those who say, ‘I don’t like bitter chocolate’…and people who only want super dark chocolate,” says Askinosie.
McClure sees a third audience for dark milk chocolate: those who are spurred by health claims. “There are amazing people out there who eat dark chocolate because they think they should, but they don’t love it.”
Whatever your motivation, dark milk chocolate is worth trying for its own merits. If it puts milk chocolate’s bad reputation to rest, that’s even better.