I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I bet, for a lot of people reading this, your first experience with milk chocolate was tasting a Hershey’s Kiss as a child, or maybe it was the milk chocolate inside of M&Ms or coating on a Snickers bar. Milk chocolate was a very sweet affair, almost equally sweet and sugary. Then, chocolate makers began having such success with bittersweet chocolate in the 70%, 80% even 99% cacao range, they decided to take a new look at milk chocolate and bring more cacao to those formulas and rely less on the milk and sugar. Those ingredients would still be present – they wanted a distinct milk chocolate product, after all – but “dark” milk chocolates would be a new breed.
Now we can easily find milk chocolates boasting cacao percentages of 40% and even 70% through specialty distributors, while traditional versions had as little as 10% cacao.
So what is the difference between a 70%-cacao bittersweet chocolate and a 70%-cacao milk chocolate? Mostly the aforementioned milk and sugar. Even if the sugar is kept to a minimum, the dairy will be present, giving the chocolate the right to sport its milky name. And the difference between a milk chocolate with 10% and 40% cacao is that the higher the cacao percentage, the more chocolaty the taste.
Reading labels is easy – if they tell you what you need to know. Valrhona Jivara Lactee states very clearly that this milk chocolate is 40% cacao, but what about that tiny milk chocolate kiss? Or some random bulk chocolate with less-than-precise labeling? Well, as you can see in the image above, you cannot go by color. The Valrhona in back is 40%. The Callebaut left front is 33.6%, while the Hershey’s on the lower right looks as dark as the Valrhona, when in actuality it is 30%. Note that the Hershey’s looks darker than the Callebaut, yet has a lower cacao percentage; this is why looks alone will not suffice. (Hershey’s Kisses are also 30% cacao, by the way. The Hershey’s-branded products do not detail cacao percentage on the label. You have to call customer service.)
We happen to like dark milk chocolates a lot, but as with all recipe testing and development, we take into consideration how the ingredient works within that recipe from taste, texture and visual perspectives and also what palates are we pleasing. If we are making a milk-chocolate-peanut-butter something-or-other geared towards our elementary school-aged kids, then a lower cacao percentage milk chocolate will probably be perfect. On the other hand, if I am making a milk chocolate truffle, I usually reach for a milk chocolate with at least 40% cacao. While a good milk chocolate will have a dairy essence, just as with all chocolates, there will be other aromas and flavors. Some will be reminiscent of caramel, while others will have a hint (or more) of fruit, leather or smoke. Let your palate be your guide; it’s a hard job, but someone’s got to do it.
Here are some milk chocolates we love, with their cacao percentages listed high to low. Try tasting the Slitti Lattenero 70% side by side with a 70% dark chocolate (such as Theo Rich 70% Organic or Valrhona Guanaja) for a fun taste test. You can find all of these chocolates at Chocosphere:
- Slitti Lattenero 70% cacao
- Bonnat Java 65% cacao
- Michel Cluizel Mangaro Lait 50% cacao
- El Rey Caoba 41% cacao
- Valrhona Jivara Lactee 40% cacao
- Guittard Orinoco 38%
- Callebaut 823 –NV Milk 33.6% cacao
- Valrhona Tanariva 33% cacao
- Guittard Old Dutch Milk Couverture 30% cacao
Image: Peter Muka