Here’s how to distinguish good milk chocolate from the waxy fakes that try to make up for flavor with sugar.
It’s a dark time for our dark indulgence. Most of what you find in shops is horrible. Manufacturers think a huge dose of sugar combined with cheap fat and a sprinkle of cocoa will do the job.
In fairness, if you go by sales they’re right. But such products are soulless husks motivated only by the bottom line. Cheap ingredients and a sugary kick are offensive when you’ve experienced how good chocolate can be.
Never fear, though. While there’s a lot of garbage on offer, it’s still possible to strike gold without paying a fortune.
Dark vs milk
Some purists argue that ‘good’ and ‘milk chocolate’ shouldn’t be in the same sentence. They say milk chocolate is unsophisticated candy, and the only true chocolate is dark.
Decades ago this argument made sense. But interest in quality milk chocolate has changed things. There are some incredible varieties being produced, with connoisseurial focus on cocoa characteristics, and interesting flavor additions like chili and salt. Further, dark milk chocolate is widely available, the best of both worlds.
Milk chocolate is no longer the dumbed-down version of dark it used to be, it’s a very nuanced pleasure.
Dark chocolate is also amazing, just different. There’s a place for both in a foodie’s repertoire, so why limit yourself?
Boutique is best
The best chocolate is fresh from boutique makers. The most compelling to me being from chocolatiers who start with the raw beans and control every part of the chocolate-making process (“bean to bar”).
But it’s impractically expensive. There’s nothing better for a treat every now and then, but it’s not feasible on a regular basis.
There are mass-produced types that are very good, however. You’ll pay a bit more for them, but nowhere near as much as from an artisan.
My 3 tips to identify good milk chocolate
What we’re looking for here is to establish base quality. A quick look at the ingredients and nutrition panel will give you a good idea.
The fat should come from cocoa and milk sources only. Manufactures use vegetable oil instead of cocoa butter as a cost-saving measure, so if you see it listed, steer clear.
Look for a sugar content less than 50%. Too much sugar ruins subtlety and makes you feel ill. (I ate good quality chocolate once as a child. It was quite a pile, and I was surprised it didn’t give me the queasy feeling the same amount of Cadbury’s gave me.) 50% isn’t a hard cut off, but it’s a good indicator.
Look for at least 35% cocoa content. 35% is a legal requirement in a lot of countries, and anything less is barely chocolate. That’s just the start of the fun though—things get very interesting when you get into dark milk territory. These days milk chocolate can give you a really good cocoa kick with a huge amount of depth.
It’s common to see “single origin” on labels, but it’s more marketing buzz term to justify a higher price than guarantee of quality. To be sure, there are some outstanding single origin chocolates, but the same goes for mixed origin.
Ambient temperature has a big effect on the experience of eating chocolate. When it’s too cold, texture is unpleasantly brittle, and you won’t get the full flavor and unctuous richness. Too hot, and chocolate either gets soft or melts, again not ideal. Somewhere around official room temperature (20 °C / 68 °F) is best.
Of course taste is subjective even with high quality chocolate, so the ultimate test is eating. To that end, good luck and enjoy your hunt.