Dorling Kindersley: William Reav/Getty Images

As the world of craft chocolate has grown, high-end chocolatiers are turning their attention to the complexities of milk chocolate. 

Shelby Pope
February 05, 2018

If you’re serious about chocolate, you prefer dark over milk—at least that's been the prevailing wisdom. Dark chocolate is complex, with endless nuances depending on the terroir and how it’s produced. Milk chocolate, on the other hand, is the unsophisticated choice of children, Americans and anyone else seeking one-note sweetness. These attitudes, finally, are starting to change. In recent years, as the world of craft chocolate has grown, high-end chocolatiers have turned their attention to the maligned category. Now, these producers—the same ones with bean-to-bar credentials who boast about notes of plum and jasmine in their bars—are eagerly creating dark milk chocolate, a style combining the best of both flavor profiles.

When you bite into a traditional milk chocolate, you’re tasting mostly sugar and little actual chocolate. Hershey's milk chocolate, for example, is only around 11% cacao, with the rest made up of sugar, milk and various emulsifiers. Dark milk chocolate, on the other hand, is any chocolate composed of over 50% cacao, with some added milk. They’ll be creamier and less assertive than dark chocolate, but thanks to that higher percentage, you’ll still get to taste the subtleties of whatever cacao bean your bar is made from.

While larger chocolate companies like Scharffen Berger and Guittard have experimented with dark milk bars, smaller American producers are turning out some of the best examples of the genre. When Bryan Graham opened Fruition Chocolate in New York, he didn’t want to just focus on dark chocolate. He had a pastry background, and wanted more room to experiment. He started developing milk chocolate bars with higher percentages—one, his Marañón Canyon dark milk bar, is 68% cocoa, closer to the percentage of a traditional dark chocolate.

Making a milk chocolate is more complicated than making a two-ingredient dark bar, since milk chocolate has more ingredients (sugar, milk, sometimes cocoa butter). Chocolatiers have to determine the right sweetness, creaminess and combinations for a balanced final product. When Graham makes dark milk chocolate, he’ll often toast the milk powder to add a deeper flavor, or he’ll use nonfat powder and then add browned butter as the fat. That extra dark Marañón Canyon dark milk bar? Graham uses the same beans to make a 76% dark chocolate version for a “wildly different” product. “You get some of the intense flavors from the cacao but it’s a creamier texture,” he said of the dark milk version. “It melts a bit more nicely and it has some of that nice caramel flavor from the toasted milk. It’s not about masking or taming flavors; it’s accentuating them.”

Denise Castronovo, founder of Florida’s Castronovo Chocolate, likes the challenge of tweaking sugar, cacao and milk levels to create her dark milk bars—and convincing dark chocolate devotees that no, milk chocolate doesn’t have to mean chalky or cloying. “There are people who like dark, that are like, ‘I would never eat milk chocolate.’ It’s like drinking craft beer versus Bud or something,” she said with a laugh. “But then we get them to try the dark milk and it opens their eyes: ‘Wait a second, there is a milk chocolate out there you can savor?’”

She’s been making dark milk chocolate since 2012, since she left her career in geospatial analysis to open Florida’s Castronovo Chocolate. Castronovo specializes in chocolate made from small batches of heirloom beans, and found herself curious if the distinctive flavors of their beans would still be present in milk chocolate. Her first attempt used beans from the Dominican Republic. “When we were tempering we’d eat pieces and find that we could never stop. It was addictive,” she said. “Once I started experimenting, I realized not every milk chocolate is going to taste the same. That was exciting,” she said. I

Inspired, Castronovo continued to experiment with dark milks, and the company now offers a variety of bars in the style, including a dark milk with chocolate from Patanemo, Venezuela, which has less sugar than all of their bars, dark chocolate included; and their Sierra Nevada Colombia Dark Milk, which was voted one of the best milk chocolates in the world in 2016. And her lighter bars aren’t just popular with critics. As with Fruition, Castronovo’s dark milk bars are some of their top sellers.

“We’re taking something old like milk chocolate and turning it into something new that can be appreciated as a fine chocolate,” she said. “Our dark milk chocolate has been used to pair with whiskey; some we pair with wines to show that this is a a fine food, not a candy.”