(This article appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
Like many desserts, confections, and other sweet treats, chocolate has faced a challenge in recent years. With increasing customer demand for plant-based alternative products, allergy considerations and different lifestyle needs, chefs and confectioners have expanded their offerings and palates to include dairy-free chocolate. From solid chocolate bars and bonbons to pastries like cakes and cookies, omitting dairy no longer means giving up something. In fact, going dairy-free is now a key selling point, finding significant success in the market.
Indeed, focusing on dark chocolate is an easy solution to avoid dairy. Seattle Chocolate, for example, has always been dairy-free across their signature brand and secondary brand jcoco dark chocolates. As owner Jean Thompson notes, “We pride ourselves in creating delightful dark chocolate flavors like Mexican Hot Chocolate, Rainier Cherry, Pike Place Espresso, Chocolate Chip Cookie and more, that anyone can enjoy.” They even offer bar bundles specifically marketed as plant-based.
But a chef or shop that wants to branch out to offering milk chocolate and adding other inclusions must face the inevitable fact that finding alternatives to dairy milk and creams is necessary. From small batch brands like Mast Brothers to large conglomerates like Lindt, the most successful alternative recently has been oat milk. While dairy alternatives like soy and almond milk are well-established options, oat milk offers two benefits that make it an ideal substitute. First, it is relatively allergen-friendly, which is often not the case with soy, almond or similar nut milks. And if produced in the proper environment, oat milk is also gluten-free even though it is grain-based. Second, oat milk has creaminess, which traditional cow milk can offer but other alternatives lack.
With a growing interest in plant-based foods in general, there are additional sources to consider. Lizanne Falsetto, a founder of the popular protein bar brand think!, recently launched a new brand of chocolate candy bars with half the sugar and double the protein of traditional bars called woo. Her secret ingredient is a plant-based whey protein called Perfect Day, made without cows, so it is lactose-free, hormone-free, nut-free, and gluten-free. “It has the performance of whey and the texture of egg white protein,” Falsetto explains, “We no longer have to mix three proteins together to get the perfect flavor and performance.” Since it is whey, it is important to note that it contains a milk allergen.
Of course, the concept of dairy-free is nothing new. Pastry chefs like Fran Costigan have been developing desserts without dairy for decades, using everything from tofu to aquafaba to replicate traditional ingredients. She, too, is a fan of oat milk for chocolate, specifically, the Oatly brand found nationwide. And if clients do not have objections to nuts, she notes that cashews “make a beautiful, rich milk and cream.” Costigan also recommends Violife plant-based vegan heavy cream if you need something with more fat, noting it “whips just like whipped cream, so pretty astonishing to me.”
In terms of developing recipes that are dairy-free, Costigan notes that it is similar to traditional recipe development. “Testing matters, but testing always matters,” she explains, adding, “I don’t think there’s so much of a difference, really. You want to use quality ingredients, you want to weigh your ingredients, you want to taste your ingredients.” There is a “plethora of wonderful ingredients” now according to Costigan. And the more new products and developments there are, the more expertise and options there will be.
The bottom line is don’t be afraid to research and experiment if you are interested in using dairy-free or plant-based ingredients. Though the trend has increased over the years and may be approaching its saturation point, take this tip from Falsetto. “Like any other category in food, many participants will enter the space where there is an opportunity. I think in the end, the brands that have really taken their time and focused on getting their products right will thrive in this category.” So even if it is a small offering in a more extensive product line, take the time to research, develop, and get your dairy-free chocolate just right, and you’ll find success.