White chocolate might just be the most polarizing sweet in the universe, maybe next to black licorice and candy corn. “That’s not really chocolate!” is a sentiment I often hear when the light-colored candy makes an appearance at one of the guided chocolate tastings I often host in New York.
And it makes sense. For years it’s been considered super saccharine, low-quality chocolate. Across the board, we’re used to eating industrial chocolate, with its subpar ingredients and preservatives, and nowhere do these things taste worse than in white chocolate. Plus, white chocolate does contain much more sugar than dark chocolate or even milk chocolate, and in these wellness-obsessed times, that means it’s often denigrated.
And yet, white chocolate is redeeming itself, in part because French company Valrhona started selling caramelized white chocolate in 2006. Now artisans are making higher-end versions of the stuff that might change your opinion when reaching for a bar.
But first, what is white chocolate and what ingredients are in it?
Let’s start with what we know: dark and milk chocolate. Both consist of cocoa solids (the brown stuff, aka cocoa powder) and cocoa butter (the fat). White chocolate, on the other hand, doesn’t have any brown stuff; it just has the fat. Add sugar and milk powder or cream powder and you’re in business. Hey, while you’re there, throw in some cardamom, avocado, or broccoli (yes, that’s a real thing!) for good measure.
Why is it real chocolate?
As I write in “Bean-to-Bar Chocolate: America’s Craft Chocolate Revolution,” “in the early 2000s the Hershey Corporation and the Chocolate Manufacturers Association of the United States of America lobbied the FDA successfully. Since 2004 ‘white chocolate’ has been considered chocolate, as long as it contains at least 20 percent cocoa butter, a minimum of 14 percent total milk solids and 3.5 percent milk fat, and a maximum of 55 percent sugar or other sweeteners.”
To make cocoa butter, the central ingredient in white chocolate, you have to separate this fat from the cocoa mass found naturally in cocoa beans. First cocoa beans are roasted, shelled, and ground into a paste. That paste is then put into a cocoa butter press, which exerts several tons of pressure on it until the fat is essentially squeezed out and all that’s left is defatted chocolate, which looks like the dry cakes my quirky Aunt Shirley makes when she’s on a health kick. If you break up the dry cakes, you get cocoa powder; if you collect the squeezed-out fat, you have cocoa butter.
Most cocoa butter leaves the factory at this stage and goes into our favorite skincare products like Burt’s Bees body lotion. But some of it sticks around and is recombined with cocoa powder and other ingredients to make industrial chocolate.
Bean-to-bar chocolate, on the other hand, is made differently. First the cocoa beans are roasted, shelled, and ground into a paste, then refined further, combined with a little sugar, tempered, and formed into bars. Many bean-to-bar makers don’t make white chocolate because they don’t have a cocoa butter press, and when they do, they often use cocoa butter bought from a third party.
And yet, we are living in the golden age of white chocolate, where bean-to-bar and other artisan makers are turning out delicious, less-sugary versions of this much maligned treat. After Valrhona premiered its Dulcey chocolate in the naughts, chocolatiers had something more full-flavored to work with (you really can’t beat caramel). Plus, neutral white chocolate is the perfect backdrop to showcase high-end ingredients, like in Castronovo’s white chocolate infused with lemon oil and lemon salt. With the recent matcha craze, bars like Eclat’s dark-white-swirled Green Tea and Roasted Rice bar are reminding us chocolate lovers why those toasty flavors mesh so well. And the proliferation of vegan white chocolate (made with coconut milk) like Map’s Third Snowflake from the Left (vegan ginger white chocolate with dark chocolate chunks) means regardless of dietary restrictions, we can all enjoy the latest trend.
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