When I began making chocolates and had my first fantasies of doing it for a living, Americans were well past their misgivings for anything other than a Hershey bar. In fact, the national trend had been moving steadily toward a preference for dark chocolate, and for my fellow American foodies, dark chocolate was beginning to define the very concept of luxury confections. As a result, we were spending an increasing amount of money on chocolate, and asking for even better and more expensive products.
As a fledgling entrepreneur this trend was encouraging; my market was ready and willing to spend their hard-earned cash on luxury chocolates, so long as it was dark. This appealed to the business person in me, but as a cook who loves all the foods on the color spectrum, I couldn’t help but feel that this bias toward dark chocolate was not only unfounded, but also helped to negatively influence our perception of both milk and white chocolates. Especially white chocolate.
In my 11 years of talking with customers from behind my own chocolate counter, I can say definitively that nothing gets a self-professed chocolate snob’s blood up as much as the mere mention of white chocolate.
“But it’s not really chocolate!” they exclaim. Or, “It’s too cloying.” Or, “It tastes like wax.”
They’re not wrong.
Most of the commercial white stuff on the market isn’t chocolate. Many bars on the shelf barely contain the minimum FDA-required amount of cocoa butter (20%) to define it as white chocolate, while the rest is filler of some other lesser quality vegetable fat (usually palm oil). Some contain no cocoa butter at all. Additionally, many producers of white chocolate bleach and deodorize their product, and then further manipulate it by adding copious amounts of sugar. And yes, some bars even contain paraffin—the producer’s effort to disguise the lack of sufficient cocoa butter in their inferior product. It’s only natural, and completely reasonable, for folks who pride themselves on their good taste, to be emphatic haters of the white chocolate readily available on their grocery store’s shelves.
So where’s the good stuff? And how can we tell the good from the bad?
First, and most importantly, read the label. A bar of plain white chocolate should consist of sugar, cocoa butter, milk powder, natural vanilla, and usually lecithin (soy or sunflower). That’s it. Nothing else. A bar with these ingredients (and only these ingredients) is off to a promising start. From there, we can consider a few other factors.
“As with dark chocolate, it all begins with the quality of the cocoa beans,” says Sally Baybutt, co-owner of Sparrow Enterprises, a Boston-based chocolate importing company. “Then, it’s the quality of the cocoa butter. After that, it’s the ratio of cocoa butter to sugar.” Baybutt goes on to explain that most higher quality formulas have less sugar and between 28 and 35% cocoa butter.
Ratios of each will depend on the brand, and per Baybutt’s experience, we can assume that companies that produce an excellent quality dark chocolate, will also produce a high quality white chocolate. Baybutt cites Valrhona, El Rey, and Callebaut as examples of makers that produce one or more lines of exceptional white chocolates.
See a brand you’re not familiar with? If it passes the label test, it is, at the very least, worth trying; and at its best, will change the mind of even the most passionate of haters. No lie. I’ve seen it happen.
As a cook, I pair white chocolate with the tart flavors of late winter and early spring fruits, like meyer lemons, tangerines, limes, rhubarb and strawberries. It’s mellow creaminess also does well with slightly bitter ingredients like coffee and black or green teas.
Even if you prefer to stick with your favorite bittersweet bar for snacking, white chocolate’s high fat content and sweetness adds depth of flavor and incredible texture when substituted for part of the butter in recipes for cakes and other pastries.
Curious? Feeling open-minded? Get your pans ready and try these recipes: Matcha & White Chocolate Pound Cake with Tangerine-Black Sesame Glaze and Chilled White Chocolate & Rhubarb Compote Parfaits.