For years, connoisseurs dismissed white chocolate — a confection made with cocoa butter, milk solids and sugar, but with none of the cocoa solids that give darker chocolate its recognizable flavor and color. "White chocolate or white lie?" one online video asks. The host opens with: "If you love white chocolate, I hate to break it to you: You're not eating chocolate."
Besides the absence of cocoa solids, the reputation stems from the fact that white chocolate products often contain such additives as palm oil and other fillers, plus an excess of sweeteners. But a growing number of specialty chocolate companies are now giving the same attention to white chocolate as dark or milk chocolate, and trying to highlight the ways it can showcase flavor.
A cocoa bean is made up of roughly equal parts cocoa butter and cacao nibs. Cocoa butter is what gives chocolate its rich mouthfeel, and the nibs hold most of the distinctive smell and taste. Absent of nibs, "white chocolate is basically just sweet fat," says Clay Gordon, creator of the Chocolate Life website, "with a melt that is unencumbered by the nonfat cocoa solids, or cocoa powder." For a chocolate to be labeled as chocolate, as opposed to candy, the Food and Drug Administration requires that the bar be made up of at least 10 percent cocoa mass (nibs plus the cocoa fat inherent to the bean) , with no specifications about cocoa butter. White chocolate, on the other hand, has to have a cocoa butter content of at least 20 percent and does not require the inclusion of nibs. The FDA established these standards in 2004 in response to petitions filed by the Hershey Company and the Chocolate Manufacturers Association (now part of the National Confectioners Association).
Pastry chef and cookbook author David Lebovitz, an avowed white chocolate fan, disputes the idea that it's not really chocolate. "Bickering over the nomenclature becomes tiring," he said in an email. "We still call hamburgers by that name, even though they are not made of ham, and milkshakes actually aren't shaken these days, but blended. So I think it's okay to group white chocolate in with the rest of the variety of things made from cacao beans, since they all have the same base."
The history of white chocolate is largely unclear, but "the general consensus," says Eagranie Yuh, author of "The Chocolate Tasting Kit" (Chronicle, 2014), "is that Nestlé was the first to develop white chocolate commercially in 1936 in Switzerland. The story is that it was a way to use up excess milk powder that had been produced for World War I and was no longer in demand."
White chocolate is also a way to use up extra cocoa butter that is extracted from the cocoa bean when making cocoa powder. This fat is the most highly regarded byproduct of chocolate production, valued not only in chocolate but cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. Cocoa butter is typically filtered, bleached with clay minerals that absorb color components and deodorized, through steam distillation or solvents that reduce the volatile compounds that contribute to its aroma. It remains stable at room temperature and is rich in saturated and monounsaturated fatty acids. Because of these qualities, the cost of cocoa butter more than doubled between 2005 and 2015, and it's why many large-scale manufacturers substitute a portion of their deodorized cocoa butter with fillers such as vegetable oil that significantly reduce cost.
The rise in price also led some makers to expand their efforts to produce quality white chocolate. "We started manufacturing white chocolate ourselves because there is very little white chocolate on the market that is pure and made only with cocoa butter, milk and sugar," says Denise Castronovo, founder of Florida's Castronovo Chocolate. "For us, it's a chance to educate our consumers about what real white chocolate actually is."
What it is, Yuh says, is a canvas for other flavors, offering "surprising breadth and utility." That's why Castronovo and other specialty chocolate makers are embracing white chocolate as a new frontier for flavor, creating combinations that push the boundaries. This includes white chocolate made with non-deodorized cocoa butter that retains cocoa aromas (popularized by the Venezuelan company El Rey) and chocolates made with goats' milk and nondairy milks, plus a wide variety of spices and other inclusions: Thai curry shrimp from Taiwan's Fu Wan Chocolate; rosemary and sea salt from Forte in Seattle; mango, chile and lime from Toronto's Soma Chocolatemaker; turmeric and pomegranate from the Violet Chocolate Company in the Canadian province of Alberta; and white chocolate infused with Mosaic beer hops from Somerville Chocolate in Massachusetts.
"The hops idea came about because of the glorious, steamy clouds of fruity hops aroma that waft over to my workspace when the brewery [next door] dumps the mash from their tanks," explains Somerville's Eric Parkes. "They use my nibs in their beer, and I wanted to work with something of theirs." Parkes says there's "a little subversive, ironic thrill in making white chocolate at a higher level."
This can also be said of German chocolate maker Georgia Ramon, which features such white chocolate combinations as organic kale with mustard and salted Sicilian almonds with broccoli. "Until our release of vegetable bars, there were no chocolates like them in the market," says co-founder Georg Bernardini. "We wanted to try new things." It works, he adds, because "the taste of most fruits and vegetables are too subtle to combine them with a chocolate that contains [nibs]."
Castronovo, who includes roasted strawberries, raspberries and blueberries in her white chocolate bars, agrees: "White chocolate is a good medium in which you can play creatively with flavors and texture."
So what should curious chocolate lovers look for in the white stuff? First, check the ingredients list, says Yuh, "which should include only sugar, cocoa butter, milk solids or milk powder and, possibly, lecithin and vanilla. If you can, also check the color. If the bar is bright white, it's been bleached and probably deodorized. High-quality white chocolate tends to be slightly yellow because cocoa butter is naturally yellow." Yuh also recommends purchasing chocolates from a specialty grocer or dedicated craft chocolate shop. "Chances are, whoever is buying the dark and milk chocolate will be as discerning with quality when they choose white chocolate."
One such purveyor is Oregon's Cacao Portland. Co-founder Aubrey Lindley considers white chocolate more of a confection than chocolate. "I like my white chocolate to be delicate, creamy and honest — and not feel like wax or shortening in the mouth," he says. "It should have some flavor interest and complexity and balance."
And what about the absence of milk powder in these newer chocolates? Lindley says the FDA definition should evolve to mean a chocolate with no cocoa mass, but composed of cocoa butter, sugar and other ingredients. Not fillers, but flavors, he says, "that bring pleasure."
White chocolate infused with lemon oil and lemon salt
Castronovo Chocolate, Stuart, Fla.
Inspired by lemon flake salt that conjured memories of Sicily, Denise Castronovo has created a bar that, she says, "reminds us of a light, summery lemon mousse dessert."
Cocanú, Portland, Ore.
Featuring black sesame seeds, matcha and vanilla, this nontraditional bar is gray in color and only lightly sweetened.
White Chocolate Nibble Bar
Askinosie Chocolate, Springfield, Mo.
The cocoa butter and cocoa nibs featured in this bar are from the identical batch of Filipino cocoa. "In just one bite," the company writes, "you can taste the entire story."
Vanilla Bean Rice Crisp
Charm School Chocolate, Gwynn Oak, Md.
While most white chocolate contains milk powder, this vegan treat is made with coconut and tastes like a virtuous (and delicious) Rice Krispies Treat.
Madre Chocolate, Honolulu
This nondairy bar is inspired by horchata, the delicious Spanish/Mexican drink made from rice milk, almonds, cinnamon and vanilla.
Fruition Chocolate, Shokan, N.Y.
Former pastry chef Bryan Graham enrobes roasted pistachios in white chocolate seasoned with candied orange and za'atar, a blend of Middle Eastern spices.
Sethi is the author of "Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love" and the host/creator of "The Slow Melt" chocolate podcast.