Everything you want to know about chocolate
Some are diplomatic. "I love that it's the underdog," says chocolate educator Eagranie Yuh. "When you teach people about chocolate, you often hear them say 'oh I only eat dark chocolate this percentage or higher.'"
Others are more direct. "Those people need to get over themselves," Modernist Cuisine head chef and renowned chocolatier Francisco Migoya once told my friend Niko Triantafillou. "There is a situation that's right for every type of chocolate—including white chocolate," and hating on the stuff "is so cliché that to me it is deeply boring and predictable."
White chocolate fans—even mere appreciators—are used to defending their choices. Yes, we know white chocolate can be very sweet—treacly when improperly made. Some of it is chalky or waxy or tastes like cheap milk powder.
But there's bad white chocolate and good white chocolate, and the good stuff, when treated right, is one of the most versatile and useful ingredients in the pastry kitchen. It can even taste delicious on its own, a creamy, milky pleasure wholly different from milk and dark, but just as worthy of obsessive attention.
A couple months ago I began an intense investigation into white chocolate. My mission: what does truly delicious white chocolate look and taste like, and how can we show skeptics what it's capable of?
When I talked about the project with others, eyes lit up, I got dismissive stares. Furrowed brows. White chocolate? Really? I thought you wrote about food that tastes good.
To these people I say: You don't know what you're missing. Because after talking to some experts and tasting many, many bars of the stuff, I have some answers. And the truth is white chocolate has something to offer to every sweet tooth.
Yes, White Chocolate Really is Chocolate
It's funny when people say white chocolate isn't real chocolate, considering as much as 45% of its mass comes straight from the cacao pod.
Dark chocolate is a suspension of cocoa solids, sugar, emulsifiers, and flavorings like vanilla in cocoa butter. White chocolate simply swaps out the cocoa solids for milk solids, but it's still loaded with cocoa butter. (When you see a cocoa percentage on white chocolate, the number refers to the percent of cocoa butter, not cocoa solids.)
Those cocoa solids contain chocolate's bitter, tannic, and berry flavors, which is why white chocolate doesn't have that sharp bitterness. But that doesn't mean it's flavorless. Cocoa butter has subtle flavors all its own, and a chocolate-maker's choice of milk solids and other ingredients have a huge bearing on white chocolate's flavor.
Stripping out grittty cocoa solids does wonders for white chocolate's texture, which is far and away smoother and more satiny than its darker counterparts. "A lot of white chocolate is about the texture," as Yuh puts it. Yuh, the author of the Chocolate Tasting Kit and a judge-organizer for the International Chocolate Awards, puts her chemistry background and palate to work teaching people about chocolate in all its forms.
"I think it deserves some of its scorn. There's a lot of bad white chocolate out there." But she's quick to point out that good white chocolate is a whole different ballgame. "It should taste like good milk, fresh and clean, and it shouldn't be super sweet." The color shouldn't be white, but rather ivory or pale yellow—the color of cocoa butter. And in a really good sample, there should be some echoes of cocoa flavor and aroma from the cocoa butter.
Pastry chef Stella Parks (aka BraveTart) notes white chocolate's delicate "floral and aromatic cocoa butter qualities, like an edible flower." I've even tasted some (now discontinued) that had a blast of cooling blast of mint and herbs, all without any added flavorings. These are subtle flavors to be sure, less assertive than an 80% bar of the dark stuff, but once you start tasting a few brands, you do start noticing the differences.
Putting White Chocolate to Work
White chocolate's mild demeanor and creamy body make it the ideal substrate to "highlight some other top-notch flavor," and Parks puts it. Herbs like basil, mint, and bay leaf all do beautifully with white chocolate, as do tangy-sweet raspberries or—yes—olives. The Vancouver-based Beta5 chocolate company sells a candied olive bar that Yuh describes as sweet, salty, and chewy all at once. And that's not the only savory application she's enjoyed. "I once had it shaved over beet risotto in place of parmesan. It works really well in some savory dishes."
But most of us will probably stick to baking. Parks uses white chocolate as a feathery-soft garnish to shave over cakes. Or she'll melt it down for blondie batter to make a "true equivalent" to brownies, fudgey chew and all.
White chocolate also plays a structural role in her recipes. "I'll add some to stabilize a Swiss or cream cheese buttercream, like if I added a strawberry reduction." In those cases, she doesn't care too much about the chocolate's delicate flavors; a bland white chocolate will do the job just as well as a more flavorful—and more expensive—version. "Sometimes a mediocre white chocolate is really great for that reason."
White chocolate is practically built for coating, particularly when you want a chocolate-like shell but would find cocoa's flavor distracting. Chocolate-covered strawberries, for instance, are a much more synchronous pairing when the chocolate is white rather than dark.
And it makes delicate and creamy ganache, mousse, ice cream, and glaze as part of a larger dessert. I like to pair it with bold ingredients like olive oil, white sesame, orange, and ginger—anything that plays well with dairy but can hold its own. In this white chocolate and mint ice cream, the chocolate adds a dense body to the scoop while contributing its subtle cocoa undertones to the mint. A drizzle of tangy pomegranate molasses on top cuts through all the fat.
What's a good white chocolate for baking? A specific answer depends on what you want to do with it, but broadly speaking, a high cocoa butter percentage, such as 33% and up, helps. A higher percentage doesn't necessarily mean more cocoa flavor, but in some white chocolates it can. More importantly, high amounts of cocoa butter make for something that behaves more like, well, chocolate: voluptuous when melted or baked into cookies and crisp and snappy when used as a coating.
That's why it's best to avoid white chocolate chips, which melt poorly because they're designed to hold their shape under heat. They get that way by subbing out some cocoa butter with flavorless hydrogenated oil and by loading on sugar for something that tastes candy-sweet. If you want white chocolate chunks for baking, chop up your own bar or buy white chocolate in oval-shaped feves or tiny domed pistoles.
If there's a trick to white chocolate, it's watching the added sugar and fat. White chocolate is loaded with both, and piling more on top just makes for sugar-shock or an oily film on the tongue. So if you're using white chocolate with other dairy, try adding some strong contrasting flavor on the plate, like citrus, berry, or passionfruit. On the other hand, if you're going for sweet-on-sweet, like these nutty oatmeal cookies with white chocolate and cranberries, opt for a less-sweet variety of white chocolate. Our recommendations below reference relative sweetness levels.
And Then There's Caramel
"I feel like chocolatiers have more license to play with white chocolate," Yuh tells me. "It's less academic-tasting."
Much of today's craft chocolate-making scene looks a lot like wine and coffee: producers obsessed with the origins of their meticulously tracked-down raw materials and with expressing the "true" nature of these plants.
White chocolate is a little different. Almost all bean-to-bar chocolate-makers buy the cocoa butter for their white chocolate from somewhere else—they just can't produce enough from their own cacao pods. Many of those cocoa butter processors aren't even focused on food; cocoa butter is more valuable in cosmetics and lotions than sweets.
So yes, good white chocolate needs good ingredients, but part of the fun of the stuff is what you can do with it. And one of the best things to do with white chocolate is caramelize it—a process that began with cooks and has become so popular that a few chocolate-makers have caught on and started making bars of it. Valrhona's Dulcey "blond" chocolate is one example; Fruition's Toasted White is another.
Caramelized white chocolate is a lot like dulce de leche, as the low-temperature cooking process browns the milk solids more than the sugar. The result is a beautifully complex, nutty, and savory substance with all that white chocolate creaminess and a powerful twangy dairy flavor. Try making ice cream with it, or use it as a firm caramel layer in some millionaire's shortbread. Or just go at it with a spoon.
To make it, arrange an even layer of white chocolate in a glass or ceramic baking dish and bake it for about an hour at 250°F, stirring every 10 minutes so the chocolate browns evenly.* Stella Parks cautioned me against using a chocolate with less than 30% cocoa butter because it can turn grainy, but even with a high-fat chocolate you'll notice it firms and seizes a bit while cooking, and the caramelization makes the chocolate less stable to work with later on. As the chocolate cools out of the oven, it turns more liquid-like, and once it solidifies you can melt it down again into something like hot fudge sauce.
A bit of work? Sure, but there's no easier way to get a whole new kind of flavor out of demure white chocolate.
* Have a sous vide cooker? Vacuum-seal some white chocolate and caramelize it in a water bath. It's the best and easiest way to get the job done.
In Search of the Best White Chocolate
You can find white chocolate everywhere, from American mass-market candy manufacturers to the European chocolate giants to tiny craft start-ups. And with so many uses for white chocolate, it's hard to say there's one ideal to look for. But the difference in quality between the good stuff and the bad is vast, which is why I gathered a tasting panel of pastry chefs and chocolate-loving food writers to taste 21 varieties in search of the best white chocolate we could find.
For this tasting we restricted ourselves to pure white chocolate—that is, no fruit or nut chunks or fancy flavorings besides vanilla—though we did include two caramelized white chocolate varieties. Doing so meant we had to exclude some brands that white chocolate lovers recommended because they were only available in flavored form. In the end we totaled a whopping 21 white chocolates; several brands had more than one variety of white chocolate.
* Disclosure: Several white chocolates were provided as review samples. Big thanks to intern Emilia for tracking the chocolates down.
The chocolates we tasted ran the gamut from mass-market to craft, and while you won't find most of our favorites in your typical supermarket, all are available for online orders in the U.S. Some are sold as bars, others in blocks, others in feves or pistoles, which melt very evenly and make for great mega-sized chocolate chunks.
There are many ways you can taste white chocolate, but the best way to suss out the differences between them is to try them raw. (Besides, if you're going to bake with some good white chocolate, it might as well taste good on its own.) Tasters sampled chocolates and rated their flavors, textures, and overall preferences.
What were we looking for? A chocolate that melted smooth and clean on the tongue without leaving a film behind, creamy and rich but not too fatty. The flavor of fresh milk (not chalky powdered milk) with subtle vanilla, cocoa, and floral undertones. And a moderate sweetness that encourages you to come back for another piece rather than succumb to sugar-shock.
"I feel like a lot of these are unbalanced," one taster confided to me. "Some are all milk while others are really heavy on the vanilla." As with milk and dark chocolate, white chocolate benefits from a balanced hand with the flavorings. That hurt samples from several excellent chocolate makers who made something that tasted more like milk powder and vanilla extract than sweet cream and cocoa. Other samples got points knocked off for excess sweetness or too heavy a reliance on milk powder, which left a nasty aftertaste on the tongue.
Tasters were also unforgiving with chocolates that didn't melt whisper-smooth. Chalky or fatty textures just aren't allowed in good white chocolate. That may be less important if you're diluting the melted chocolate into something like a ganache, but if you're shaving it for a garnish or snacking on some, you'll notice the difference.
The good news is that the chocolates we did enjoy are very versatile. They're flavorful and interesting to eat on their own and they perform well in a range of pastry applications from ganache to buttercream to cookies and mousse. There's no one white chocolate for every situation, so I've broken the results down into categories.
The Cream of the Crop (But Pricey): Valrhona
The French big dog Valrhona makes some of the best chocolate you can buy, so it's no surprise that all three of their white chocolates took top spots. If money's no object, we'd say the best all-around white chocolate you can ge is their 35% Ivoire, which tasters loved for its "clean, silky" flavor and texture that "lingers a little" on the palate. This chocolate has a gorgeous melt, perfect for that gooey-but-substantial texture in chocolate chip cookies (and on the tongue). The flavor is alarmingly fresh, milk in solid form, with a restrained sweetness that makes it all too easy to snack on. Dairy, cocoa, and vanilla all play together in concert.
Valrhona's 33% Opalys also scored well, but not quite as enthusiastically. It's very good—balanced, fresh, and with a similar super-silky texture—but it's sweeter, which limits its versatility, and it's more dry-milk-forward with a slightly heavier feeling on the tongue.
Both of these white chocolates are available in 100 gram and 250 gram bars as well as in feves sold by the kilo. The only downside: even if you buy in bulk, Valrhona's white chocolate will run you about $20 a pound (though perhaps less for wholesale). If you want to showcase some excellent white chocolate, I'd say that price is worth it. But the decision is up to you.
Baking on a Budget: Cacao Barry
At about half the price of Valrhona, Cacao Barry makes some very good white chocolate that's much easier on the wallet. The company sells two varieties: the 34% Zéphyr, our favorite, and the 29% Blanc Satin. Tasters enjoyed the former's "fresh, slightly honeyed" flavor and "melty, buttery" texture. It's a subtle white chocolate but with a lovely cocoa undercurrent that really does remind you that you're eating chocolate. The melt isn't as clean and light as Valrhona's, but its rich body would be very at home in a ganache or buttercream, and its restrained sweetness makes it useful in a wide range of applications. The Blanc Satin also scored well, but like the Opalys it's a heavier, sweeter, and more vanilla-and-powdered-milk formulation.
Pistoles of the chocolate (small dome-shaped discs perfect for using as chips) are available on sites like Chocosphere, though mostly in bulk. If you can't find Cacao Barry, try looking for Guittard's white chocolate. There are three varieties with subtle differences, and while we wouldn't jump to eat them on their own, they'll definitely get the job done for baking.
Your Grocery Store Snacking Bar: Green and Black's
You're waiting on line at the grocery store and hunger finally hits. You want something sweet and creamy and you need it now. What do you buy? Some Green & Black's, peering at you from the corner of your eye, on a shelf near the register. (While this is a decent line of grocery store chocolate, I suspect much of it is purchased in precisely this impulse-buy manner.)
Their white chocolate, flecked with vanilla beans, is no exception, and it was a big hit with our tasters. The flavor here is all vanilla—really intense vanilla—with a big, fudge-like texture that feels as much confection as chocolate bar. You may not want that dose of vanilla in your baked goods, but it makes for a fun, delicious snacking bar when a white chocolate craving strikes.
The Caramelized: Valrhona and Fruition
I couldn't help but sneak some caramelized white chocolate into our lineup. Our tasters immediately recognized the samples as something different, but they loved both, and if you want a bar with that great twangy caramelized flavor that turns out smoother and creamier than what you can make at home, both of these chocolates are great buys.
Valrhona's Dulcey, which they call "blond chocolate," is insanely creamy with a full-bodied caramel flavor (tasters noted "nutty" and "butterscotch" accents) that keeps going and going as the chocolate melts. It's also really sweet—perhaps too much to eat on its own—but it was specifically designed for pastry applications that can cut the sugar. (It makes incredible ganache and mousse).
Upstate New York's Fruition sells a Toasted White chocolate, so called because some of the milk solids are fried in cocoa butter before getting formed into chocolate, which makes for a smoother bar than you'd get from caramelizing your own. The Toasted White has a bolder, more burnished flavor than the Dulcey, with a stronger lactic twang for balance. But it's not quite as smooth-melting. Smooth, yes, and soft as you bite down, but with a few distracting grains.
The Dark (Undeodorized) Horse: El Rey
This is something of a controversial pick, as no chocolate was more divisive in our tasting than El Rey's 34% Icoa, but I think it's worthy of inclusion, like the caramelized white chocolate, to show the range of what white chocolate can be.
Almost all white chocolate is made from deodorized cocoa butter; that is, cocoa butter that's filtered and purified to make it a more neutral base for cosmetics. (Recall that most of the commercial demand for cocoa butter isn't food-related.) But what's good for lotion isn't necessarily good for chocolate. Deodorizing cocoa butter tames its chocolate flavor considerably.
El Rey is one of the few chocolate makers to use less refined undeodorized cocoa butter in their white chocolate, and to some (though notably not all) of our tasters, the cacao pod's wild flavor does come through loud and clear. While several of our white chocolate picks have noteworthy cocoa notes, the Icoa turns the volume way up.
Tasters were less in love with the texture. The Icoa mostly comes in half-pound bars, which isn't great for taking snack-sized bites. And while the chocolate isn't grainy, it doesn't melt in the mouth quite as smoothly as, say, Valrhona and Cacao Barry. So consider this a qualified recommendation. Tasters either loved or hated this chocolate, but those that loved it considered it among the best.
Our Tasting Methodology: All taste tests are conducted completely blind and without discussion. Tasters taste samples in random order. For example, taster A may taste sample 1 first, while taster B will taste sample 6 first. This is to prevent palate fatigue from unfairly giving any one sample an advantage. Tasters are asked to fill out tasting sheets ranking the samples for various criteria that vary from sample to sample. All data is tabulated and results are calculated with no editorial input in order to give us the most impartial representation of actual results possible.