In the chocolate world, it seems like darker is better. Whether it’s dodgy studies that claim dark chocolate will cure everything that ails you (from heart disease to athlete’s foot) or wannabe chocolate snobs one-upping each other by eating high percentage chocolates, it’s all about the dark. Generally speaking, a 70% bar does best with consumers, somehow striking that balance between perceived bitterness and actual sweetness.
But what about white chocolate? It’s like the abandoned, poor cousin of dark chocolate. It doesn’t even contain any cocoa solids: just sugar, cocoa butter and milk powder. And maybe it does deserve some of your derision. After all, most white chocolate on the market is sparkling, shockingly white and tastes cloyingly of too much sugar and milk powder. But then, that’s like saying all dark chocolate is bitter—which, of course, it isn’t.
How it’s made: white chocolate
After cacao beans are roasted and the skins are removed, they’re transferred to a melangeur (fancy French word for ‘mixer’). In the melanger, the cacao is ground into a fine paste of anywhere from 35-50 micrometres. There are one million micrometres in a metre. While 35-50 micrometres is pretty darn small, it’s still big enough that you’d perceive some graininess in the mixture. From there, the mixture is expelled under high temperature and pressure. Under these conditions, the cocoa mass is solid (think of cocoa powder) while the cocoa butter is a liquid.
When it first comes out of the expeller, cocoa butter isn’t white; it’s actually off-white, yellow or light brown. It often has distinct taste, though that taste will depend on where the cacao beans came from and their quality. In most cases, the cocoa butter is deodorized before it’s transformed into other things. Some chocolatiers add it back into their chocolate to increase its smoothness; some sell it to the cosmetics industry.
That’s right, the cosmetics industry. Cocoa butter commands much more money in the cosmetics industry, where it makes its way into lipsticks, face creams and soaps. This is why most mass-market chocolate makers want to replace cocoa butter with other fats: so that they can remove the cocoa butter and sell it at a higher price to the cosmetics industry.
And still, some take that cocoa butter, mix it with milk powder and sugar, and make white chocolate.
There are a few tricks to making white chocolate. One, if you roast the beans at a higher temperature, you weaken the cell walls in the cacao bean. This makes it easier to expel the cocoa butter. If you’re trying to make money by selling the cocoa butter to the cosmetics industry, this will maximize your profits—but it will also leave you with over-roasted, nearly burnt beans. Chances are, if you’re making your buck off the cosmetics industry, you’re not interested in high quality chocolate.
The second trick is that in deodorizing your cocoa butter, you’re removing some of the inherent flavours of the product. Again, if you’re looking at maximizing profits, rather than producing good chocolate, then this is a moot point. However, if you’re interested in making interesting white chocolate, then this is a problem. Deodorizing makes the resultant white chocolate sparkly white, and also terribly bland. That’s why most white chocolate all tastes the same.
El Rey ICOA white chocolate
This is the darling of the pastry world, as far as white chocolate goes. For a long time, this has been the white chocolate that professionals swear by. El Rey is a Venezuelan chocolate company, and while I can’t say I’m a huge fan of all their stuff, the ICOA white chocolate is quite nice.
This white chocolate is not deodorized, so it’s slightly yellow. It’s delicately milky, with a sharp sweetness at about mid-palate. Most important, both fade away to a clean finish so you’re not left with a chalky, cloying, milky aftertaste. As with all El Rey products, this one is silky smooth and luxuriously melty.
Askinosie Nibble Bar
This was a recent silver award finalist at the New York Fancy Food Show. That in itself is pretty impressive, because—as I alluded to earlier—it’s unusual for white chocolate to win awards. I’m particularly happy about this one because Askinosie is an American chocolate company who’s doing great things: putting pictures of their farmers on the packaging, including a “chocolot” number that lets you trace the provenance of your chocolate bar and innovative, sustainable packaging.
The nibble bar is a cute concept, too. It’s white chocolate with cocoa nibs on top. I like to think of it as a deconstructed cacao bean: taking the components (cocoa and cocoa butter), separating them, and putting them back together in a different way.
Just like El Rey, Askinosie doesn’t deodorize its cocoa butter. But unlike El Rey, Askinosie uses goat’s milk powder. The Askinosie white chocolate is beige-brown, which somehow fits with the rustic look of the packaging. There’s a bit of goatiness and sourness from the goat’s milk, and that offsets some of the sweetness. As you bite into it, it does taste too sweet and a bit grainy, but then the cocoa butter starts to melt and you start to crunch into the cocoa nibs. And as you keep chewing the cocoa nibs, the sweetness intensifies and the graininess becomes comforting, and then you’re just left with a clean palate and a bit of nibby flavour.
There’s something addictive about the crunch of the sugar and nibs, and the weirdness of the goat’s milk. They don’t call this the nibble bar for nothing. Notice that the top third of the bar is missing in the photo? Yup. Nibble nibble nibble.