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 flavour and colour. "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 flavour.
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, America's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) 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."
Yuh says white chocolate is a canvas for other flavours, offering "surprising breadth and utility."
That's why specialty chocolate makers are embracing white chocolate as a new frontier for flavour, creating combinations that push the boundaries.
This includes white chocolate made with non-deodorised cocoa butter that retains cocoa aromas 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, chilli 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.
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 colour. If the bar is bright white, it's been bleached and probably deodorised.
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."