Among all the controversial subjects in chocolate, perhaps the most controversial is the question, "Is white chocolate really chocolate?" It's a question that evokes almost religious fervor and is akin to the question, "Mac or PC?"
Naysayers point to the fact that white chocolate only contains cocoa butter and no cocoa powder (which is what gives chocolate its color) and in order to be truly chocolate it has to contain both.
On the other hand, the FDA says that there is such a thing as white chocolate. In the US, white chocolate must contain a minimum of 20 per cent cocoa butter, not less than 3.5 per cent milkfat, and 14 per cent milk solids. White chocolate may contain up to 55 per cent nutritive carbohydrate sweetener (sugar).
So, like it or not, yes, Virginia, there is a white chocolate. Even though it's little more than really sweet fat.
What few people stop to think about however, are questions like, "Why does white chocolate taste so bland?" and "What is it about white chocolate that people find attractive?" Fortunately for you I am one of those few who have, and here's what I've learned.
Where Does White Chocolate's Flavor Come From?
It helps to know that the majority of chocolate is made with a blend of beans from two or more origins. Blending is primarily done to control cost and to make it easier to make consistent tasting chocolate from harvest to harvest. It also helps to know that most chocolate has cocoa butter added to it during the final stage of chocolate making, conching. The final piece of the puzzle is to recognize that cocoa butter, when it is first pressed, has the flavor of the beans it is pressed from.
Chocolate makers long ago developed a process called deodorizing to eliminate the flavors and aromas in cocoa butter so they wouldn't have to factor in the flavor of the cocoa butter in their blends.
Thus, the main reason that most white chocolate has no flavor is that it's made with cocoa butter, which has had all the flavor removed. The quality of flavor in a white chocolate is highly dependent on the quality of the dairy ingredients used. This is one of the reasons why people point to Swiss white chocolate as being so good—the milk and cream those happy Swiss cows produce is rich and flavorful. (Maybe it's the yodeling.)
It turns out that there is one only white chocolate in the world made with undeodorized cocoa butter: Icoa from El Rey in Venezuela. El Rey makes several unblended chocolates (from either Rio Caribe beans or Carenero Superior beans) and has no need to deodorize their cocoa butter. (For a list of retail locations in the US that carry Icoa, visit El Rey's website.) Icoa has a very mild but distinct milk chocolate flavor that is noticeably less sweet than most white chocolates, and is a rich ivory color, not white. Interestingly, undeodorized cocoa butter resists oxidation longer than deodorized cocoa butter, so in addition to making a better-tasting white chocolate it's also "less bad" for you.
What Makes White Chocolate Appealing?
There is no definitive conclusion as to why chocolate is so "addictive," and I suspect that there are a number of factors and some people are more susceptible to one over another.
Two of the sensory characteristics that many people say they like most about chocolate is the texture and the way it melts in the mouth. Chocolate manufacturers spend a lot of time working to achieve this texture and a significant part of the manufacturing process is dedicated to getting the size of the cocoa powder particles small enough (and coated with cocoa butter) that you can't feel any grit on the tongue. (This size is less than 20 microns, though an average around 16 microns or so is what most really high-end chocolate manufacturers shoot for. Smaller is not better; if the particles are too small the chocolate will get a pasty texture and may not temper properly.)
If one of the main sensory characteristics people say they like about chocolate is the creamy texture and the way it melts in the mouth, then white chocolate is actually the ultimate expression of chocolate in this regard because it's completely smooth and creamy with no trace of texture from cocoa powder particles—because there are no cocoa butter particles.
Makes some sense when you think about it. Regardless, it's never my first choice for an eating chocolate, but I do appreciate it when it's used to make a sensational ganache.
In the end, though, each of us is our own judge of quality—what I like is what I like and you might not agree with my assessments. I am finally cool with that (it took years of group therapy in hundreds of chocolate tasting sessions to reach this point). I don't look down on people who say that white chocolate is their favorite chocolate, and I certainly don't try to make them feel bad for liking it or try to convert them to "the dark side."
However, I probably won't share with them the really expensive really good stuff I get because I don't think they will truly appreciate it. I am cool with that too—it leaves more for me.
About the author: Clay Gordon has been a professional chocolate critic since 2001 and is considered a pioneer of the literary genre of serious criticism about chocolate. His thoughts on chocolate have appeared in the pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Business Week, among many others. He has appeared on Oprah, on programs aired on Food Network and History Channel, and has been a regular guest on Martha Stewart Living Radio. Clay's first book on chocolate, Discover Chocolate was selected as a finalist in the International Association of Culinary Professionals' 2008 Cookbook of the Year Awards. A serious chocolate educator, Clay has created and moderates an online community for chocophiles and aspiring chocophiles, The Chocolate Life as well as helping to create and lead tours for serious chocolate fans for The Chocolate Lovers Travel Club.