What Is White Chocolate, And Why Is It So Divisive?

This time of year I'll eat white chocolate in any form. It's a position that didn't change even after consuming a nauseating amount of Williams-Sonoma Peppermint Bark over the course of my seasonal day job. This might seem like a benign answer to that "state your most controversial food opinion" meme. But as it turns out, white chocolate is a divisive substance. When I asked Facebook friends how they felt about it, the reaction was mixed. Responses ranged from the practical ("It's too sweet. It can only be consumed when paired with something salty like a pretzel.") to the satirically heated ("I don't need to defend it. I just erase people who don't like white chocolate from my life.") to the...NSFW? ("White chocolate with coconut is better than... well, almost as good as... you know.")

Beyond the descriptive swings from sex to wax, many people also felt the need to comment that white chocolate isn't really chocolate. This turns out to be half true. The process of making chocolate begins with cacao beans (or nibs) that are harvested from trees and aged. The nib contains both cocoa solids and cocoa butter; to make the milk chocolate we know and love, both the cocoa solids and cocoa butter are combined with sugar and milk. White chocolate, on the other hand, only uses the fatty part of the nib: the cocoa butter, which accounts for about 54–58% of the cocoa nib. There are no cocoa solids, just the fat, sugar, and milk.

Real white chocolate, when made correctly and well, tastes tannic and fruity. It is also shockingly pungent. But that is not how the average consumer typically takes their white chocolate; most people are eating the commercial stuff. The two main ingredients used to flavor the mass-market varieties are sugar and vanilla, which tend to flatten everything out into a generic "sweet" taste. There are, however, U.S. laws standardizing what we can actually call white chocolate: It must contain at least 20% cocoa butter, 14% total milk solids, and 3.5% milk fat, and no more than 55% sugar.

While its origins are hazy (Generally Nestlé is credited for launching the trend in the 1930s with the white chocolate Milkybar), white chocolate is offered as a variant by nearly every major chocolate brand, perhaps lending some credence to the argument that white chocolate is just as inherently chocolatey as its counterparts. Then again, these industry-leading products are often barely qualified to be sold as "white chocolate" in any sense: earlier this year Reese's came under fire when a lawsuit alleged that its white chocolate peanut butter cups don't actually contain white chocolate. This is some fraught terminology, all right.

For those not lining up to celebrate White Chocolate Day (September 22, mark your calendars), David Menkes, owner of Letterpress Chocolate, understands your position. As the bean-to-bar chocolate maker explains, a lot of public disdain for white chocolate is rooted in the mass-market cocoa butter deodorization process, which lightens the yellowish color of the cocoa butter and removes much of its chocolate scent, resulting in a product that can be thought of as categorically different from milk or dark chocolate. As the first producer to make a single origin white chocolate, Menkes is rightfully critical of industrial standards. And although he is vociferous about bean origin and tasting profiles, it was at wife and co-owner Corey's request that they added a White Chocolate Camino Verde and White Chocolate Matcha bar to their deep bench of bars a few years after opening in 2014. Menkes admits a personal preference for higher cocoa, lower sugar options, even though he's started to appreciate what well-made white chocolate can offer—which can be shocking to visitors of their Los Angeles industrial kitchen and tasting room.

"Ours gets fermented properly," he explains of their Balao, Ecuador–sourced ingredients. Rather than use commercial cocoa butter, which goes through that deodorization process of hot steam injection, Letterpress uses cocoa butter that's closer to its natural state, allowing a more complex taste to come through.

"Deodorized cocoa butter tastes like wax," he says, "That's why all the white chocolate you've ever had has tons of vanilla in it. They're trying to cover up the fact that it doesn't taste like anything." He nods to the shard of decadent white chocolate I'm currently enjoying. "There's no vanilla in that; what you're tasting is the bean."

So what's to stop white chocolate from undergoing a wholesale rebrand? Would a white chocolate by any other name help its less-than-glowing public opinion? Megan Giller, author of Bean-to-Bar Chocolate: America's Craft Chocolate Revolution, argues that white chocolate has earned the "chocolate" part of its title.

"I strongly believe that white chocolate should be considered chocolate," she says. "In fact, I have a whole section in my book devoted to explaining why it's really chocolate. Its central ingredient is cocoa butter, the natural fat in cocoa beans. So, it's as much 'from the bean' as any dark or milk chocolate."

Although a fan of white chocolate (she mentions Fruition's Toasted White as a personal favorite), Giller understands why people are quick to judge white chocolate, often even before tasting it. Since she runs regular tastings in the New York area, like Menkes she's experienced people's disdain firsthand, along with their surprise at the recent white chocolate renaissance.

"White chocolate absolutely does not get the respect it deserves," she says. "It's an amazing blank slate to work with, and I've tasted versions made with the highest quality cocoa beans, organic sugar, and local ingredients that blow my mind... For a long time, folks have equated it with subpar ingredients that should never be in chocolate, like vegetable oils, preservatives, and way too much sugar."

Eclat, Castronovo, and Rococo are brands that, according to Giller, are pushing the white chocolate game forward. And while certainly the topic requires significantly more research (read: eating) as I learn to differentiate artisanal white chocolate from mass-produced versions, I'm down to elevate my palate. With the stress of this year almost behind us, I'm in no position to shun mass-produced comfort food any more than I'm willing to deny the charms of ugly sweaters and the terrible life choices of the characters in Love Actually. White chocolate will always be a part of the holiday season for me, but every year there seem to be more artisanal options to choose from, each more delicious and sophisticated than the last. Talk about a Christmas miracle.