Published November 1, 2009. From Cook's Illustrated.
We tasted real white chocolate alongside "fake" supermarket brands to determine if the real deal was worth tracking down.
White chocolate isn’t really chocolate at all. While it contains the cocoa butter of true chocolate, it lacks cocoa solids, the element responsible for milk and dark chocolate’s characteristic brown color and nutty roasted flavor. Other pale confections labeled simply “white” chips or bars (these boast less than the 20 percent cocoa butter required to earn the designation “white chocolate”) are just as common in the baking aisle of the supermarket. These milky products usually contain partially hydrogenated palm oil, palm kernel oil, soybean oil, or cottonseed oil in lieu of some or all of the cocoa butter. Could the fakes match the flavor of real white chocolate and perform the same in cooking?
We gathered nine brands (four real, five fake) to taste plain, eliminating four brands outright for off-flavors, grainy textures, and over-the-top sweetness. Surprisingly, these losers were not confined to the fake brands—two were real white chocolate containing at least 20 percent cocoa butter. Almost all contained artificial ingredients and more sugar than higher-ranked brands.
Next, we prepared the top five in white chocolate mousse. Better brands melted and blended well to create creamy mousse with balanced milky, vanilla flavors and moderate sweetness. Lesser brands tasted more sweet than complex. In addition, two looked oily when melted and produced slightly grainy mousse. This problem, it turned out, occurred only in the real white chocolate. Due to its high concentration of cocoa butter, real white chocolate melts and solidifies at a lower temperature than the fake stuff and will form crystals if it cools too quickly. Refined fats in the fake white confection, in contrast, can help it melt and solidify at a higher temperature, preventing the crystals that cause grainy mousse.
With the fake white confection’s edge in cooking, our winner turned out to be not real white chocolate at all but an artificial white chip: Guittard Choc-Au-Lait White Chips. Tasters raved over a creamy texture akin to “crème fraîche” and a strong vanilla flavor. In mousse it was “not too sweet” and “remarkably smooth.” It was the second-cheapest brand in the lineup, costing just 27 cents per ounce, and beat out a real white chocolate from the same manufacturer.
We also found that a good brand of imitation white chocolate like Guittard has another decided edge over the real white deal: A lesser amount (or lack) of cocoa butter keeps it from oxidizing too quickly and extends shelf life. White chocolate, on the other hand, rapidly goes rancid when exposed to bright light or heat (the antioxidants in the cocoa solids in milk and dark chocolate help temper this reaction), plus it has the tendency to pick up surrounding odors. When we stored some white chocolate in a clear plastic container in a fluorescent-lit storage room, within one week, it had gone rancid and smelled (and tasted) like plastic.
This “creamy, buttery, and milky” chip was praised for its “strong vanilla” flavor and “smooth, silky, crème fraîche-like” texture when prepared in white chocolate mousse. Though it’s not true white chocolate, its lesser amount of cocoa butter than in the real stuff proved a boon: These chips were less finicky in cooking than the real white chocolate brands.