In the test kitchen, we love white chocolate chips for the pops of creamy sweetness they bring to cookies, brownies, and bars. We also like melting them into mousse, bark, frosting, and even fruit tart filling. But since they’re sold under many different names, from white chocolate chips to white chips to baking wafers to white morsels, considering all the options can make your head spin. If a recipe calls for white chocolate chips, does it matter which product you buy?
First, let’s clarify what white chocolate really is. Like all chocolate, it begins with cacao pods. After the cacao beans are harvested from the pods, they are fermented, dried, cleaned, and roasted. Next, the shells are removed from the beans, revealing cacao nibs, which are ground into a paste called chocolate liquor. This liquor is divided into two parts: cocoa butter and cocoa solids. Cocoa butter is responsible for the richness we associate with chocolate. Though cocoa butter has some chocolaty flavor and aroma, cocoa solids are responsible for most of chocolate’s flavor as well as its color and aroma. White chocolate, unlike other types of chocolate, contains only cocoa butter. That’s why it’s so light in color.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), white chocolate must have at least 20 percent cocoa butter (in addition to meeting certain requirements for milk solids, milk fat, and sweeteners). Many products replace some—or all—of that cocoa butter with refined fats: palm kernel oil, palm oil, or a combination of the two. These products can’t legally be called white chocolate. Instead, they’re labeled white baking wafers, white morsels, or white melting chips. (For clarity, we’ve chosen to refer to all these products as “white chips.”)
We gathered six nationally available products, four imitation and two real, priced from about $0.20 to about $1.10 per ounce. We tasted them plain and in Wintermint Bark (without the peppermint topping, which we found distracting), to find the best product for a variety of recipes.
Our tasters picked up on flavor differences among the products. Like good dark and milk chocolates, the real white chocolate samples were described as complex, with most tasters enjoying their milky, nutty, and vanilla flavors. Others called out sour or citrusy notes that they found off-putting. Responses to the white chips were much more uniform. For the most part, these products offered mild yet pleasant hints of vanilla, caramel, and butterscotch and were moderately sweet (one was very sweet). To our surprise, all the white chips outscored the real white chocolates. We also looked at the sugar and fat contents of the products. They were very similar across the board, making them nonfactors in helping us determine a winner.
Textural differences turned out to be more important than flavor differences. Sampled plain, the real white chocolates were described as “smooth,” “rich,” and “creamy.” They melted faster than the white chips, both on our fingers and tongues, but we didn’t mind. However, when we sampled them in bark, their soft textures were deemed unacceptable. The real white chocolates didn’t truly solidify after being melted and left to harden. Instead, they remained “squishy” and “too soft,” lacking the expected snap and exhibiting textures that were more like fudge than bark.
The white chips performed differently. Straight from the bag, they all were firm and crunchy, but some were described as being a little gritty, chalky, or waxy. Once melted and hardened, though, these white chips gave us barks that were “snappy” and “smooth,” garnering them higher ratings than the barks made with the real white chocolates.
Why did imitation chocolates perform so much better in bark? It comes down to the presence—or absence—of cocoa butter. When real white chocolate is melted, the crystal structure of the cocoa butter changes. Unless you temper the chocolate—a challenging process of heating and cooling that reestablishes the cocoa butter’s structure of triglycerides—it remains soft, even when it’s fully cooled. Conversely, white chips, which contain a refined fat in place of some or all of the cocoa butter, don’t need to be tempered to retain their structure. This means that in addition to being crunchy when eaten plain, they are also crunchy when melted and cooled. Plus, the refined fats used in white chips are cheaper than cocoa butter.
It was clear that our tasters preferred the textures of the white chips to those of the real white chocolates, especially in bark. But what if we used both types of products in a recipe that didn’t rely on the product’s texture for success, such as brownies or blondies? Would we like the real white chocolates better? To find out, we made two batches of blondies, mixing real white chocolate chips into one batch and our highest-ranking white chips into the second batch, and tasted them side by side. Tasters noted that the real white chocolate chips were slightly creamier than the white chips, but the differences were very minimal. We concluded that when a cookie or brownie recipe calls for white chocolate chips, both real and imitation products will work just fine. If the texture of a recipe, such as a bark or a fruit tart filling, is reliant on white chocolate and doesn’t call for tempering, it's important to use white chips to ensure that it sets up properly.
Though we can recommend all the white chocolate products we tried, we preferred white chips. Both in flavor and texture, they consistently bested the real white chocolate products. We love that they set up firm without requiring any fussy tempering. Our new favorite, Ghirardelli Classic White Baking Chips, are milky, sweet, and mild. Whether you’re adding them to cookies or brownies or melting them for use in bark or a tart, these chips are sure to please.