Chocolate containing conventional milk ingredients reserves the merit of having boosted the most significant research and development in the history of chocolate production. From the much-discussed Ruby chocolate of Barry Callebaut launched in September 2017 to the latest Carré de Café® bars made of coffee and cocoa butter by Pralus, everyone agrees to include a milk version in their new inventions. But which was the most “specialty” chocolate other than dark presented in the market after the white chocolate debut in the 1930s? I would say the Dulcey Blond® by Valrhona ruled. In 2012, the French company put a fair share of innovation in the gourmet market with the release of its blonde chocolate, both for direct consumption and professional applications.
Valrhona has by far been the first maker of an alternative kind of chocolate on a large scale, while focusing on the highest quality possible. Valrhona turned the perception of a product that most would derogatorily consider “industrial” into an actual specialty delicacy, thanks to a long and careful phase of research and development.
But what is the secret behind blonde chocolate that makes it so exclusive and diverse from white chocolate, despite including the same ingredients (cocoa butter, sugar, and milk)?
With chocolate including dairy ingredients, it is not about the “rare” ingredient (e.g., a specific kind of milk from cows bred on a blessed pasture) nor the “goodwill” of the chocolate artisan, but how the ingredients are incorporated into chocolate during the process to make the result different.
Since 2012, several articles about blonde chocolate have been published, but nobody tries to make a point on the possible making process behind it. Tons of articles and tutorials by chefs and amateurs on how to reproduce blonde chocolate are questionable for their naivety, while a detail passes mostly unnoticed. Valrhona’s food engineers have not only spent eight long years to reproduce the aromatic experience of blonde chocolate that pastry chef Frédéric Bau “discovered” when some white chocolate was accidentally left to roast in bain-marie for hours, but they have tweaked—changed—the process to obtain the unmistakable notes of shortbread, toffee, and butterscotch of blonde chocolate. Plausible, as the consistency of a product is what matters to makers like Valrhona.
The consistency of a gourmet product in a highly competitive market is a crucial matter of uniqueness: if your product is consistent, it will also become recognizable in your specialty niche and be the real reference for it.
But then, what could be the production process that makes blonde chocolate so unique?
Although I cannot find any answer to proprietary processes intentionally kept undisclosed about its production, I dare to propose one robust hypothesis:
The plausible secret behind blonde chocolate dwells in the making process of the so-called “milk chocolate crumb”.
Milk chocolate crumb is perhaps the least known subject in the industry of chocolate for being linked to complex food technologies that have not broad media coverage other than the processes usually acknowledged for dark chocolate.
Definition, origin, and advantages of milk chocolate crumb
Milk chocolate crumb is the name given historically to a co-dried mixture of milk, sugar, and cocoa liquor (the pure mass or paste from cacao beans) whose lumpy and aerated structure resembles that of breadcrumb. Despite being an irksome concept apparently born in modern times, the origin of chocolate crumb dates back to European chocolate producers of the 19th and 20th centuries who studied how to include milk in chocolate as a powder that would remain stable over time rather than when added as a fresh ingredient. Milk crumb was traditionally used in chocolate because it had better keeping qualities than milk powder. Manufacturers would produce crumb when supplies of milk were plentiful, ensuring a stock of milk ingredients for chocolate manufacture over an extended period.
However, the evolution of milk chocolate took the market by storm only when competition between Swiss and British chocolate makers raised severely.
The origin of milk chocolate crumb can be traced back to the 1870s when Daniel Peter first attempted to produce milk chocolate in Vevey, Switzerland. His primary concern was to remove water from the milk that he was using and keep it from developing mold. In the milk processing factory next door, Henri Nestlé had solved the problem by condensing liquid milk in the presence of sugar. Daniel Peter found that by drying his dark chocolate paste with Nestlé’s sweetened condensed milk, he could center his target. In the process, he paved the way for the first development of crumb-based milk chocolate.
20 years later, British chocolate makers felt the threat from Swiss high-milk solids version of milk chocolate and ran the event of a new fresh milk process. In 1905, the launch of the highly successful Cadbury Dairy Milk (famous for the slogan “a glass and a half of full cream milk in every half pound”) was based solely on crumb produced at milk processing factories.
In addition to Switzerland and the UK, crumb chocolate processes have also been successfully introduced to the Irish Republic, the USA and countries belonging to the old British Commonwealth.
So, how did the invention and enhancement of the milk chocolate crumb process represent a revolution in the world of chocolate?
As the keeping quality of modern dried milk powders from roller-drying and spray-drying technologies has increased as a result of improved manufacturing efficiency, the advantage that crumb historically had has no longer had the primary reason for its continued use in chocolate. In fact, the production of milk chocolate in recent times takes place mostly by conveniently adding dried forms of milk powder to cocoa mass, delivering a different result when the milk is processed together with sugar and cocoa as a crumb.
The substantial differences in the production of milk chocolate crumbs compared to milk chocolate with the incorporation of ready-to-mix milk powders yet remain unrivaled and double-faced, by getting:
- a better control over the Maillard reactions(*) triggered in the initial phase of chocolate production where humidity and condensation reactions between amino groups from proteins and reducing sugars from carbohydrates are higher and more diverse than a process where Maillard reactions partially develop during the late conching step in chocolate making,
- the prevention against oxidation and rancidity—and consequent staleness—of the fats in milk and chocolate thanks to vacuum conditions (absence of air) during drying, and the naturally-occurring presence of polyphenolic compounds in cocoa.
In the process, hundreds of different flavor compounds are created. These compounds, in turn, break down to form new more flavor compounds yet, and so on. Each type of food has a very distinctive set of flavor compounds that are formed during the Maillard reaction. It is these same compounds that flavor scientists have used over the years to create artificial flavors.
The Maillard reaction should not be confused with Caramelization, which occurs with sugars.
In essence, the combined heating and vacuum-drying conditions during the chocolate crumb process enable precise taste creating control and gentle drying, resulting in a variety of caramelized, toasted and malted notes. The sensory, textural, and technological advantages of the milk chocolate crumb compared to ordinary milk chocolate are powerfully attractive, considering the following aspects:
- Flavor development — As Maillard reactions are responsible for the development of flavors, these flavors are difficult, if not impossible, to replicate by conching for long times at high temperatures because of the much lower water contents at this stage of chocolate making.
- Sugar crystallization — The high state of crystallization of the sugars (added sugars + naturally-occurring lactose from milk) in the finished crumb plays a double benefit in the finished product: 1) the initial crumb ingredient powder obtained from sugar + milk + cocoa is less sticky and hygroscopic, so is more stable when stored and easier to handle; 2) the finished chocolate dissolves more readily in the mouth, giving a cleaner and less sticky mouthfeel, thanks to the absence of air molecules between the sugar crystals and a consequent more homogeneous dispersion in the fat phase (cocoa butter) of the chocolate.
- Product customization — The flavor of the milk chocolate can be varied according to requirements as desired by changing the reaction time, the reaction temperature, and the water content during the reaction. Generally, the longer the reaction time, the higher the reaction temperature, and the higher the water content, the more intense and complex are the flavors obtained. Milk solids are present in different percentages and variations, such as whole milk, whey, low-fat milk, butterfat, etc. If cocoa solids are also present, they preferably are in an amount of from 10 to 15% by weight based on the total weight of the crumb. It is even possible to add extra cocoa mass and/or cocoa butter during the successive making process to obtain different percentages of cacao.
If multiple are the benefits in the chocolate crumb production, what are the main disadvantages and barriers to its accessibility?
- The manufacture of milk chocolate crumb is expensive relative to the cost of producing milk powder because of the high capital and running expenses of the sophisticated plants for vacuum-drying technology.
- Milk chocolate crumb manufacturers are usually advanced and specialized transformers in dairy ingredient technology rather than in chocolate making, especially so for small-medium chocolate companies that cannot afford running chocolate crumb making technologies.
- The proximity of the chocolate crumb manufacturing factory to dairies for consistent access to fresh milk is crucial. What is certain is that milk chocolate crumb producers are always highly skilled in customizing the final product according to customer’s specifications and, in any case, to obtain a highly-controlled result in the flavor of the final chocolate product.
The secret ingredient behind blonde or “caramelized white” chocolate
But what happens when cocoa mass is not added during the production process of the milk chocolate crumb?
The only ingredients to be involved in the Maillard reactions will remain the solids from the milk ingredients and those from the added sugar (which too can be of different types, as the dairy counterpart), giving a product known as white chocolate crumb, the secret ingredient plausibly behind the unique taste of blonde chocolate.
So what is commonly referred as “caramelized white chocolate” should more correctly be referred as a sort of “white chocolate maillardized under vacuum-roasting conditions”, as the complexity of flavors in this kind of product is not given by the caramelization of sugars, but by the reactions of the sugars with the proteins from the dairy ingredients. Scientific literature even mentions how it is possible to produce a white crumb incorporating part of the cocoa butter into the dairy and sugar ingredients during the vacuum-drying phase.
Being such the versatility offered by the production of white chocolate crumb, it is not surprising to find on today’s market disparate variants of blonde chocolate or—mistakenly called—”caramelized white chocolate”, even if mostly geared toward a mass consumer. (Just to name a few: Godiva, Hershey, Nestlé, Villars, Marks & Spencer, Whittaker’s, etc..) While companies such as Barry Callebaut and Valrhona aim at a market for professional use of the blonde chocolate, historically it seems that the first blonde chocolate to be introduced to the mainstream audience was the New Zealander Cadbury Caramilk (from a fusion of the words “caramel” + “milk”) in the early 90s of the 20th century. Mysteriously withdrawn from the market in 1994, the Cadbury Caramilk tablet was then released on the market in sparing limited editions, the most recent of which this year. Although tainted by the product recall of a couple of lots for the accidental presence of plastic fragments, the return of Caramilk blocks in New Zealand and Australia caused such a frenzy among nostalgic consumers who were excited to see their old time favorite treat that some were even willing to spend more than $100 on eBay to stock up!
In conclusion, many hypotheses have been advanced on the production of the sophisticated blonde chocolate. However, through the understanding of the basics underlying the formation of aromatic compounds in Maillard reactions, the chocolate crumb technique seems to be the most plausible one for delivering real blonde chocolate. Regardless of who can afford this technology, obtaining the same result by “hand crafting” is impossible and the outcomes can only be similar but never overlapping those of authentic blonde chocolate, unless pricey equipment and processing techniques are accessible for economies of scale.
One thing is sure for blonde chocolate: it may not have found its standard of identity concerning food labeling, but it undoubtedly remains a well-distinguished product from white chocolate for its one-of-a-kind flavor profile. Enhanced knowledge and experimentation in chocolate making may still reserve exciting developments for the future of white chocolate all.
Did you know about the possibility of the chocolate crumb technology?