Best Cheap to Mid-Priced Mix: Ghirardelli
Runner-up: Lake Champlain
Best Fancy: Jacques Torres
Most Insanely Indulgent: Mariebelle
Since hot chocolate/cocoa is one of our favorite insides-warmers this chilly time of year, we set out to find the best. Now, first it should be clarified: hot chocolate and hot cocoa are not the same thing. Most of us are guilty of using the terms interchangeably, and probably will continue to even after this reading this...
A quick tutorial: Hot cocoa is made with cocoa powder, a byproduct of the chocolate-making process. Hot chocolate should contain actual chocolate!* We included both since, well, we'd be happy chugging back either. We tried a total of 17 brands, dividing them into two main categories, depending on price: cheap-to-mid range, and the more fancypants (76 cents or more per ounce). Some called for water, others for milk; we followed the instructions exactly on the packaging.
* Lake Champlain's "Hot Chocolate" mix, for example, contains cocoa powder but not real chocolate, so it's actually mislabeled.
Brands We Tried
Cheap to Mid-Priced (Made with water): Nestle, Hershey's, Swiss Miss, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods 365, Land O'Lakes**.
**Land O'Lakes was right on the price range border, at 75 cents per ounce.
Cheap to Mid-Priced (Made with milk): Ghirardelli, Lake Champlain, Allegro, Nesquick.
Fancy (Made with milk): Jacques Torres, Mariebelle, Williams-Sonoma, Green and Black, Scharffen Berger, E. Guittard, Dagoba.
Whether hot chocolate or cocoa, it should be smooth and creamy, with a warm-the-insides richness. Not too sweet, slightly bitter (like good chocolate) with a velvety mouthfeel. If it's actual hot chocolate, it should taste like melted chocolate bits swirled with warm milk.
Why the Losers Lost
Many of the mixes that called for hot water instead of milk tasted like diluted chocolate juice. "Weak sauce," noted tasters. Others were way too sweet, honey-like, and syrupy. Some finished with an acrid or just downright funky aftertaste.
Best Fancy (Made with milk): Jacques Torres This was like eating a melted chocolate bar, a really good dark one. "Would definitely drink a whole cup of this," agreed tasters. There's a half cup of milk per every 1/4 cup of mix (that's a whole 2-to-1 milk-to-chocolate ratio!), which contains solid chocolate nuggets mixed with the powder. It's definitely indulgent, but also very drinkable. Slightly salty to balance the sweetness. $18 for 18 ounces.
Best Cheap to Mid-Priced (Made with milk): Ghirardelli: This is another pick for the sweet-tooth type. It's chocolaty, with a blast of sweetness lingering in each sip. "Went back for more, and actually finished my whole cup, even with all the tasting samples," said one self-proclaimed sweets enthusiast. It has some depth, but not bitter or dark-tasting; definitely more on the milk chocolate end of the spectrum. This is what you should graduate to after Swiss Miss. $5.95 for 20 ounces.
Have You Ever..
- Added an egg to your hot chocolate and baked it? Get the recipe »
- Made Mexican hot chocolate? Get the recipe »
- Made Alton Brown's pumpkin hot chocolate? Get the recipe »
- Spiked it with cherry heering and chartreuse for a brigadier? Get the recipe »
- Added burnt caramel to your mug? Get the recipe »