We Try the Hot Cocoa Mixes from Starbucks

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[Photo: Maggie Hoffman]

Though many of us think of Starbucks as a place to stop for coffee (or a pumpkin latte), the brand also wants to be part of your home hot-drink routine, whether you're making coffee or stirring up hot cocoa. On a recent trip to the grocery store, we noticed a whole shelf of different cocoa options from the big S, so we decided to check them out.

Starbucks makes a few different kinds of standard-flavor hot cocoa, including the Gourmet Hot Cocoa which comes with instructions to mix with water, and the Classic Hot Cocoa kit, a gifty item that includes a mix meant to be combined with milk, plus garnishes of marshmallows, peppermint sticks, and chocolate curls.

The Gourmet is pretty standard stuff—a packet full of sugar, cocoa powder, nonfat dry milk, salt, and vanilla extract. It's a bit more chocolatey tasting than Swiss Miss, but not anywhere near thick, rich, drinking chocolate or creamy milk chocolate. You could scale down how much water is added (who really needs 8 ounces unless they're filling a thermos) which would make it a bit less dilute.

The Classic hot cocoa, when made as directed with milk, is a serious step up. It's made from sugar, cocoa, and vanilla powder, which suggests that you could also improve the Gourmet version by making it with hot milk instead of water. It's similarly sweet, and with nice deep chocolate notes; both kid and adult-friendly. The gift pack includes square 'gourmet'-style marshmallows that are a little tough to eat on their own, but soften nicely in the cocoa. The peppermint sticks in the gift set are more like those crumbly mints you get after a restaurant meal than candy canes, perhaps to better contribute their flavor to the cocoa. It works, as long as you can get over the weirdness of dissolving candy into your drink. Though it's not the fanciest hot cocoa in the market, we'd happily stash this in the cupboard for cold afternoons.

And then it gets interesting—Starbucks also sells a series of flavored cocoas, including Salted Caramel, Toasted Marshmallow, and Peppermint.

The Peppermint version is mellow and creamy, with only the slightest touch of cooling peppermint peeking through. This won't remind you of the cocoa you spiked with peppermint schnapps in college, but you could up the mint factor by stirring a leftover candy cane in it.

We were kind of hoping that the Toasted Marshmallow cocoa would be fluffy flavored throughout, but the cocoa is pretty much cocoa, with six 3/4 centimeter squared 'toasted' marshmallows floating in the packet. These cause problems, since they're supposed to just be stirred into the hot milk, not microwaved or heated themselves. At first, they taste firm and uncomfortably chewy, and they never softened up fully even as they sat in the steamy milk. Add your own marshmallows to the Classic hot cocoa instead.

We feared that the Salted Caramel cocoa would be sticky-sweet, but were spared: the caramel flavor comes across more as rich, buttery, and toasty, and not really any sweeter than the standard flavor. There's just a faint hint of salt, enough to awake your tongue, but it's definitely not salty. Would we drink a ton of this stuff? Probably not, but it's fun enough for the novelty, and could be extra-tasty with a shot of bourbon in it...

Have you tried the Starbucks hot cocoa mix? What did you think? Got other brands of favorite cocoa mixes?

More Hot Cocoa on Serious Eats

Taste Test: Hot Chocolate Mixes
The Food Lab: Homemade Hot Chocolate Mix
7 Ways To Spike Your Hot Chocolate
How to Make Parisian Drinking Chocolate

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