Hot cocoa mix is a convenient way to get your chocolate fix almost anytime, anywhere. After tasting 27 cocoas and conducting a tasting panel with seven of them, we think that Trader Joe’s Sipping Chocolate ($4) is the best all-around mix you can buy. It’s deep, rich, and not too sweet, making it more versatile than the competition. You can make it into a decadent European-style sipping chocolate or a velvety cup of hot cocoa depending on how much milk or water you use. Get it while you can, though, because it’s only available through December.
Once the TJ’s runs out for the season, we will shed a single tear. But we can take solace in the fact that Guittard Grand Cacao Drinking Chocolate ($13) is a close runner-up. It’s rich and bitter enough to satisfy a serious chocolate craving without being too cloying. With its year-round availability and mid-range price tag, you can enjoy this mix anytime you want, even in the middle of July if that’s what you’re into.
If you prefer a thicker, richer mix, Jacques Torres Classic Hot Chocolate ($18 plus shipping) actually topped our taste test panel last year and again in our most recent tasting. It’s definitely delicious, but while its viscosity and richness add to its appeal in tasting-sized portions, it can be hard to finish a full mug of it. That’s why it’s not our main pick.
Over the course of my culinary career that spans more than 15 years, I have been a line cook in fine dining kitchens, a recipe developer, food editor, food stylist, and food writer. You can check out my guides to chocolate bars and boxed chocolates. During my time in the Martha Stewart test kitchen, we taste-tested everything from honey to hot dogs. I have had plenty of experience in being discerning about food products and choosing which ones are worth the money and which are just plain junk.
The short answer is that hot cocoa is made with cocoa powder and hot chocolate should have actual chunks of melted chocolate in it.1 That being said, there are many brands that are mislabeled, and our pick is one of them. As Serious Eats said in their round-up of mixes, “Most of us are guilty of using the terms interchangeably…” adding, “We included both since, well, we’d be happy chugging back either.” I couldn’t agree with them more, though I’ll take high-grade cocoa powder over low-grade chocolate every time.
Based on my professional experience and that of the Sweethome kitchen team, we decided most adults looking for a “best” hot cocoa want something that has a pronounced chocolate favor and a texture that coats the mouth pleasantly. Although a thinner, sweeter hot cocoa like Swiss Miss was once de rigueur (at least it was when I was a kid), people have been gravitating toward a richer, darker cup of cocoa in recent years.
That said, we didn’t want a cocoa that was too thick. People may line up for the almost melted-chocolate-bar-in-a-cup hot chocolates served at places like Jacques Torres Chocolate or MarieBelle, but these can also be cloying when drunk regularly, which makes them more of a once-in-a-while treat. We were looking for something more quaffable, a beverage that is enjoyable the whole way through, not just the first few sips.
We wanted something that tastes like what you would make if you took the time to get in front of your stove to whisk up some cocoa powder, sugar, milk, maybe some vanilla, a pinch of salt—and if you’re feeling indulgent, some high-quality dark couverture chocolate to give it that extra mouth-coating thickness. But we wanted it in a convenient mix that’s easy to make at a moment’s notice, with or without a stove.
We took a close look at each contender’s ingredient list. Better mixes have cocoa or chocolate at the top of the list. We also noted whether mixes incorporated sugar or corn syrup. Many mixes contain milk powder or soy products. This doesn’t necessarily make them bad, it’s just good to know what you’re buying, especially if someone in your house is sensitive or allergic. Gluten-free declarations were hard to find on any packaging that I looked at. If gluten is a concern for you, it’s always a good idea to check for barley malt in the ingredient list, and make sure it wasn’t processed in a facility that handles wheat.
A good barometer for how rich the end result will be is the ratio of mix to liquid in the preparation instructions. For example, Jacques Torres and MarieBelle have you mixing two parts milk to one part mix. The resulting concoction could easily double as a dessert sauce. There are exceptions though; Lake Champlain Organic Hot Chocolate (another mislabeled brand, as it only has cocoa powder) advises only one heaping tablespoon of mix to eight ounces of milk but produced a similarly rich, though thinner, cocoa taste.
We gravitated mainly towards brands that are available in the supermarket or can be ordered through reliable online shops. What good is a mix if you have to drive to a specialty shop on the other side of town or wait more than a week to receive it in the mail? We decided not to emphasize price. When you’re an adult, hot cocoa is a treat, and when you’re talking 30¢ per serving versus $1 for something you don’t drink on a regular basis, it’s just not that big a deal.
In researching brands to bring in to test, we scratched any mix that had a flavor added to it. That means no mint, cinnamon, caramel, mocha, spicy chile, or anything else that would distract from the chocolate itself. Since Abuelita and other brands of Mexican hot chocolate tablets are flavored with cinnamon, they weren’t included in this review.
I scoured Amazon to look at the top-selling mixes, and once I got past all of the K-Cup inserts for Keurig machines, there was a glut of cocoa mixes. Trying to decide which cocoa mixes to bring in to test based on Amazon reviews was a daunting task, because at the end of the day, you have to try it yourself to see if you really like it. Still, we enlisted the help of a panel of tasters to help guide us to something that would be universally liked.
After hours of research, reading articles by Cook’s Illustrated (subscription required), Good Housekeeping, Epicurious and Serious Eats, consulting former food editorial colleagues, and considering 33 mixes, I compiled a list of 24 different hot cocoas to test. The initial samples ranged from truly decadent artisanal brands to packets found in the supermarket. We added four more mixes for our most recent round of tastings.
I enlisted the help of fellow Sweethome writer Christine Cyr Clisset to tackle one of the biggest tastings I’ve ever done in a single sitting.
In our first round, Christine and I set out to taste 24 different mixes, all prepared according the their package instructions, comparing milk and water preparations side by side. For the brands that required milk, we used 2 percent reduced fat. We conducted the testing as we would a wine tasting, spitting the mixtures out, and eating saltines and drinking water between sips. In this way, we minimized palate fatigue and were able to give each of the 24 mixes a fair shot. The initial tasting was not blind, but we did try to go from lightest to darkest, so as not to coat our palates with something heavy and decadent before tasting a lighter supermarket packet.
We were looking for samples that had the most pronounced, clean dark chocolate flavor. We wanted cocoas that were rich but drinkable; thick, but not custardy. Too heavy a hand with sugar was bad, but a pinch of salt was good. To put it simply, we wanted balance. Complementary flavorings, like vanilla, are just that—complementary. At the end of the day, we wanted deep chocolate flavor that didn’t taste fake, watery, or too sweet. We talked, tasted, debated, and agreed on 10 finalists.
After resting our palates, we tasted again and whittled the testing pool down to seven samples, which were: Scharffen Berger Sweetened Natural Cocoa Powder ($15), Guittard Grand Cacao Drinking Chocolate ($13), Dagoba Authentic Drinking Chocolate ($35 for three) Trader Joe’s Sipping Chocolate ($4), Jacques Torres Classic Hot Chocolate ($18), Lake Champlain Organic Hot Chocolate ($12), Land O’ Lakes Cocoa Classics Chocolate Supreme ($12).
I then invited four friends over for a blind taste test. I asked them to taste each one and when they were done, pick their top three picks, ranking them first, second, and third. I also asked them to call out the one that they liked the least and why.
I drank full cups of every brand in the blind taste test over the course of a week. I mixed them with different things, soy milk, water, and almond milk, and what I found was that the ones that were easier to drink (not too sweet, not too thick) were the cups that I finished.
After the data was compiled and analyzed, we had a spirited debate that had us considering the reliability of small samples and the overall drinkability of a seriously thick cup of hot chocolate.
Trader Joe’s Sipping Chocolate ($4) is our pick because it has a well-balanced dark chocolate flavor, drinkable texture, and is easily attainable (between the months of October and December) wherever there’s a Trader Joe’s—or you can even buy it on Amazon with Prime shipping through a third party for a markup.
This was well-liked by five out of six tasters. During our taste tests, Trader Joe’s got three second-place nods. Tasting notes included “bitter in a good way, woodsy,” “all chocolate all the time,” “excellent grown-up hot chocolate.” In the initial tasting, Christine and I thought “sweet at first, but then nice bitter tones” and “well balanced, velvety, and satisfying”.
Each tin has about nine servings, and at $4, that comes out to $.44 per serving. Even though the name suggests that there is chocolate in this mix, it is cocoa-based. It’s made with alkalized cocoa, which means it’s smoother and less acidic, and has a deeper chocolate flavor than natural cocoa powder.
Tasters praised its balance of sweet and bitter, and I thought it had just the right amount of salt. The package gives a couple of options for preparation, one for a thick European-style sipping chocolate and one for a less thick, but still very satisfying cup of hot cocoa.
The mix itself is not too sweet, leaving room for the drinker to sugar it up to their liking, although I made it as-is for tasting purposes. The ingredient list doesn’t list any milk products, but the package does warn that it may contain traces of milk. I assume that has to do with the facility that the mix is made in. For those of our friends who have issues with dairy, Trader Joe’s Sipping Chocolate mixes really well with soy and almond milks, as well as water.
The short season for this mix is a bit of a bummer, but if you act fast and get your hands on a tin, you’ll see why it has such a passionate and loyal following. Also, if you prefer a sweeter or thicker hot cocoa, you might want to go with the Jacques Torres; it will satisfy the most intense chocolate craving.
Guittard Grand Cacao Drinking Chocolate gets an honorable mention for being very good (there’s a significant drop off in quality between this choice and third place), just not quite as good as the TJ’s or Jacques Torres (our step up).
For one thing, it’s labeled correctly! It has cocoa powder and ground chocolate. In the blind tasting, it got one second-place vote and two third-place nods. Tasters said that it was “sweet, rich,” “Deep dark chocolate, very sweet,” “Heavy chocolate flavor, not overly sweet,” and “deep, smooth mouthfeel.” The initial tasting yielded comments like “nice balance of sweet and bitter” and “very good, great texture”. For me, personally, I had a hard time choosing between this mix and the Trader Joe’s.
I still preferred this cocoa in the last round of tasting against the new contenders because I like the bitter chocolate to sugar balance, which makes this one more bitter, less sweet. Christine felt that it was a little chalky and thick, but she did applaud its bitterness and wrote that she could drink more of the Guittard than the Williams-Sonoma mix.
It also has a longer availability than our main pick, so if you need a dark, drinkable cocoa later in the season, this is your mix. It’s a little sweeter than our pick, but I didn’t have a problem with that.
There’s no denying that the Jacques Torres Classic Hot Chocolate ($18) was a crowd pleaser, and is certainly a great second pick for someone looking for a thicker, more velvety cup.
During our original tests, Jacques Torres Classic Hot Chocolate got two first-place nods and one third-place mention in the blind test. It won out again this year when we pitted it against the equally pricy and rich Williams-Sonoma Classic Hot Chocolate. Notes included “thick, rich,” “deep, lush chocolate, sweet thick texture,” “rich chocolate flavor, very sweet,” and “too thick for drinking chocolate, excellent flavor.” (Just an interesting side note, there were two women and two men in the blind test, and the two men rated this one as their first-place picks.)
Although the Jacques Torres mix got two first-place nods (more than the Trader Joe’s), we ultimately decided to go with Trader Joe’s as our top pick. We were considering overall drinkability. I thought it was so rich that it would be too much to drink a whole cup of it. The question I kept asking after the taste test was, “Yes this is good, but do I want a whole cup of this? Do I want to drink the equivalent of a melted chocolate bar three to four times a week?”
My former colleague, Sam Seneviratne, Senior Associate Food Editor at Everyday Food and creator of the blog Love Comma Cake, put it this way: “When I want cocoa I like it to be thick and rich but not like pudding. I like the rich stuff but I usually increase the amount of milk so that it’s a little easier to drink. I don’t want anything that keeps my spoon upright.”
Michael Zhao, Associate Editor at The Wirecutter, hit the nail on the head when he said, “I think people are picking the Jacques Torres because it provides a better sensory experience in a small dose. But if it came to drinking a mug of it, most people would prefer the less rich, less thick Trader Joe’s.”
Although I just made my case for a thinner, more drinkable hot cocoa, if you are looking for a thick, super decadent treat, this very well may be your jam. This mix does contain whole milk powder and cornstarch, so you can’t cheat it by just mixing with hot milk. It needs to cooked on the stove to activate the cornstarch so that it thickens and any starchy flavor cooks out. We’re talking two-to-one milk-to-mix ratio here. This stuff is thick and it came to party.
I drank up all of my Trader Joe’s Sipping Chocolate well before last winter was over, so I had to wait until November to get another tin. The resulting cup of cocoa from this year’s batch tasted just as I remembered, but the flavor still took me by surprise. The drink isn’t very thick and the color looks innocuous, you don’t expect such well-defined chocolatey flavor to come from a thinner cocoa. The milkiness ensures that you can finish a whole cup, and the well-balanced flavor means you won’t be bored doing it.
Even a cocoa purist can enjoy a satisfying cup of chocolate from a mix. You can take a dark chocolate mix, such as our pick, and give it different flavor profiles depending on your mood.
When I asked Dawn Perry, Senior Food Editor at Bon Appetit, whether she used cocoa mixes, she said that while she wasn’t inclined to using them, she also wasn’t opposed to the idea, adding, “I do think you can doctor a mix to make it more delicious … add more chocolate, vanilla, cinnamon.” Personally, I like to add strips of fresh orange zest to my cocoa. If your cocoa is a little too sweet, you can offset that sweetness by adding a small pinch of salt. This can be added while on the stove or in the cup; just make sure to mix well.
Williams-Sonoma Classic Hot Chocolate mix was a strong competitor. It has a richer chocolate flavor than grocery store brands, but it’s sweeter and less balanced than our top pick. It stays true to its name because Guittard chocolate shavings and vanilla yield a milky cup of cocoa. For the price we felt it was a little insipid, especially compared to our luxury pick.
Starbucks Double Chocolate Hot Cocoa Mix was too sweet and thin. It tastes exactly like the hot chocolate they sell in the stores. There’s more sugar and vanilla than chocolate, and the overall flavor is milky and bland.
Bellagio Sipping Chocolate is a decent cocoa if you like vanilla—lots of vanilla. It’s pretty sweet, but wasn’t as sweet as other mixes and had a deeper chocolate flavor, which is nice. The list of ingredients includes cocoa butter and chocolate liqueur, which give it a smooth mouthfeel.
Equal Exchange Organic Hot Cocoa Mix wasn’t good. Once mixed, it had an overwhelming smell of mushrooms, and the flavor was medicinal. We thought it smelled like barley tea and were turned off by its watery and unsatisfying texture.
Scharffen Berger Sweetened Natural Cocoa Powder: It got favorable ratings in the initial taste test, we thought it had a nice, bitter chocolate flavor. The testers agreed on the bitter part, calling it “chalky” and “dry, almost in a tannic kind of way.”
Dagoba Authentic Drinking Chocolate: Although we liked this one a lot in the first tasting, noting its “bitter, great chocolate flavor” and “a bit chalky, but a nice balance,” the blind tasters called it “malty, forgettable” and “Ovaltine.” Ouch.
Lake Champlain Organic Hot Chocolate received one first-place vote in the blind test, but the others thought it was “thin, weak” and “light chocolate flavor.” In the initial tasting, we thought it had a classic cocoa flavor, but no one appreciates the classics anymore.
Land O’ Lakes Cocoa Classics Chocolate Supreme: With comments from the testers like “salty” and “tasted artificial, like boxed chocolate milk” it’s a wonder that no one chose this mix as least liked.
Mixes that didn’t make it past the first round:
Cadbury Drinking Chocolate: I was hoping it would remind me of a creme egg, but it was milky, thin, and light on chocolate flavor. It was, however, super sweet, so maybe it did resemble a creme egg.
Chuao Abuela (packaging and name has changed to Chuao Deluxious Dark Drinking Chocolate, but it’s the same recipe): With a smooth, velvety texture and strong chocolate flavor, we were still underwhelmed due to its extreme sweetness and almost artificial aftertaste.
Ghirardelli Double Chocolate Hot Cocoa: Artificial-tasting with a weird mouth coating that didn’t feel natural, and it was more sweet than chocolatey.
Ghirardelli Sweet Ground Chocolate and Cocoa: It didn’t stand out in this line-up. Very mild and milky.
Godiva: This was another contender in the initial big 10, but got cut for being too sweet.
Lake Champlain Traditional Hot Chocolate: Very similar to the Lake Champlain Organic Hot Chocolate, except this one wasn’t as balanced. It was much more sweet than bitter.
Les Confitures A l’Ancienne: This was one of my favorites going into this tasting, but when tasted side-by-side with all of the others, its subtle notes were lost. Still, it’s a quality hot cocoa, deep and complex, albeit a bit chalky.
MarieBelle: If I could describe this hot chocolate in two words, they would be “extremely thick.” As soon the the mixture starts to cool down, it intensely thickens, to the point where it was just pudding in a cup. That being said, if you have a tin of this stuff in your house, it would work really well as a dessert sauce.
Nesquik: What can I say? It’s Nesquik. It’s sweet, slightly malty, and weak on chocolate. Definitely a kid’s drink.
Nestle Dark Chocolate: While I have very fond memories from childhood about this mix (I would get to have a cup of this while visiting my grandmother’s office) it just didn’t stack up compared to the others. It had a real chocolate milk taste, but not remarkable.
Ovaltine: Ovaltine will always taste like Ovaltine. Seriously malty with a mild chocolate flavor.
Sarabeth’s Hot Chocolate Parisienne: This one made it to the top 10, but not the top seven. While it was thick and rich, we ultimately decided that it was more sweet than chocolatey.
Silly Cow Farms: Very sweet, light in color and flavor. Mild chocolate flavor, but very fragrant.
Swiss Miss Dark Chocolate Sensation: One of two Swiss Miss entries in our tasting line-up, we didn’t think it was too bad, compared to the Swiss Miss Rich Chocolate. It had a distinct chocolate flavor, but it was very sweet and artificial tasting.
Swiss Miss Rich Chocolate: Although it gets points for nostalgia, this was a stalwart in my home growing up, it now just tastes sweet and artificial.
Whole Foods 365 Organic Hot Cocoa: Tasted more like vanilla and less like chocolate. We also thought it was very fruity, as if they used a lot of vanilla to cover up inferior cocoa.
We stand by the Trader Joe’s Sipping Chocolate as our favorite crowd-pleasing mix. The deep, dark chocolate flavor paired with a conservative amount of sweetness makes it perfect to mix into a decadent cup of European-style sipping chocolate or a milkier all-American cup of cocoa. With the added bonus of a $4 price tag, this little tin will be my go-to for a satisfying warm up in the coming winter months. And if you happen upon this guide in the unfortunate months of January to September, when the Trader Joe’s isn’t on shelves, get the Guittard Grand Cacao Drinking Chocolate.
Originally published: December 12, 2014