Hot cocoa mix is a convenient way to get your chocolate fix almost anytime, anywhere. After tasting over 24 cocoas myself and conducting a tasting panel with seven of them, we decided that Trader Joe’s Sipping Chocolate ($4) is the best all-around mix you can buy. It’s deep, rich, not too sweet and surprisingly versatile. 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.
After hours of research, reading articles by Cook’s Illustrated, Good Housekeeping, Epicurious and Serious Eats, and consulting former colleagues, I compiled a list of 24 different hot cocoas. With the help of fellow Sweethome writer Christine Cyr Clisset, we tasted each one side-by-side and narrowed down our choices to seven brands that I then put in a blind taste test to see which cocoa reigned supreme. The initial samples ranged from truly decadent artisanal brands to packets found in the supermarket. The results ranged from predictable to surprising, and in the end, we settled on the most versatile option.
Once the TJ’s runs out for the season, we will shed a single tear. But we can take solace in the fact that E. Guittard Grand Cacao Drinking Chocolate is a close runner up.
What is hot cocoa/chocolate?
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 mislabelled, 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.
What makes a good hot cocoa/chocolate?
When it comes to evaluating all foodstuffs, taste is almost always the main criterion; cocoa is no exception. Taste means flavor as well as texture. Based on my six years as a food editor and feedback from our Sweethome kitchen team, who has over 20 years of combined professional experience in culinary writing (more if you include professional kitchen experience), we decided that most adults looking for a “best” hot cocoa would want something that has a pronounced chocolate favor, a texture that coats the mouth pleasantly (but not too thickly), and is easy to buy and prepare. Factors like food allergens and common dietary restrictions were also considered, but we decided not to emphasize price. When you’re an adult, hot cocoa is a treat, and when you’re talking 30¢ a serving versus $1 on something you don’t drink on a regular basis, it’s just not that big a deal. First let’s talk taste. Different people will have different opinions, but there are trends in taste preferences. A thinner, sweeter hot cocoa like Swiss Miss from a paper packet you’d take camping was once de rigueur—at least it was in my house when I was a kid. But people have been gravitating toward a richer, darker cup of cocoa in recent years. This is most clearly evidenced by the thick, almost melted-chocolate-bar-in-a-cup hot chocolates that are being served all over the place now. Since people are lining up outside Jacques Torres’s chocolate shop to get a cup of his Classic or Wicked Hot Chocolate and traveling to SoHo to sip cups of their almost pudding-like hot chocolate in the back room at MarieBelle, it’s clear that a lot of people like it. That said, while these thicker and richer hot chocolates can be desirable as an occasional indulgence, they can also be cloying when drunk regularly, which makes them a fine once-in-a-while treat. We, however, were looking for something more quaffable– a beverage that is enjoyable the whole way through, not just the first few sips.
Convenience isn’t only how quickly or easily you can get steamy cocoa in a cup, but also how accessible the mix is for purchase. For this reason, 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 over a week to receive it in the mail?
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 Magazine, 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.
What to look for
A logical first step to buying anything you’re putting in your body is to look at the ingredients. Can you pronounce them? How far down the list is cocoa or chocolate? (The lower it is, the more skeptical you should be.) Does the mix use sugar or corn syrup? Look for allergens. 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 mislabelled 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.
How we picked
In researching brands to bring in to test, we needed to set some parameters. We immediately 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 were 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. Everybody tastes things differently; that’s why they say “there’s no accounting for taste.” At least we could be as scientific about it as possible. Also, since Christine and I have worked together on a couple of cookbooks for Martha Stewart, I wanted her to help me narrow down the picks. She has a keen palate and I respect her opinion on food. This isn’t her first cocoa-tasting rodeo. During my time working in the test kitchens at Martha Stewart, we taste-tested everything from canned chicken broth to hot dogs. Together, we were going to tackle one of the biggest tastings I’ve ever done in a single sitting.
How we tested
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% 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 and not custardy. To put it simply, we wanted balance. This is achieved when there isn’t a heavy hand of sugar, but definitely a pinch of salt. It’s achieved when complementary flavorings, like vanilla, are just that: complementary. At the end of the day, you just want deep chocolate flavor that doesn’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 the: Scharffen Berger Sweetened Natural Cocoa Powder ($11), E. Guittard Grand Cacao Drinking Chocolate ($8), Dagoba Authentic Drinking Chocolate ($9) Trader Joe’s Sipping Chocolate ($4), Jacques Torres Classic Hot Chocolate ($18), Lake Champlain Organic Hot Chocolate ($10), Land O’ Lakes Cocoa Classics Chocolate Supreme ($6.50). I then invited 4 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 were the cups that I finished.
In the end, the data was compiled and analyzed, which ended up with a spirited debate that had us considering the reliability of small samples and the overall drinkability of a seriously thick cup of hot chocolate. The results were varied, and here’s where it got tricky.
Trader Joe’s Sipping Chocolate is our pick because it has a well-balanced dark chocolate flavor, drinkable texture, and is easily attainable wherever there’s a Trader Joe’s between the months of October and December— or you can even buy it on Amazon with Prime shipping through a third party for a markup. 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.
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” and “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 cents 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, less acidic and has a deeper chocolate flavor than natural cocoa powder.
A thicker, richer hot chocolate alternative
There’s no denying that the Jacques Torres Classic Hot Chocolate was a crowd pleaser, and is certainly a great second pick for someone looking for a thicker, more velvety cup.
When the Trader Joe’s sells out
What else did we look at?
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 that it was “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.
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 of 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, it’s 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 ten, 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.
Long-term test notes
The Trader Joe’s mix was great to the very last spoonful. In the end, I started mixing it with water, because calories, and it was so delicious. The Guittard was our runner up, and it is still one of my favorite mixes. In fact, I buy that one more often now because the Trader Joe’s mix is seasonal, and it’s so popular that they sell out very quickly. Guittard is a fantastic company and their chocolate is top notch (we also love their 70% bar for eating).
Wrapping it up
We’re not hoping to convert any purists to get on the hot cocoa mix bandwagon, but with all of the high-end options out there these days, choosing to use one is not the compromise that it used to be.
We stand by the Trader Joe’s Sipping Chocolate as our favorite crowd-pleasing mix. While it might not be the most decadent mix available for purchase, we like it for its versatility and overall drinkability. 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. We enjoy drinking this stuff as-is, but it’s also a great springboard for dressing up to suit your own tastes. With the added bonus of a $4 price tag, this little tin will be my go-to for a satisfying warmup 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 E. Guittard Grand Cacao Drinking Chocolate.
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