Although the terms are used interchangeably here and in common parlance, hot chocolate and hot cocoa technically are not the same thing. Hot chocolate is made from chocolate shavings that melt in milk and hot cocoa is made from powdered cocoa. But that doesn't demean the latter. Powdered cocoa mixed with sugar and hot milk is the cheapest and most convenient way to go -- and many consumers assert that this recipe produces the best drink. Indeed, the best "hot chocolate" mix should dissolve into a velvety, smooth liquid with a pleasing creaminess, even if you're adding water, and smell and taste like chocolate with a balanced sweetness. With the help of online reviews, we zeroed in on some of the most popular brands. Our seven-person tasting panel tried the top three to declare the best instant hot cocoa mix.
Hot Cocoa Mix Taste Test
Supermarket shelves and online storefronts are stocked with packets and canisters of hot chocolate mix bearing a variety of brand labels. Frugal consumers have their pick of hot chocolate mixes created by the likes of Swiss Miss, Nestle, Hershey, and even chocolatier Ghirardelli, in addition to low-cost private labels. There are also mid-price producers, such as Starbucks and Land O'Lakes, as well as small-scale and pricey gourmet mixes, such as Godiva Dark Chocolate and Bellagio Chocolate Truffle, which cost many times the price of the best cheap hot cocoa.
To help ward off choice anxiety, we invited seven consumers to compare three perennial favorites in a blind tasting. All the hot cocoa drinks were prepared according to the manufacturers' instructions, and we asked the panelists to consider sensory attributes like sweetness, chocolate flavor, mouth feel (texture), and richness. Swiss Miss Classics Milk Chocolate (starting at 12 cents/serving) cornered the market around our tasting table. Ghirardelli Double Chocolate Premium Hot Cocoa (starting at 42 cents/serving) finished a distant second and Nestle Rich Milk Chocolate (starting at 8 cents/serving) failed to secure any support.
Like many other standard products these days, the hot cocoa mix category is sliced and diced into ever more specialty niches: hot cocoa with spices such as cinnamon, mint, ginger, and chili; hot cocoa with add-ins such as chips and marshmallows; hot cocoa with flavors such as dark chocolate, truffle, caramel, mocha, raspberry; hot cocoa for health, such as diet, sugar-free, and vitamins and minerals. Still more options come in the form of packaging: canisters or pouches, boxes of individual packets, and K-cups (or close approximations thereof) for single-cup coffeemakers. While the K-cups come with a considerable markup, the others have similar prices per serving.
But if you really want to go cheap, make your own hot chocolate mix at home. A recipe from Martha Stewart makes nearly 100 servings from a couple of cans of unsweetened cocoa (about $3 each at grocery and big-box stores). Mixed with sugar and a dash of salt, the powder can be added to hot milk to make homemade hot chocolate. Store the mix in an airtight container to last through the winter and beyond.
One more tip: A seemingly large number of consumers, as evidenced by comments posted online and shared during our tasting session, add a spoonful or so of hot cocoa mix to their morning coffee. This practice has the advantage of reducing the amount of sugar otherwise stirred in and creating what one reviewer dubs "the poor man's mocha."
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Hot Chocolate Reviews
In order of preference, our tasting panel favored Swiss Miss Classics Milk Chocolate, Ghirardelli Double Chocolate, and Nestle Rich Milk Chocolate. Several tasters decided that Swiss Miss surpassed the others because it was familiar; one said, "It tastes like what I used to get at the skating rink." The "more sophisticated flavor" of Ghirardelli appealed to a minority of tasters. And while many in the group liked the flavor of Nestle's hot cocoa mix, most concluded it failed to deliver a full, rich cocoa experience. Online hot cocoa mix reviews are not entirely in sync with our panel's assessments, however.
Sweetness.A bitter chocolate drink might have been fine for the Aztecs but not so much for today's consumer. Both Swiss Miss Classics Milk Chocolate and Nestle Rich Milk Chocolate are loaded with sweeteners. Sugar and corn syrup are the top two ingredients; sucralose, a zero-calorie artificial sweetener, is sometimes present in much smaller amounts, as well. The tasters on our panel declared Swiss Miss to be plenty sweet but "not too sugary" while the Nestle mix seemed overly sweet, with a taste that was "sugary more than chocolaty."
Online reviews of both brands take a different tack on the sweetness factor. Numerous comments posted on Facebook about Swiss Miss, for example, rail against a reformulation that added sucralose to the canister version of the mix, asserting it mucks up what was once the best tasting hot cocoa. Similarly, reviews on Amazon contend the brew is now excessively sweet, with an undertone of chemicals. Sucralose is likewise a source of consternation in a few reviews of Nestle Rich Milk Chocolate mix; one consumer says it causes headaches and another that it makes for a bitter taste. A clear majority of posted comments, however, come from reviewers who are keen on the Nestle product.
The Ghirardelli mix contains sugar, along with chocolate, and delivers the non-cloying sweetness that characterizes the best hot chocolate, according to the tasting panel. Reviewers posting on Amazon generally concur with the panelists. Some allege the mix is sweeter than it used to be, but still less so than the other brands. The absence of artificial sweeteners appeals to reviewers.
Texture.Hot cocoa mixes formulated to be mixed with water generally contain dried milk and milk solids. This helps create the velvety texture and creaminess that our panelists were looking for. The tasters indicated that all three brands in the sample were at least mildly creamy. Swiss Miss Classics Milk Chocolate, which contains nonfat milk in addition to whey (an input that enhances texture), was described by our panelists as "heftier" and "thicker" than the others, although one dissenter deemed it watery.
This result was surprising considering that the Ghirardelli Double Chocolate was mixed with whole milk while the other two were mixed with water, according to the recipes on the packages. That said, our testers and online reviewers largely agreed that the Ghirardelli mix is thick and rich, although a Swiss Miss partisan on the panel asserted it didn't measure up. It wins points in reviews on Amazon for no signs of grittiness and for a creaminess that's present even with skim milk.
Nestle Rich Milk Chocolate didn't fare as well with our panelists. Several termed it "watery" and one suggested it would "benefit from marshmallows or cream or something." This mix wins more love online, where a noticeable proportion of posts comment on its creamy richness. One review at Drugstore.com insists that adding a tablespoon of Nestle to a Ghirardelli cocoa mix makes the latter richer and creamier.
Chocolate Flavor.The fan favorite in the flavor department was Ghirardelli Double Chocolate. The effect of an ingredients list long on chocolate was readily apparent to our tasters. "It really smells like chocolate," one panelist declared, while another said it "has the best cocoa flavor." Reviewers express similar sentiments online, with one noting that dark chocolate lovers would particularly appreciate this mix; youngsters, however, might take a pass.
Some panelists described Swiss Miss Classics Milk Chocolate as being more "chocolaty" than the other two entrants and delivering a "familiar cocoa flavor." Online reviews likewise commend the flavor.
Nestle Rich Milk Chocolate claims its share of supporters online, where one reviewer says it curbs those chocolate cravings. Others, however, say the flavor is okay but not exceptional. Our tasters were less convinced. They didn't actively dislike this mix but said the drink had "a cinnamon undertaste" and "doesn't really taste like chocolate" despite the "good chocolate smell."