Hot chocolate: theme and variations

January 13, 2008 at 9:49 pm (Beverage, Cook's Illustrated, Dessert, My brain, Other, Soymilk, unrated)

If you love chocolate, get cold easily, and live in Montreal (in January), then there’s nothing better than a steaming cup of hot chocolate before bed. But a word of warning: don’t buy any prepared hot cocoa mixes. Even the “upscale” sounding ones like Ghiradelli list sugar as the first ingredient.  I understand that sugar is much cheaper than cocoa, but these mixes are just wrong. The “chocolate” tastes more like dirty sugar water than hot cocoa. Make your own mix to keep in the pantry, or just whip together a cup when you happen to get a hankering (or when you’ve just walked home in -10 weather). Hot cocoa seems like such a simple thing to make, and yet there are a surprising number of bad recipes out there.

The first hot chocolate recipe I tried was Penzey’s recipe, as written on their cocoa bag. Their instructions are simple, but the recipe is embarrassingly bad:

Penzey’s awful hot cocoa recipe:

Combine and heat:

  • 4 cups milk
  • 3 Tbs. sugar
  • 1-2 Tbs. cocoa
  • dash of cinnamon
  • dash of vanilla

It’s way too sweet, and it calls for only milk. In the past five years I’ve discovered through personal experimentation that hot cocoa tastes much more chocolatey if made with part water, not all milk.

I then looked up Cook’s Illustrated’s recipe (given below), and they recommend one and one-half tablespoons of cocoa and one tablespoon of sugar per cup of liquid, which is not bad, but I still prefer a slightly higher cocoa to sugar ratio. I was pleased, however, to find that CI argues that it’s important to mix the cocoa and sugar initially with water rather than milk, as the chocolate flavor and subtler fruit and coffee notes are released better in water than milk.

Cook’s Illustrated chocolatey but sweet recipe:

To make 4 small mugs of hot chocolate

In a heavy 2-quart saucepan, whisk together until smooth:

  • 6 Tbs Dutch-process cocoa (When dutched, chocolate’s natural acidity is reduced by means of treatment with an alkaline solution.)
  • 4 Tbs. sugar
  • Small pinch salt
  • 1 cup water

Simmer, whisking continuously, for 2 minutes, making sure whisk gets into the edges of pan. Add:

  • 3 cups low-fat milk (1 or 2 percent)

Increase heat to medium-low, and cook, stirring occasionally with whisk, until steam rises from surface and tiny bubbles form around edge, 12 to 15 minutes. Do not boil. Add:

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup half-and-half

My Notes: I don’t really understand why they tell you to cook the cocoa after adding the milk for another 12 to 15 minutes. It seems excessive to me. I usually just heat it until it’s warm, which just takes a few minutes. Derek likes this ratio of milk/sugar/cocoa, but I prefer a little more cocoa and a little less sugar, maybe 7-8 Tbs. cocoa and 3 Tbs. sugar per batch.   I’ve modified the Cook’s Illustrated recipe, upping the cocoa slightly, reducing the sugar a tad, and eliminating the half and half, which I never have around.

My current hot cocoa recipe:

To make 2 servings of hot chocolate

In a 1.5- or 2-quart (not non-stick) saucepan, whisk together until smooth:

  • 1/4 cup of Dutch-process cocoa (use 3 Tbs. if you like your cocoa less intensely chocolate)
  • 1.5 – 2 Tablespoons of sugar (I like 1.5 Tbs. but Derek likes his with 2 or more Tbs. sugar.)
  • Small pinch salt
  • 2/3 cup water or coffee

Simmer, whisking continuously, for 2 minutes, making sure whisk gets into the edges of pan.  This step deepens the chocolate flavor.  Add:

  • 1 1/2 cups low-fat milk (1 or 2 percent) or unsweetened soymilk

Increase heat to medium-low, and cook until hot.  Do not boil.  Add one of the following:

  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/16 teaspoon mint extract

Note December 2009:    I made this recipe using 1/2 cup of water, and accidentally added 3 Tbs. sugar, and a “pinch” measure of mint extract. It didn’t make 2 full mugs of cocoa, and it was *extremely* sweet.  Derek thought it tasted perfect, but I thought it was almost inedibly sweet.  I tried it again later in the week with 2/3 cup of water and 2.5 Tbs. sugar, and I still thought it was too sweet, although not quite to the unbearable level it was with 3 Tbs.  Derek again thought it was perfect.

Variations: I enjoy hot cocoa made with cinnamon and orange extract. CI suggests a variation made with orange peel. Other common variations call for ground coffee, or almond or nut extract, but I haven’t tried these recently. I’d also like to try making hot cocoa with almond or hazelnut or hemp milk instead of cow’s milk or soymilk. Other interesting sounding variations have you add a bit of peanut butter or other nut butter, or even ginger. Of course, there’s always other flavor extracts to try. Finally, I’d like to try a spicy hot chocolate, with cayenne or chili powder or maybe ancho powder.  For those who don’t have mint extract, I’m curious to try this using mint tea for the water, or a mint tea bag.

An odd variation I sometimes make is molasses hot cocoa. Blackstrap molasses is a nutritional powerhouse, and can be used as a sweetener for hot cocoa. It adds an interesting flavor and great color.

  • 1/2 Tbs. dutch-process cocoa
  • 4 Tbs. water
  • 1 Tbs. blackstrap molasses
  • 1 cup unsweetened soymilk

Sift the cocoa into a mug, and mix in the water until it forms a smooth paste. Add the molasses and soymilk, then heat in the microwave for about 1 minute 45 seconds. The taste of the molasses is quite strong and takes some getting used to, but is quite nice once you’re acclimated.

Calories: 154 (fat 29%, sat fat 6%, carbs 49%, protein 22%)
Calcium: 481 (48%)
Iron: 6 (33%)
Vitamin A: 1000 (25%)
Vitamin C: 0 (0%)

Note: I usually use unsweetened soymilk, but it’s okay with plain (e.g. slightly sweetened) soymilk as well. With very sweet soymilk you probably should reduce the molasses or it will be syrupy sweet.

Here’s another variation I make sometimes:

Cinnamon Orange Sugar-less Hot Cocoa

  • 2 Tbs. dutch-process cocoa
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened soymilk
  • 1 Tbs. orange juice concentrate
  • 6 drops of liquid stevia

Sift the cocoa into a mug, then ad the cinnamon. Mix in the water until it forms a smooth paste. Add the oj concentrate and soymilk, then heat in the microwave for about 1 minute 45 seconds. Then add the stevia. I don’t love the taste of stevia, but I find I can’t taste it at all in this recipe.

Calories 98 (28% fat, 8% sat fat, 50% carbs, 22% protein)
Calcium 182 (18%)
Iron 2.7 (15%)
Vit A 570 (14%)
Vit C 25 (33%)

Tips on making hot cocoa in the microwave: When you make hot cocoa on the stove you can whisk it while it’s heating to remove any lumps. Microwave hot cocoa is much more prone to be lumpy. I’ve found that there are two things you can do to avoid lumps. One, to put your cocoa through a sieve. Two, start by mixing the cocoa with a small amount of water to make a slurry. Stir until all the lumps are dissolved and you have a smooth paste. If you try to mix the cocoa into a larger amount of water, or with another liquid, it’s more difficult to get rid of all the lumps.


  1. Anne Ward said,

    Thank you for these recipes!

    Like you, I find that most hot cocoa recipes have a much too high sugar to cocoa ratio (ditto for brownie recipes). I found your blog when searching for a hot cocoa recipe that called for stevia. I’ve been experimenting and haven’t found anything close to satisfying yet.

    Some good ideas here that I will try.

    My own tip: I always mix my cocoa, sugar and salt together with just enough hot water to make a paste. I haven’t had any lump problems since I’ve been doing this.

  2. Siobhan said,

    These sound good, but if you’re looking for a healthier (read: sugar-free) cocoa drink, just try mixing a heaped teaspoon of cocoa (and cinammon, if you like) with 1/3 of your-mug-size hot water until there are no lumps. Fill the rest of your mug up with soy milk, zap it in the microwave for a couple of minutes (if you’ve got a dinosaur like mine, but less for a more modern model ie one actually made in the 20th century) and drink! It might be a bit plain for those with a sweet tooth, but I find it really satisfying. The trick is to use good-quality, organic cocoa.

  3. Tallulah said,

    I make my hot chocolate by melting chocolate and adding milk. I like it much better than cocoa based hot chocolate.

  4. captious said,

    Well, I’m skeptical, but post your recipe and the kind of chocolate you use and I’ll give it another shot.

  5. Alain Roy said,

    Here’s how I do it that way: 1 square (1 ounce) of Ghiradelli’s milk chocolate per one cup of milk. Heat milk with chocolate until, mixing well, until it’s the temperature you like. I find the milk chocolate much better for this than dark chocolate, though for eating I prefer dark.

    But given that I like Penzey’s hot chocolate recipe, my tastes may be different than yours.

  6. captious said,

    Scott just passed this link on, apparently via Bob Harper:
    Now I want to try this perignotti cocoa! The basic recipe isn’t all that different than my working recipe above, but it calls for a thickener and more sugar.

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