How to Make the Best Ever Hot Chocolate

Photo by Kimberly SentnerPhoto by Kimberly Sentner

By Kemp Minifie,

Is there anything more restorative in the winter, more evocative of snowy evenings around the fire, more comforting in that "there, there" way, than a steaming mug-or bowl, if you're European-of hot chocolate?

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Drinking chocolate in a liquid form has come a long way since the Spanish conquistadors learned about a cold Aztec drink made from the cacao bean. But even before the Aztecs, pre-Columbian cultures more than 3,000 years ago were cultivating the plant and brewing a beerlike concoction from the pulp surrounding the beans. Later, the Mayans and Aztecs focused more on the cacao beans, pounding them to a paste with spices, chiles, and water-hot and with the addition of cornmeal for the Mayans, often cold for the Aztecs-which they then poured back and forth between vessels to create a froth that was the most prized part of the drink.

Chocolate didn't get sweetened or mixed with hot milk until it was brought to Spain in the 16th century, and became popularized by the many chocolate houses that, like the coffee houses that followed later, opened across Europe.

Today, hot chocolate and hot cocoa are loosely used terms, often interchangeably, which can make things confusing. Packets of instant hot cocoa pop up everywhere, but making it from scratch doesn't take much more time than tearing open the envelope of the instant, shaking out the contents, and boiling the water. And the homemade results are so far superior, it's unfair to even compare them.


Hot Chocolate
At its most basic, hot chocolate is made from chopped chocolate bars melted into a heated liquid such as milk or cream. Chocolate bars contain not only the cacao solids but also the cocoa butter. You can make hot chocolate using semisweet, bittersweet, or even unsweetened chocolate.

Semisweet and bittersweet already have sugar in them, so you don't need to add sugar to the liquid. That's not the case with unsweetened chocolate; you'll definitely want to add some form of sweetening.

Hot Cocoa
Hot cocoa is made from unsweetened cocoa powder combined with a sweetener, usually sugar, and a hot liquid such as milk or cream. Think of it as hot chocolate minus the cocoa butter. Unsweetened cocoa powder is created when most of the cocoa butter is pressed from the chocolate liquor. Chocolate liquor (not an alcoholic drink) is the essence of chocolate: cacao beans that have been fermented, dried, roasted, peeled, and then ground into a paste and melted.

What's called natural cocoa is the plain powder, without any additions or chemical alterations, and it has a slightly acidic quality-a fruity tang-that is much more appreciated today. Many of the supermarket brands of unsweetened cocoa in the United States, such as Hershey's and Ghirardelli, are natural.

In the early 1800s, a Dutch father-and-son duo, the van Houtens, figured out how to chemically neutralize the acidity of cocoa. This alkalized cocoa, or "Dutch processed," is a darker and some say richer or smoother-tasting powder. Droste, imported from the Netherlands, is alkalized, as are many other European brands. When making hot cocoa, use whatever type you prefer in terms of flavor. Whether the cocoa is Dutch-processed or not is only important in baking.

Hot chocolate, with its cocoa butter, tends to be richer than hot cocoa, but there are no hard-and-fast rules here. Cocoa can be as decadently rich as you want, if you make it with heavy cream and thicken it, Spanish style, with cornstarch.

These days, the supermarket shelves are confusingly crowded with myriad premade mixes of hot chocolate and hot cocoa. Some contain dried-milk powder and sugar and only need the addition of hot water. Where it really gets confusing are the ones that combine cocoa and sugar with ground-up chocolate. Read the labels carefully. By sticking to plain, unsweetened cocoa, you maintain control over how much and with what you sweeten it and what liquid you mix it with.

See also: The Rules of Regifting


Simple Hot Chocolate for One
The easiest way to make hot chocolate is to begin with your favorite bittersweet or semisweet chocolate bar. If you want an easily quaffed drink, use milk (whole or any percentage you prefer). If you want it richer, use half-and-half, or substitute cream for a portion of the milk. One of the most easily consumed versions I ever had, Cinnamon Hot Chocolate, was made with skim milk.

Many recipes follow the proportion of 1 1/2 ounces of bittersweet or semisweet chocolate for every cup of milk. I prefer the ratio of 2 ounces chocolate for every cup of milk. A slight increase in chocolate makes for a more flavorful drink, and the 2-ounce measurement is easier for home cooks to use and multiply. Most Americans don't own kitchen scales, and one of the more readily available supermarket brands of bittersweet and semisweet chocolate, Ghirardelli, is packed in 4-ounce bars, which are easily halved.

Break up the chocolate into small pieces. If your chocolate comes in a thick chunk, you'll need to chop it. A large serrated knife makes the job much easier. Just be sure your cutting surface is free of any residual aromas of garlic or onion.

Recipes to Try:

Simple Hot Chocolate for One
Ultimate Indulgent Hot Chocolate for Two

Simple Hot Cocoa for One Unsweetened cocoa does not dissolve easily in a cold liquid, so it's heated with a small amount of liquid first to turn it into a paste that will then blend easily with more liquid. The ratio to commit to memory for hot cocoa is 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa for every cup of liquid, along with 1 to 2 tablespoons of a sweetener, such as sugar.

Recipes to Try:
Simple Hot Cocoa for One
The Ultimate Indulgent Hot Cocoa for Two

The All-Important Marshmallows
Whether you're a maven of hot chocolate or hot cocoa, you know both are mighty fine on their own. But when you top your steaming mug with a homemade marshmallow that softens to gooey goodness as it melts, or pile on a hillock of whipped cream, you've just ramped your drink up to must-have status.

As deliciously wacky as marshmallows are, remember that in essence, they're made from a sugar syrup that's been gelled and whipped, so that when one melts into a mug of hot cocoa, what had been a perfectly balanced blend of unsweetened cocoa and sugar becomes too sweet.

If you are planning to float a marshmallow on your cuppa homemade cocoa, reduce the amount of sugar by half when making the cocoa. If you are making hot chocolate, skip the semisweet chocolate altogether and go for one that's a higher percentage of cacao, no less than 60% and up to 70%.

Recipes to Try:

OMG Homemade Marshmallows
Pink Peppermint Swirl Marshmallows

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