Recipe Review

I Tested 6 Popular Recipes for Homemade Hot Cocoa, and the Winner Is Better than Any Boxed Mix

published Dec 19, 2023
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Overhead shot of six different hot chocolate recipes in assorted mugs on a white marble surface.
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Stylist: Debbie Wee

Hot cocoa is a classic, comforting treat that’s perfect for the cold winter months. While there are plenty of boxed hot chocolate mixes, hot cocoa bombs, and flavored kits available at the grocery store, we wanted to find the best recipe for making hot chocolate at home. We put six popular recipes to the test to see which has the perfect combination of creaminess, flavor, and ease. 

Quick Overview

So, What’s the Best Hot Chocolate Recipe?

Jacques Torres’ famous hot chocolate recipe is worth the hype. It’s extra chocolatey, not too sweet, and has a deliciously silky texture, thanks to cornstarch and baking powder.

Meet Our Hot Cocoa Contenders

For this recipe showdown, we included six popular hot cocoa recipes from celebrity chefs. All six recipes were made on the stovetop. Most recipes used full-fat dairy as the base of the cocoa — either milk, half-and-half, or a combination, although one called for almond milk. Some included a topping or garnish, while others let the cocoa stand on its own. The recipes all yielded distinctive takes on classic hot cocoa.

  • Ina Garten: This recipe includes a combination of milk and dark chocolates, both whole milk and half-and-half, vanilla, and instant espresso powder. The cocoa is cooked on the stovetop and garnished with a cinnamon stick or a vanilla bean.
  • Carla Hall: This single-serving recipe employs a combination of dark chocolate, cinnamon, sugar, and whole milk. It’s topped with ginger whipped cream and a slice of orange peel for a more complex cocoa.
  • Jacques Torres: This deceptively simple cocoa includes some unexpected ingredients — milk powder and cornstarch — which are combined on the stovetop with whole milk and dark chocolate.
  • Ree Drummond: If you’re looking to make cocoa for a crowd, this recipe makes a whopping six servings and relies on mostly pantry-friendly ingredients like whole milk, half-and-half, vanilla, and semisweet chocolate chips.
  • Giada De Laurentiis: The only recipe in the lineup to use non-dairy milk, it also incorporates chocolate hazelnut spread, cocoa nibs, and dark chocolate, which are all combined with almond milk warmed on the stovetop and blended together.
  • Nigella Lawson: Possibly the simplest in a group of simple recipes, this is the only one to suggest using the microwave. Cocoa powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and honey are combined with warmed milk to make a single serving.

The yields of these recipes varied from one all the way up to six servings. Determining the serving size for something like cocoa requires a little bit of guesswork from a recipe developer. Mugs don’t come in a standard size — they can hold anywhere from 5 or 6 ounces to 10 or 12 ounces. That said, I think the sweet spot for a hot cocoa recipe would be two to three servings, so you could easily double or halve that amount to suit your needs. None of these recipes yield that amount, but that’s fine. We’re here to find the best hot cocoa recipe — leftovers welcome!

How I Tested the Hot Cocoa Recipes

  • I made all of the recipes on the same day. All recipes were prepared and tasted on the same day for a true side-by-side comparison.
  • I used the same two pots. I tested each recipe in Cuisinart saucepans, using a small size for recipes with smaller yields and a large saucepan for bigger batches.
  • I used the same brand of chocolate for every recipe. Each recipe was tested using Ghirardelli (milk, dark, and semisweet) chocolate, including chips, chopped bar chocolate, and cocoa powder. 

Why You Should Trust Me as a Tester 

I have been in the food industry for over a decade and spent four years as a recipe developer and food editor. I have developed, written, and tested hundreds of recipes. I know how to critique a recipe for accuracy, clarity, flavor, and overall end results.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Food Stylist: Debbie Wee

1. The Basic Hot Cocoa: Ree Drummond’s Delicious Hot Chocolate

Overall rating: 7/10
Get the recipe: Ree Drummond’s Delicious Hot Chocolate

If you’re looking for a pantry-friendly recipe to make cocoa for a crowd, this is a good one to try. The no-frills ingredient list includes whole milk, half-and-half, semisweet chocolate chips, and vanilla — all things many households will have on hand. The recipe is well-written, instructing the reader to warm the milk and half-and-half on the stovetop over medium-low heat, then stir in the chocolate until melted, noting that there will still be particles of chocolate throughout.

The recipe serves six, which could be a bit much depending on your needs, although I did save leftovers in an airtight container in the fridge. The hot cocoa itself is tasty, but basic. It’s not overly sweet (there is the option to add a teaspoon of sugar if you like your cocoa sweeter), which I prefer, and it has a balanced chocolatey flavor from the semisweet chips. Overall, this feels like what you would throw together if you wanted hot cocoa, but hadn’t planned your grocery run ahead of time.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Food Stylist: Debbie Wee

2. The Hot Cocoa with Complex Flavors: Carla Hall’s Snow Day Cocoa

Overall rating: 6/10
Get the recipe: Carla Hall’s Snow Day Cocoa

If you want more than your run-of-the-mill hot cocoa, this is the recipe for you. The ingredients include cinnamon, ginger, and orange, giving this cocoa a distinctly different flavor profile from the other recipes I tested. 

While not the only recipe to call for whipped cream, it is the only one to include a recipe for it. That might feel like too much work for a single serving, but this could easily be doubled to serve two people. Carla’s whipped cream uses heavy cream, sugar, and ground ginger for an aromatic twist. The cocoa itself starts by briefly toasting ground cinnamon in a small saucepan before adding whole milk, dark chocolate, and sugar. The cocoa is garnished with the ginger whipped cream and a small piece of orange peel. 

The final product was surprising and complex. Dark chocolate and orange are a classic combination, and the ginger whipped cream added another layer of depth. Unfortunately the texture was so thick I felt like I was trying to drink melted chocolate. Stirring the whipped cream into the mug loosened it a little, but I think I could have doubled the amount of milk here and still made delicious cocoa with a more drinkable consistency.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Food Stylist: Debbie Wee

3. The Sugary Sweet Hot Cocoa: Ina Garten’s Hot Chocolate

Overall rating: 5/10
Get the recipe: Ina Garten’s Hot Chocolate 

This is a relatively straightforward take on hot cocoa that comes together quickly. Milk and half-and-half are heated on the stovetop, followed by stirring in chopped chocolate, sugar, vanilla, and espresso powder. The cocoa is garnished with your choice of vanilla beans or cinnamon sticks. This makes a big batch that serves four to five people.

The combination of both milk and half-and-half and two kinds of chocolate (milk and dark) gives the cocoa both body and a more complex flavor. The result is a cocoa with a recognizable classic flavor profile reminiscent of a higher-quality Swiss Miss.

That said, it was very sweet and a tad on the rich side. I can’t imagine adding a classic topping like whipped cream or marshmallows to something already this sugary. I was disappointed to not pick up on the flavor of espresso powder, seemingly overwhelmed by the chocolate. If you’re looking for a really sweet treat or a good cocoa recipe for a group of kids (perhaps minus the espresso powder), this is it. 

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Food Stylist: Debbie Wee

4. The Hot Cocoa That’s Too Much Work: Giada De Laurentiis’ Triple Chocolate Hot Cocoa

Overall rating: 3/10
Get the recipe: Giada De Laurentiis’ Triple Chocolate Cocoa

When I read the ingredient list for this one, I had high hopes. This recipe incorporates chocolate hazelnut spread in addition to dark chocolate, and is the only one to include a pinch of salt. A little bit of salt with your sweet is terrific! This is also the only recipe to lead with non-dairy milk. The curveball for me was the cocoa nibs, which don’t melt and seemed like a possibly problematic texture-add. This recipe uses the blender in addition to the stovetop, putting it squarely in a higher-lift category than every other recipe I tested. Still, I was hopeful it would yield a good cocoa with some added depth of flavor. 

Before heating the milk on the stovetop you add dark chocolate chips, chocolate hazelnut spread, cocoa nibs, and salt to a blender. Once the milk is warm, you carefully pour it over the ingredients in the blender and allow them to sit for 30 seconds. Then everything is blended until smooth. Unfortunately, despite blending for over 3 minutes (well over the 30 seconds the recipe called for), I could not get the mixture totally smooth. The cocoa nibs remained stubbornly “nibby” and resulted in a gritty cocoa. 

While blending heated milk and a few other ingredients is not necessarily a lot of work, it was noticeably more (and created more dishes to clean) than every other recipe I tested. Grittiness aside, the flavor of the cocoa was a tad on the bitter side and while the use of almond milk is great for non-dairy folks, the cocoa itself had a distinctly thinner texture than other cocoas I tested.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Food Stylist: Debbie Wee

5. The Dead Simple Hot Cocoa: Nigella Lawson’s Mystic Hot Chocolate

Overall rating: 5/10
Get the recipe: Nigella Lawson’s Mystic Hot Chocolate

Nigella Lawson’s take on hot cocoa is startlingly simple. It starts with “1 mug” of whole milk — an imprecise but perfect measurement for this kind of recipe, allowing you to make as much or as little cocoa as you want. It is the only recipe that calls for heating the milk either on the stovetop or in the microwave, which saves you from dirtying a saucepan. It is also the only recipe I tested that calls for cocoa powder, rather than chocolate. To the heated milk you stir in cocoa powder, honey, ground cinnamon, and nutmeg. 

The result is what I imagine you would get if a cup of tea became hot cocoa. While I don’t prefer my cocoa sickly sweet, 1 teaspoon of honey was not enough to make this taste balanced. I liked the flavors of nutmeg and cinnamon, and cocoa powder does make for a pleasingly chocolatey, if not deep, flavor. However, the use of just milk (rather than a combo of milk and half-and-half) resulted in a thin texture overall. I would try this again but skip the honey and just add a little sugar to achieve a more satisfying sweetness.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Food Stylist: Debbie Wee

6. The Dream Hot Cocoa: Jacques Torres’ Legendary Hot Chocolate

Overall rating: 10/10
Get the recipe: Jacques Torres’ Legendary Hot Chocolate

This cocoa blew all of the others out of the water. I was suspicious at first of the inclusion of milk powder and cornstarch in the ingredient list, wondering if they were really necessary or the kind of thing that sometimes gets added to a recipe to make it stand out from the crowd. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the addition of these two ingredients to a simple mixture of milk and dark chocolate yielded the best cup of cocoa in the bunch. 

The recipe is well written and clear, with instructions to bring the milk to a boil over medium-high heat, then lower to medium while whisking in the chocolate until it melts. The cornstarch and milk powder go in next while you continue to whisk until the mixture is smooth and thickened.

The flavor is uncomplicated, chocolatey, and balanced without being too sweet, with no need for added sugar. Where this one really shines is the texture. The cocoa is silky, thicker than milk alone, but not heavy. It feels indulgent, but not rich. This is what I wanted other cocoa recipes to be — classic, balanced, and smooth. I would be happy as a clam sipping a full mug by a fire, and I’m confident it could even take a few marshmallows or whipped cream without going over the edge into headache-sweet territory.