The Food Lab: Homemade Hot Chocolate Mix

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

If our Hot Chocolate/Cocoa Mix Taste Test showed us anything, it's that most are not really worth drinking. Thin, watery, too sweet, or not sweet enough, we had trouble recommending any but the very best. Of all 17 brands we tried, only the Jacques Torres approached a quality level close to homemade. The problem? At $18 a pound, it comes to a dollar per serving. Pretty steep.

While homemade hot chocolate is not all that hard to make (bloom cocoa in butter, add chocolate and sugar, maybe some vanilla, add milk, whisk while heating), you can't deny the convenience of simply stirring a few tablespoons of powder into a cup of hot milk. So I decided to try and come up with a homemade recipe that would match the convenience of a powder, and beat it in terms of price and flavor.

The Chocolate

To start, I tried simply grinding up chocolate into a powder in the food processor. I quickly found that in order to do this, you need to throw the chocolate into the freezer for about 15 minutes. Otherwise, it just ends up melting. While these made decent cups, by the time I added enough chocolate to get the flavor I wanted, the richness of the cocoa butter started to dominate, making drinking a full mug difficult.

I opted instead to go for a combination of bar chocolate and Dutch-process cocoa—chocolate from which the cocoa butter has been removed.

Starting with a 100% cacao bar (I used Ghirardelli) and adding my own sugar instead of a lower cacao percentage bar allowed me to fine-tune the amount of added sugar.

My chocolate was tasting pretty good, but a few problems remained: it caked in the storage container overnight, making it hard to dissolve the next day. It broke when introduced to the milk, dispersing a fine layer of fat bubbles over the surface of the milk. It also simply wasn't rich thick and creamy enough.

Fine-Tuning Texture

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Many commercial mixes add soy lecithin or dried milk proteins to their powders, both of which are intended to increase creaminess and help keep the milk fat, cocoa butter, and liquids all nicely smooth and emulsified. I tried adding soy lecithin to my mix and it worked, but I decided against it (it's available in health food stores, but hardly a commonplace ingredient). Milk powder also helped with texture, but left the chocolate with a distinct, cooked milk flavor—not right.

In the end, the simplest solution was to add a couple teaspoons of cornstarch to my mix. Not only did it prevent caking, it also thickened up the milk, giving it a nice, smooth, creamy richness without adversely affecting flavor.

Taste Test: My Wife

With my homemade instant hot-chocolate mix in hand, I eagerly sought out my wife to get her opinion. She took one sip and immediately spat it out, crying "Ugh. Too sweet, too thick." But then again, she comes from a country where they dunk cheese in their chocolate, so clearly cannot be trusted.

Taste Test: The Serious Eats Office

I brought some into SE headquarters and conducted a blind tasting between my own homemade mix and our winning Jacques Torres mix.

Though I can't say it was a sweep (the Torres stuff is awesome, after all), the homemade mix still edged out the Torres in terms of flavor and texture. On the cost front, it easily trounced it, coming in at around half the price.

The interesting part was when I checked the back of the Jacques Torres can. Their secret ingredient? Corn starch.

Next time, I'll remember to just look at the label first.

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