How to Make Better Hot Chocolate

Puffy marshmallow toppings optional.

October 21, 2019
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Photo by: Levi Brown

Levi Brown

Whether you call it hot chocolate or hot cocoa, and use actual chocolate or cocoa powder (or both), there’s no denying the comfort that a mug of sippable chocolate brings. Whichever term you prefer (no wrong answer!), you can easily up your game by making hot chocolate from scratch. Follow these tips to ensure a rich, smooth sip in every chocolatey cup and savor these recipes for clever flavor combos, creative toppings and hot cocoa-inspired confections. Get ready to enter a state of marshmallow-topped bliss.

What is hot chocolate?

“The chocolate industry lacks a standard definition; terms are used interchangeably and there’s no right answer,” says Jael Rattigan, who co-owns French Broad Chocolate, a bean-to-bar chocolate company with its own factory, dessert lounge and boutique in Asheville, North Carolina.

“The difference to me is the use of cocoa powder versus the use of chocolate,” she continues. “Making a hot cocoa, like [a pre-mixed] packet — a combination of cocoa powder and powdered sugar — is meant to dissolve in milk. The drinking chocolates that we make are made with the tiniest chocolate chips, so they melt more smoothly in hot milk, creating a finer texture and richer taste.”

Our Classic Hot Chocolate recipe (pictured up top) melds the best of both worlds by incorporating unsweetened cocoa powder and chopped milk chocolate, to rich effect.

Why the quality of your chocolate matters

“Chocolate is the most important ingredient in drinking or sipping chocolate. It’s another way to taste chocolate,” Rattigan says. “We can eat bars and let them melt slowly on the palate, but drinking it warm does that work for you, so it allows the flavor to unfold as soon as hits tongue. Using the best quality chocolate that you can will impact your tasting experience.” To start, try Ree’s Fancy Hot Chocolate, which calls for good-quality bittersweet and semi-sweet chocolate chips, plus a decorative chocolate topper for added panache.

If you’re really into chocolate — like if you geek out over different percentages of cacao or are curious about the differences among its origins — hot chocolate offers a fun way to taste different chocolates. At French Broad Chocolate’s dessert lounge, hot chocolate flights feature different versions of its signature sipping chocolate. “The way we make it is really thick and rich, so we serve it in small servings. If I did a flight of three different origins, I’d do an ounce of each of those,” Rattigan says.

Experiment with different chocolates in our Holiday Hot Chocolate recipe, an extra-thick, European-style sipping chocolate. Or follow Alton Brown’s Cocoa Nib Hot Chocolate tutorial, in which ground and steeped cocoa nibs mingle with chopped chocolate (65% to 70% cacao is recommended). For her Triple Chocolate Hot Cocoa, Giada calls for cocoa nibs, chocolate chips (55% to 60% cacao is recommended here), plus a hefty swirl of chocolate hazelnut spread. Don’t forget to consider white chocolate, which is a nice alternative if you’re not into cocoa, but still want something warm and rich to sip. Try Ina’s White Hot Chocolate recipe, in which chopped white chocolate is complemented by a duo of vanilla beans and vanilla extract.

How to choose your liquid

Hot chocolate is flexible, but recipes typically call for either milk, half-and-half or heavy cream, or some combination therein. Ree’s Delicious Hot Chocolate calls for equal parts milk and half-and-half. For an ultra-indulgent, thick sipper, try this Spiked Hot Chocolate, crafted with heavy cream, milk and dark chocolate (rum optional).

For those who don’t want a super-rich, dense drinking chocolate, Rattigan suggests subbing in a higher ratio of milk in place of half and half to make a lighter-bodied but still rich cup. This Homemade Hot Chocolate recipe fits the bill nicely with a mix of whole milk and small semi-sweet chocolate chips. You can experiment with different milks, too. Ellie’s healthier recipe incorporates low-fat milk into her cocoa powder-based hot chocolate (she saves dark chocolate shavings for the garnish). Giada pulls in almond milk for her Triple Chocolate Hot Cocoa, while Tia Mowry relies on chocolate almond milk to bring an extra chocolatey finish to her cayenne-spiked Spicy Hot Chocolate.

How to mix it up

Most recipes call for cooking hot chocolate on the stovetop and using a whisk to incorporate ingredients. But Rattigan says that how you mix your chocolate and liquid depends on the kind of experience you want. For a thick, dense and smooth cup, she cooks the mixture slowly on the stovetop over low heat, stirring it with a rubber spatula and scraping the bottom of the pan as she goes to ensure that it doesn’t burn. To obtain frothier texture, she recommends investing in a latte wand to froth your milk (an immersion blender works well, too).

Top it off

“Nothing beats homemade whipped cream on top of sipping chocolate,” Rattigan says. “It cuts the richness, it’s very luscious.” Infusing your whipped cream with herbs and spices — like steeping it with lavender, dried rosebuds or cardamom pods, for example — is another way to pull in different flavors. Keep things classic with Alton’s homemade Whipped Cream or go the infusion route with Damaris’ honey-rosemary whipped cream or Aida’s coffee-liqueur-spiked Coffee Whipped Cream. Take things extra sweet with Bobby’s marshmallow whipped cream, perfect for dolloping into cups of his Red Velvet Hot Chocolate (pictured).

Raiding your spice cupboard is another way to tailor your cup to your palate. Rattigan recommends adding a sprinkling of ground spices such as cinnamon or cayenne, or flake sea salt, which really makes the chocolate flavor pop. Try Ree’s cinnamon-stick-infused Mexican Hot Chocolate or Marcella’s Aztec Hot Chocolate, which employs cinnamon sticks and dried guajillo chile in the base, plus a dusting of ground cinnamon and chile powder on top. A trio of ginger, cinnamon and allspice bring gingerbread flavor to this holiday-ready Gingerbread Hot Chocolate. To bring a warming spice note to her Ginger Spiced Hot Cocoa, Ellie steeps fresh ginger in milk before whisking in cocoa powder till frothy.

Homemade marshmallows are another winner. Try Tyler’s Hot Cocoa and Homemade Marshmallows or double dip with Trisha’s pistachio-and-coconut-dipped marshmallows which she pairs with cardamom white hot chocolate.

For more ingenious garnish ideas, try decorating your cup with this holiday-ready Gingerbread People in Gingerbread Hot Chocolate Tubs, in which gingerbread cookies take a dip in a pool of mini marshmallows. For an elegant yet fuss-free dessert, try Giada’s Hot Chocolate Affogato, which couples hot cocoa with a scoop of vanilla ice cream (add ginger snaps and candy canes for extra holiday style points). Or glean inspiration from our 5 Indulgent Ways to Top Hot Chocolate guide, from toasted marshmallow pretzel skewers to peanut-butter-and-fluff-doughnut sandwiches.

SLOWCOOKER PEPPERMINT HOT CHOCOLATE Food Network Kitchen Food Network Confectioners’ Sugar, Unsweetened Cocoa Powder, Whole Milk, Vanilla Extract, Kosher Salt, Dark Chocolate, Peppermint Candies, Mini Marshmallows, Peppermint Schnapps

Photo by: Matt Armendariz ©2014, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Matt Armendariz, 2014, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Take things boozy

Mix-ins and clever combinations take hot chocolate firmly into adult-only beverage territory. This Homemade Hot Chocolate 3 Ways recipe offers three boozy riffs: tropical rum, smoky whisky and minty peppermint schnapps. Peppermint schnapps also adds festive flair and a minty pop to this clever Slow Cooker Peppermint Hot Chocolate recipe (pictured), as well as Geoffrey’s Peppermint Hot Cocoa, garnished with crushed peppermint candies.

This White Chocolate Hot Chocolate 2 Ways recipe lends itself to boozy interpretation, too: for a spirited citrus touch, add orange liqueur and a candied orange peel garnish, or for a White Russian-inspired riff, stir in vodka and coffee liqueur. This buttery, white chocolate-based Peppermint-Vodka Hot Chocolate gets a jolt from a shot of vodka and a rush of peppermint from crushed candy canes.

Double down on the holidays with this rich Homemade Eggnog White Chocolate Hot Chocolate recipe, which gets its complexity from ingredients such as vanilla bean, orange zest, cinnamon sticks, star anise and allspice berries.

Cuckoo for cocoa

Make a double batch of the powdered stuff — try Ree’s Hot Chocolate Mix — then use it in all manner of hot chocolate-inspired recipes. For dessert, hot cocoa brings chocolatey nuance and depth to brownies, cheesecake, marble pound cake, pudding and sugar cookies. For a gluten-free cocoa-y baked good, try these Spicy Cinnamon Hot Cocoa Brownies.

In the dessert-for-breakfast category, cocoa powder transforms ho-hum oats in this "Hot Chocolate" Banana-Nut Oatmeal recipe, while hot cocoa mix brings a double dose of cocoa to chocolate-syrup-topped Hot Chocolate Pancakes. With its crisp chocolatey crust and gooey marshmallow-strewn center, this Hot Cocoa Monkey Bread screams weekend brunch.

Now go mix up a cup of hot, chocolatey comfort.

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