As has already been explained on this very website, hot chocolate and hot cocoa are not the same thing. One is made with melted chocolate, which contains cocoa butter. The other is made with cocoa powder, which does not. One requires patience and care. The other could, in theory, but can also require just hot water and one of those little stirrer straws. This makes it an ideal winter drink for people who like having well-stocked office snack drawers or people who are just lazy.
But which store-bought hot cocoa mix is the best? We went to our local grocery, plus Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, and grabbed every plain hot cocoa mix we could find. We wanted hot cocoa in its most basic form: no peppermint, no cinnamon, not even marshmallows, because not every brand has marshmallows and that wouldn’t be fair. We ended up with 12 different brands. Then we retreated to the Takeout test kitchen with a dozen paper cups, a Sharpie, and an ample supply of hot water to determine which one was best. We also roped in two of our A.V. Club colleagues, Gwen Ihnat and Katie Rife, to lend their thoughts and taste buds. Here are our definitive rankings, from worst to best, along with tasting notes and some running commentary from the team.
This cocoa does nail exactly one thing about Tootsie Rolls: it promises flavors it fails to deliver on. It has a suggestion of a flavor, but it only comes from the smell. On the bright side, it’s only 80 calories.
Marnie: I even tried aerating it like a wine in my mouth, hunting for the Tootsie Roll flavor profile, but that created a momentary spoiled-milk taste. Incredible, since there is zero milk in my mug, only water! (It does end up tasting more like a Tootsie Roll as it cools, but this is not a good thing.)
Gwen: Ugh. It’s like that line from Peanuts: Water with a brown crayon.
This Whole Foods cocoa is aiming for the same pocket as Trader Joe’s Organic, with less of the dark chocolate complexity. We even added more powder because we thought we had the wrong sized spoon, but it didn’t help. Whole Foods’ 365 label sets a high bar of expectation, and this cocoa’s failure to measure up places it even lower in our list than other brands presumed to be more middling. That said, it’s probably among the better cocoas that qualifies for an Amazon Prime discount.
Spiritually, philosophically, taxinomically, any store-bought hot cocoa mix ought to be able to mix with water instead of milk and still taste okay. You should be able to dig a packet of powder out of your pantry and exclaim, “Cocoa time!” without having to purchase anything else to live your dream. Sillycow was the one cocoa mix that emphasized using milk instead of water (and “very hot milk” at that—yes, with the italics and everything). This reliance on dairy was its biggest weakness: It’s almost too bright and citrusy to taste like cocoa when you add it to water, perhaps designed to be cut by the mellow creaminess of milk. With water, it tasted thin and fruity, like a mass-market health drink that comes in “chocolatey” flavor.
Katie: It tastes like water with powder.
This powder pours almost bluish out of the packet, but turns as black as an Oreo cookie when water is added. This is generally a fun spin on cocoa, if you don’t mind embracing the artificiality. It’s like liquid doughnuts, but cheap ones; drink it fast, because it grows unpalatably sweet as it cools.
Aimee: It tastes like a liquified Oreo. I’m not sure if I like my Oreos liquified.
This one requires a comical amount of powder: 1/4 c. powder to 7 fluid ounces of water. But it does end up delivering on its “Chocolate Supreme” moniker. It was surprisingly creamy, and maybe it’s just the power of suggestion, looking at the Land O Lakes label, but it seemed to have distinct buttery notes, too. However, those were overshadowed by the overwhelming chalky flavor.
Like Starbucks coffee, this cocoa was pretty divisive.. Gwen and Aimee hated it (“It’s like dirt,” Gwen said), Katie liked it just fine (“But I always go for that burnt flavor”), and Marnie was just kind of mad at it. This tastes like it’s aiming for a Starbucks mocha and (in the opinion of at least half of us) failing. The flavor seems designed for “grown-ups” to enjoy cocoa in a grown-up way, but hot cocoa isn’t exactly what you turn to when you’re feeling grown up, is it?
For a fleeting half-second, Stephen’s—the most expensive cocoa on our docket—tasted like it was going to deliver a big hit of bold chocolate flavor, and then... nothing. Nothing at all. Nada. Next.
Forget about the ominous word “flavor” slipped in there, and this cocoa isn’t half bad. It has an edge of something you might call maltiness, perhaps in error. It’s less sweet than Swiss Miss, and seems to attempt more of a “roasty” flavor. It’s less cloying and with a better aftertaste than the other leading cocoa packets.
Katie: It’s more of a mouthfeel than a flavor.
Behold, the most divisive cocoa of them all. Aimee, Katie, and Gwen liked it a lot (chocolate!), and Marnie ranked it dead last (cardboard), landing it a spot in the middle. Was it a matter of palate? Or was it environment? Was the office kitchen a more hospitable setting than Marnie’s home kitchen? Was the hot water more pure? Was there perhaps some cross-contamination with other cocoas? The world may never know.
This one has some terrifying chunks as you stir it, but perhaps that means the chocolate is more “real”? In any case, it’s darker than most of the other cocoas and not trying too hard to be sweet. Cocoa can only go so far with a water base, and this mix didn’t do quite enough to hide the water behind creamy chocolate. It could be pretty decent with some milk, which might add some dimension to its rather flat dark-chocolate notes. Also notable: It leaves behind really persistent globules of chocolate in the mug.
Gwen: It has a weird, herbal aftertaste, like a hot chocolate candle.
As the leading name in hot cocoa, Swiss Miss drives home an important point: When the packet dictates 6 oz. of water, follow that instruction if you know what’s good for you. That is a paltry amount of water—barely reaching the halfway point of a robust coffee mug—but it’s the only volume that will make the cocoa taste creamy in the slightest. If you’re going to make yourself a bigger mug of cocoa, dump a second packet in with the extra water. All that said, when you follow the instructions to a T, Swiss Miss is decent enough to satisfy your wintertime chocolate cravings with only a slightly bitter aftertaste. Besides, it’s a flavor so tied to nostalgia that a blind taste test couldn’t obscure it; Katie knew exactly what brand it was before she checked the label on the cup.
Katie: It tastes like sledding to me.
Due to Ghirardelli’s bump backward in the list, Papa Nicholas has been crowned the victor. (Three out of four of us ranked it number one.) Due to its creaminess, this cocoa was the biggest surprise of the bunch. While the instructions dictate the typical 6 oz. of water, it has 1.25 oz. of powder, leading to a higher ratio of chocolate than some other packets. The Dutch chocolate flavor splits the difference between rich and sweet, with an almost savory edge. None of us had heard of this brand before, and we might be making it a staple of our winter grocery lists. Bonus: the box promises that it’s caffeine-free, if that’s your thing.
Gwen: Mmmmm, I like this. They know what they’re doing.