CHICAGO—One of my favorite parts of childhood church ski trips was coming in from the freezing, snowy slopes to a Styrofoam cup of hot cocoa. Steaming and sweet, the comforting chocolate was stirred up by the ladies in our Bible study to warm and replenish our tiny bodies. White and blue packets of Swiss Miss were rationed out, one per wiggling child. And with the marshmallow variety in short supply, we all fought over who would be the lucky ones to get a cup with the tiny white confections.
I’m not alone in that love. Mike Kostyo, a trendologist at Datassential, which conducts food industry market research, said 94 percent of Americans have had the chocolatey warm beverage at some point in their lives, and 83 percent say they love it or like it. Although the popularity of plain hot cocoa served in restaurants has dropped 12 percent in the past four years, affection for premium options and flavors has grown. Mexican hot chocolate alone has seen a 35 percent growth on menus in the past four years.
Since nostalgia has taken over food and pop culture, it’s not uncommon to find hot chocolate on a drinks menu. There are even adult versions with booze to really warm you up. But when you’re at home, you just want something simple, convenient and quick. Enter instant hot chocolate mixes that’ll serve you a mug in mere minutes.
Swiss Miss has been making hot cocoa mixes for more than 50 years. But when you head to the grocery store, you’ll see dozens of brands, some from familiar chocolatiers like Nestle and Hershey’s, and others from dedicated instant hot chocolate labels. The flavors and varieties seem endless, from no sugar or “natural” to caramel, mint and dark chocolate. While some instant mixes come as a viscous liquid contained by glass jars, others come as tablets for you to break off and whisk into hot milk or water.
Though this winter’s first big wallop arrived relatively late in the season, more brutal days lie ahead. You’ll need to stock up on supplies. So to get you through the upcoming cold spell and the rest of winter, the Food & Dining staff at Chicago Tribune sampled 10 brands of plain, milk chocolate hot cocoa powder—sans marshmallows. (Sorry, young Grace.).
We chose to sample the hot cocoas with water, not milk, almond milk or another additive. We wanted to make sure we provided a baseline, in the event you don’t have milk at home or are lactose sensitive. We did not include some widely available brands, such as Starbucks, Lake Champlain or Sillycow Farms, because their instructions called for milk.
This was a blind tasting, which means tasters didn’t know which hot cocoa they were trying. Each brand was made with the amount of hot water indicated in the directions on the packaging and poured into individual cups. The cups were immediately served to our panel of tasters. Each participant was asked to comment on the appearance, aroma and flavor of the drink, especially how chocolatey it was.
The powdered mixes were purchased at Target, Jewel Osco, Aldi and Whole Foods. Prices listed are what they are priced normally, without any promotions or discounts.
The winner of the taste test was a surprise to every single participant, and spoiler, my childhood favorite did not win, much to my chagrin. There were two ties, which were broken by calculating the median score or choosing the one that received higher numerical ratings.