Homemade hot chocolate is one of those things that spoil you forever. Once you make it at home you just can’t go back to those ready-go packets of hot cocoa anymore.
It’s like comparing homemade truffles to a Hershey’s bar from last year’s Halloween. It’s just not even a contest.
Real homemade hot chocolate is thick, rich, and the real essence of what chocolate in a glass on a cold day should be.
Hot Chocolate vs. Hot Cocoa
How is hot chocolate different from hot cocoa? Hot chocolate is basically like drinking a melted candy bar; the chopped chocolate contains cocoa butter which makes it richer and smoother. Cocoa is powdered and contains no cocoa butter and thus very little fat. It also contains dried milk, sugar, and added flavors.
This is the real stuff, and once you try it you may never want drink hot cocoa again! The recipe here serves four, it may not look like a lot but believe me it’s very rich and one cup is more than enough for a single person.
The Best Chocolate for Homemade Hot Chocolate
If you plan to make good hot chocolate, it helps to start with quality chocolate. Scharffen Berger, Guittard, and Valrhona are great choices if you can find them where you are.
I suggest using bittersweet or semisweet chocolate. Bittersweet has little sugar added to it so you’ll get a more pure chocolate taste. Semisweet works too, and usually has more sugar added to it than bittersweet.
What about those cacao percentages? The higher the cacao percentage (noted on the chocolate package) the more chocolate solids are in the product, and therefore the higher intensity of chocolate flavor.
Semisweet is usually 35-40% cacao, bittersweet up to (and sometimes higher than) 75%. 100% cacao is unsweetened chocolate, which is fine for baking, but you probably don’t want to use it for hot chocolate. Milk chocolate already has milk solids added to it and has a very low (about 20%) cacao percentage.
Which to Use—Milk, Soy, or Water?
Whole milk lends to the creaminess and sweetness of hot chocolate, but feel free to use low-fat or nonfat milk if you prefer. For a thicker, richer hot chocolate, switch out 1/4 cup of milk for cream.
Soy milk or another non-dairy milk is an alternative if you are lactose intolerant. Use unflavored or vanilla soy milk.
Believe it or not, you can also use water instead of milk. Water allows the chocolate to show off its true flavors and unique characteristics, however you lose the creamy feel and flavor.
Perk Up Your Hot Chocolate
Experiment with spices and herbs to create unique flavors with your hot chocolate.
Many flavors can be added to chocolate, such as the classic flavors of peppermint and orange. You might also try lavender, bay leaf, or star anise.
A teaspoon of Chinese five spice does wonders and gives it a slight kick. Another viable alternative is Chai spice blend.
Centuries ago the Aztecs made hot chocolate with vanilla and chili peppers. Today people in Mexico often enjoy hot chocolate with cinnamon.
Brew spices into the milk (or soy milk or water) during the initial heating process. After the milk is steamy, strain out the spices and herbs and return the hot, flavored milk back to the pan and add the chocolate as you normally would.
Spiked Hot Chocolate
A small addition of liquor is a fun way to warm the body on a cold night. About 1 to 1 1/2 ounces of liquor is the right amount per cup of liquid being used. Most any favorite liquor will work. Dark chocolate with a dark Guinness is a perfect combo. Cinnamon or peppermint schnapps with hot chocolate are classic companions.
Kahlua and chocolate makes for a sort of mocha-esque treat that you won’t find at your local coffee shop. A popular way to drink hot chocolate in Canada, according to some of my northern relatives, is to add a bit of whisky and (real) maple syrup.
I also like rum in my hot chocolate. Rum is good.
Hot Chocolate with Whipped Cream
Regardless how you make it, I think whipped cream makes hot chocolate (or anything really) better. Feel free to use an extract such as vanilla or anise to flavor the whipped cream. Once dolloped onto your drink, a small sprinkling of nuts, cocoa powder, or ground spices is a great way to add flavor and pump up the presentation.
My best advice to creating your perfectly flavored hot chocolate is to make it as you like it. Feel free to experiment as I doubt friends and family will mind being subjected to cup after cup of chocolate.
More Warming Winter Drinks
Updated December 11, 2020 : We spiffed up this post to make it sparkle. No changes to the original recipe.