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How to Make the Best Hot Chocolate, According to the Experts

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With January comes the excitement of a new year, resolutions, layers, and the inevitable moment the temperature reads, “Feels like -4° F." For those freezing mornings and cozy winter nights, there's warming, filling, silky, chocolate-y hot chocolate to make us feel better and help us thaw out.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

To discover the secret to the perfect cup, we spoke with chocolatiers and the owners of some of New York City's best hot chocolate. Here, Dominque Ansel, Jacques Torres, Maury Rubin (founder of The City Bakery), and Michael Klug (chocolatier at L.A. Burdick) share their tips for making the best hot chocolate, from start to finish:

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Start with High-Quality Chocolate

When Jacques Torres answered the phone, his Brooklyn-based chocolate factory cranking away in the background, he got straight to the point: “In order to make the best hot chocolate, you have to start with chocolate. Just like you cannot make a beautiful strawberry tart with winter strawberries that have no flavor, you cannot make good hot chocolate if you don’t start with good chocolate.”

While it may go without saying, this tenet—that good chocolate yields good hot chocolate—is not to be overlooked. Michael Klug, chocolatier at L.A. Burdick Chocolate, told me that rather than get diluted, the chocolate's unique flavors will actually come through more with the addition of warm milk or water: "Even if there’s a little variation in the chocolate you’ll still taste it in the hot chocolate.” As Dominque Ansel puts it, "So much about making hot chocolate has to do with using really good quality ingredients." The high quality stuff is worth the splurge.

How to Make Hot Cocoa Mix
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How to Make Hot Cocoa Mix

If You Use Powder, Make Sure to Use Chocolate Powder

Many hot chocolate mixes are made from cocoa powder, which is what remains of the cacao bean once the cocoa butter is extracted. “When you roast cacao beans," Jacques Torres explained, "you remove the shells and put them in equipment that crunches them and extracts the fat, or cocoa butter, used to make chocolate.”

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Cocoa powder, on the other hand, is a byproduct of making chocolate and is the primary ingredient in many powdered hot chocolate mixes. Swiss Miss, for example, uses alkalized cocoa powder, which is cocoa powder that’s been neutralized to make it less acidic and give it a mellower flavor. It’s also less flavorful than real chocolate. As Maury Rubin, founder of City Bakery, put it, “The only reason anyone uses cocoa powder is because we haven’t evolved enough as a hot chocolate civilization to make hot chocolate from real chocolate.”

Not all powdered hot chocolate is made alike.
Not all powdered hot chocolate is made alike. Photo by Izy Hossack

That being said, not all powdered hot chocolate mixes are made from cocoa powder. Some are made from real chocolate that's been mashed into a powder. And while many chocolate aficionados prefer to use solid chocolate, Jacques prefers the powdered chocolate as it dissolves more quickly than solid chocolate. So if you prefer powdered chocolate, read the back of the box carefully—make sure it’s the real thing.

Decide How Strong or Sweet Your Want Your Hot Chocolate

Some of the best hot chocolates tend to fall within a range, and adding a higher percentage chocolate at the start will make a richer cup. “For hot chocolate, you shouldn’t go under 60% to 63% cocoa or over 75% to 80%,” Jacques Torres said. Maury said that he uses a wide range of chocolates, as low as the fifty-percent cocoa range, but most of his hot chocolates fall in the 60% range. Dominque said, "For our hot chocolate that we serve at our Soho and West Village shops, it’s a combination of two different Valrhona chocolates (a 62% and a 70%) which gives it a really balanced, rich flavor." Still, it all comes down to personal preference.

Maury compares choosing chocolate for hot chocolate to deciding on cheese for a grilled cheese sandwich—there isn’t one right answer. He said, “You can say that cheddar makes the best base for grilled cheese, but Gruyère, havarti, and queso fresco all make a fabulous grilled cheese as well. It’s in the eye of the beholder.” It’s possible to make hot chocolate from dark, milk, and white depending on how sweet you prefer your drink to be. If you like hot chocolate but want something a little sweeter, instead of adding sugar, just swap out some of the dark chocolate for a milk chocolate.

Why White Chocolate Isn't So Bad (& 5 Things We Learned at a Chocolate Tasting)
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Why White Chocolate Isn't So Bad (& 5 Things We Learned at a Chocolate Tasting)

But Remember, Chocolate Percentage Isn’t Everything

When considering which chocolate to use, don’t only look at the percentages. While cocoa percentages indicate the cocoa to sugar ratio, they don’t indicate quality.” Michael explained, “High percentages on chocolate has become an advertising tool, but it should not be the shopping criteria. The criteria should be the quality of the beans used.”

“It’s like going to a liquor store and asking for a wine with 14% alcohol content—it’s too generalized and simplified and doesn’t hold justice to what good chocolate can be.” The best way to find a high-quality chocolate? Eat a lot of it until you find a bar you like—regardless of the number printed on it.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

Consider the Thickness and Feel of It

The thickness of hot chocolate is almost important as the chocolate used—especially since it can range from nearly brownie-batter consistency to water.

Because the cocoa butter in high-quality chocolate is already so rich, it isn’t always necessary to use milk with a higher fat content. Jacques uses 2% milk with a chocolate powder mixture that contains some milk powder and a very small percentage of cornstarch in it to provide a velvety sensation. Michael told me he also uses 2% milk to make the hot chocolate at L.A. Burdick, but that this also comes down to personal preference. He said, “If I take my own family, my father finds my hot chocolate too rich, while my mother doesn’t find it too rich at all.”

How to Make Hot Chocolate Without a Recipe
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How to Make Hot Chocolate Without a Recipe

And then there’s incredibly rich hot chocolate—like that made at City Bakery, which contains cream. Maury explained that a thick hot chocolate will “warm you up and fill you up. It’s a whole experience.”

It’s just as important, Maury explained, to use high-quality milk as it is to use high-quality chocolate: “If you’re drinking milk from small regional farms, there’s a gigantic difference from it you’re drinking milk from an institutional dairy farm that uses stabilizers in its milk. The hot chocolate adds up to the sum of its parts.

Hot Chocolates We Love:

Perfect Hot Chocolate

Perfect Hot Chocolate by SavvyJulie

Hot Chocolate Demitasses

Hot Chocolate Demitasses by Alice Medrich

Dorie Greenspan's Hot (and Cold) Chocolate

Dorie Greenspan's Hot (and Cold) Chocolate by Genius Recipes

Irish Hot Chocolate

Irish Hot Chocolate by Marian Bull

Make Your Hot Chocolate

Once you’ve found your perfect chocolate—powdered or whole—all that’s left to do is turn it into hot chocolate. But there are some tips to follow if you’re looking for a little more direction.

Ratio

When making hot chocolate, it’s hard to go wrong if you add “too much” chocolate.

Michael said that the hot chocolate at L.A. Burdick is roughly 2.8 to 3.3 chocolate ounces to 3/4 cup of milk for a very rich cup. At Jacques Torres, they add 1 pound of powder to 1 quart of milk, then adjust the ratio of milk to hot chocolate depending on individual preference. Maury said that he would guess most hot chocolate recipes are made up of 20% chocolate, but for something special, he said, “You have to go north of that.”

Method

Fortunately, the perfect hot chocolate doesn’t require any special equipment; as long as you have a stove, a whisk, and a sauce pot, you’re on your way.

To make hot chocolate, bring milk to high heat in a saucepan, but don’t let it boil as this will scald the milk and change its consistency. Once it’s at high heat, add in room temperature chocolate and bring to high heat again, whisking in the chocolate until it’s completely melted and being careful not to let it burn. To avoid burnt chocolate, Michael recommends bringing milk to high heat, then pouring it over chocolate.

If you prefer a frothy hot chocolate, place your chocolate in a blender, then pour the hot milk over it and immediately pulse until the milk is frothed.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

Add Your Mix-Ins and Toppings

Mix-Ins

There are countless ways to serve and flavor hot chocolate—from spicy-hot chocolate to a liquor-spiked version. Maury said that he’ll add anything from “citrus to spices to nuts to beer to liquor—there are so many ways to go to town creatively with it.” At L.A. Burdick, Michael supplies a cocoa powder mixed with nutmeg, pepper, and cinnamon to add on top. Dominque added, "If you want to elevate your hot chocolate even more, a sprinkle of Maldon sea salt or a splash of dark rum just before serving add a really nice extra level of depth." Take a look at your spice cabinet and play around.

Add-Ons

Just as there are countless possibilities of things to add into hot chocolate, there are countless additions that work well on top of hot chocolate—from marshmallows, as Maury uses at City Bakery, to whipped cream. Dominque serves a cooled hot chocolate that he whips into a cream at the hot chocolate he serves at his bakeries. Jacques said, “I love to serve hot chocolate with a little bit of unsweetened whipped cream so that the cold cream mixes in with the hot chocolate. Now that’s a delicious hot chocolate.”

What's your favorite way to enjoy hot chocolate? Do you have any secrets to making the perfect cup? Tell us in the comments below!

Tags: hot chocolate, cacao, choco, hot coco