How to Make Any Hot Chocolate (Creamy, Caramelized, or Otherwise)

January 20, 2017

The one dessert I enjoy more often than any other is a mug of hot chocolate. Don’t get me wrong, I love palmiers, I’m a huge fan of doughnuts, and there’s nothing I adore more than a perfect slice of pie. But my hot chocolate obsession isn’t just about the end result. For me, it’s the whole ritual—something that’s become part of my regular cooking life, just like sautéing onions or roasting a chicken.

Photo by James Ransom

For no reason in particular, I’m usually in my pajamas when I make hot chocolate. It’s either morning (lazy Sunday) or almost bedtime (insert rough weekday du jour here), and I tiptoe into my kitchen barefoot. I have a long wall of metal shelves with dozens of Mason jars stacked full of ingredients. I edge over to the chocolate corner (which, I fully admit is embarrassingly large and possibly too full). I choose one, chop it up, put it into one of my favorite mixing bowls that has a spout and is heat safe. I warm the milk—and let’s be honest, sometimes the cream—over low heat until it’s just barely simmering, then pour the steamy milk over the chocolate in a spiral (due only to personal tradition). I like the way it sounds when it splashes into the bowl and love to watch the chocolate on the surface melt until it disappears below the liquid line.

You have to let this sit, untouched, for at least 15 seconds (these are zen moments, folks), before whisking the cocoa together. After pouring the cocoa out of my favorite spouted bowl and into my favorite mug, I hold it up to my face and breathe it in like those happy people in 90’s Folger’s commercials. Finally, I drink every last drop of it.

Which one of these hot chocolates is right for you? Photo by James Ransom

The best part about hot chocolate is there’s a million ways to do it—and it’s just as easy to make it for one as it is for 10. Depending on my mood and pantry availability, I have several favorites, and I tweak them in different ways all the time. And while this article includes my 5 favorite cocoa base recipes, there’s no wrong way to make cocoa. It’s really just about finding your magic ratio, then dressing it up (if you like).

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Here’s what you need to know:

We use whole chocolate bars and chop them up. Photo by James Ransom

The chocolate.

The base of the cocoa determines what you need to do it. I really love almost every kind of chocolate turned into cocoa. I even like combos. My main advice is to use very high-quality chocolate and/or cocoa powder—seriously, this is the time to splurge (you’ll be drinking the chocolate, after all!). I like Valrhona, which melts beautifully, is insanely creamy, and has such deep a flavor. If you’re using chocolate over cocoa, remember that this is all about ratios. The amount of chocolate you’ll need to use will depend largely on your desired end result (whether you want it thinner or thicker, more chocolatey or less). It’s also worth noting the more cocoa butter and sugar are in the chocolate, the less liquid you’ll need to add to it. White chocolate, for example, melts down much thinner than milk chocolate, and milk chocolate melts down thinner than dark chocolate. That said, it’s totally about personal preference. If you like your hot chocolate thick and decadent, you’re going to add less liquid anyway—and if you like it lighter and milkier, you’ll add more.

Cocoa powder is a little bit easier to predict. I make my own mix sometimes using one part cocoa to two parts powdered sugar. Some recipes for homemade cocoa mix also add powdered milk (at one-and-a-half to two times the amount of cocoa powder). I skip this since I always use milk or some form of dairy to make my cocoa. If you plan to use water, adding the powdered milk is a great idea. Sometimes, I add a bit of cocoa powder to cocoas made from predominantly chocolate to add depth of flavor.

Pre-mix (left) and post-mix (right). Photo by James Ransom

The base.

The base of your cocoa is the liquid you choose to add. For me, that’s usually milk and sometimes a splash of cream, if I want to make it a little richer. But of course, there’s tons of options: Half and half, almond milk, coconut milk—sometimes I use sweetened condensed milk (I especially like it paired with dark chocolate as it adds a touch of sweetness without thinning out the thick texture of the cocoa). I heat the base over low heat gradually to prevent scalding, bringing it just until it gently simmers before adding it to the chocolate.


I suggest a whisk for this. After you heat the base, and pour it over the chocolate, let it sit for at least 15 seconds without stirring it to let the liquid heat the chocolate all the way through. Then, starting in the middle of the bowl in small stirring movements, eventually work your way to the outside of the bowl, combining everything. When you first begin to mix, it might look almost broken, with floating flecks of chocolate, but keep going. Then, the center will begin to look glossy and the whole mixture will come together. If you notice pieces of chocolate that haven’t melted properly, place the bowl over a pot of simmering water or toss it in the microwave in 10 second intervals. Be careful not to over-heat the chocolate, as the burnt taste will linger! Once the mixture is combined, it’s ready to serve. Sometimes I like to add one extra step: Whisking more vigorously to aerate the cocoa. It makes it lightly frothy. About 30 seconds of vigorous whisking is usually all you need.

Can you tell there's cayenne in this? (Oh, you will if you taste it.) Photo by James Ransom

Dressing it up.

This is the fun part. I like to add all kinds of things to my hot chocolate. It might be simple, like a dash of vanilla extract or a little bit of brown sugar (and I highly encourage you not to forget a bit of salt). You can also try adding spices—cinnamon, white pepper, cardamom, and cayenne are a few favorites. You can infuse the base liquid with anything from tea to whole spices to citrus zest. You can finish the cocoa with a shot of espresso or a splash of booze (or both!). You can top it off with whipped cream, a scoop of ice cream, or a sprinkling of cocoa. The best part is playing around with different flavors as they pair with the different bases and chocolates to find your ideal pairing.

Tell us: What makes your favorite hot cocoa your, well favorite?

Erin McDowell is a baking aficionado, writer, stylist, and Test Kitchen Manager at Food52. She is currently writing a cookbook. You can learn more about her here.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • ErinM724
  • Dayn Riegel
    Dayn Riegel
I always have three kinds of hot sauce in my purse. I have a soft spot for making people their favorite dessert, especially if it's wrapped in a pastry crust. My newest cookbook, Savory Baking, came out in Fall of 2022 - is full of recipes to translate a love of baking into recipes for breakfast, dinner, and everything in between!


ErinM724 June 16, 2017
This...this is amazing.
Dayn R. January 21, 2017
I'll be the first to comment... Don't ever apologize for chocolate - wars have been started for less. Not being a milk fan but having two children and a wife that crave good hot cocoa this is now in my favorites. Thanks for sharing.