News center
Choice materials, thorough quality checks.

The Best Instant Hot Chocolate: A Blind Taste Test

Dec 10, 2023

By Ali Francis

In our Taste Test series, BA editors conduct blind comparisons to discover the best supermarket staples (like vanilla ice cream or frozen pizza). Today, which hot chocolate mix should you be sipping all winter long?

Hot chocolate has two jobs: to warm you up and to spark joy. Whether it's before a few laps of the ice rink, after a day on the slopes, or in your mid-morning coffee, a cup of molten chocolate topped with a fluffy peak of whipped cream does what no other hot beverage can.

Under the industry's almost $4 billion umbrella, you’ll find a dizzying array of options. Most contain milk powder and require just a splash of hot water. Others really need some full-fat dairy to shine bright. Some offer teeny marshmallows in the mix. The level of deliciousness, of course, varies wildly between brands—even when the ingredient lists look almost identical. So which should you buy?

To uncover the hot chocolate that deserves a place in your shopping cart, we blind-taste-tested seven of the most popular brands in the beverage aisle: Swiss Miss, Trader Joe's, Nestlé, Ghirardelli, and more. After preparing them according to package directions—which meant hot water for all but one, which asked for milk instead—we sipped away, judging each brand on taste, texture, and overall flavor. Here's what we learned.

The ingredients: Walmart's home brand takes a more is more approach to its hot chocolate formula. It includes sugar; sodium caseinate; mono and diglycerides; dipotassium phosphate; cocoa; natural and artificial flavors; skim milk powder; and salt.

The flavor: It all started with the scent (and went downhill from there). "It smells like blue cheese," said senior cooking editor Emma Laperruque. Or maybe "like candle wax," said staff writer Sam Stone. It was hard to watch digital production assistant Li Goldstein's first sip. "Tangy," she said, wincing. The chocolate flavor faded into the background, and the texture was off-putting. The mix didn't properly dissolve, and senior commerce editor MacKenzie Chung Fegan described the end product as "oily."

The ingredients: Everyone's favorite grocer makes a hot chocolate mix that features the usual lineup, such as cane syrup, cocoa, natural flavors, dry milk, and sea salt. Plus some additives like calcium carbonate, which acts as an anti-caking agent, and xanthan gum to thicken and stabilize the product.

The flavor: A lesson in how to mess up hot chocolate. "This tastes just like melted down marshmallow," said restaurant editor Elazar Sontag, and not in a complimentary way. It's "super sugary," agreed Stone. Other tasters noted an unpleasant saltiness coming through. The texture also seemed artificially thick, almost soupy, even when made with just water. "It's too much," said Laperruque. But also not enough: "It tastes like nothing," she added. That's a hard no from us, Joe.

The ingredients: It contains the usual suspects, such as cane sugar, dry milk, cocoa powder, sea salt, calcium carbonate, xanthan gum, and the always vague "natural flavors," which could mean anything.

The flavor: It's exactly the kind of generic hot chocolate you’d drink at a ski lodge and think, sure, fine. The color was a dusty gray, a perfect parallel for the mild, barely chocolatey flavor. It's also "nauseatingly sweet," said Sontag, "but the balance is there." The texture was "on the creamier end" of the brands we tried, said Fegan. Editorial director Serena Dai raised a valid point: "Sometimes the ones that are super chocolatey are too rich." This is not. It's mellow and milky, and it could use some help from a splash of whiskey.

The ingredients: This iconic chocolate brand makes its hot cocoa with a laundry list of sweeteners and additives. Many are expected, such as sugar, corn syrup, sucralose, cocoa, and powdered dairy. Others additives: Cellulose gum is used to make products thick and creamy, sodium caseinate is a milk protein extract, and dipotassium phosphate is a kind of potassium salt that prevents coagulation.

The flavor: Immediately divisive. "The texture is watery," said Stone after a diligent sip. For Dai, this hot chocolate was "a little fake-tasting." But Goldstein defended her cup against the haters, describing it as "pleasingly sweet" and "nostalgic." Laperruque also thought it tasted like ice skating rink hot cocoa, "in a nice way." The marshmallows dissolved almost immediately into grainy sugar pockets, but this is a good option for people who love sweet beverages and light milk chocolate.

The ingredients: This dark and stormy Starbucks riff is the most minimalist of the bunch, and notably the only one that doesn't contain dairy. It's made with only a handful of ingredients: cane sugar, cocoa, dark chocolate, and natural vanilla flavor.

The flavor: This mix from Starbucks is surprisingly chocolatey—by far the richest of the brands we tried. Is that a positive? "Flavor is good, texture is bad," Fegan concluded, citing a certain powdery-ness. Goldstein had nothing nice to say: "It tastes like bitter milk water." But Laperruque liked the depth of flavor, especially when we made it with milk (what the packaging suggests). "Toasty and roasty," she said. Overall, it's a good option for dark chocolate lovers but needs some heft.

The ingredients: This classic brand makes its hot chocolate using sugar and corn syrup, cocoa, hydrogenated coconut oil, dry milk, salt, dipotassium phosphate, and natural flavor. As well as mono and diglycerides, which help oil and water blend, and modified whey, to enhance flavor and texture.

The flavor: A definite crowd favorite and clear second. "Yum!" said Laperruque. This hot chocolate was miles ahead of most: It's not too sweet, not too bitter, decently creamy, and almost fruity. "Like a chocolate orange," said Stone. Admittedly, it was a little artificial too. "But that's part of the point, right?" said Laperruque. Stone had just one complaint: "Where are the marshmallows? Hello?" Though this blend did come with a spattering of dehydrated little sugar pillows, they melted as soon as they arrived.

The ingredients: Ghirardelli uses a bunch of the expected ingredients, such as cocoa, dry milk, and various sweeteners. But the iconic brand also brings some big hitters to the game: Silicon dioxide prevents clumping, and sodium citrate and soy lecithin help emulsify and enhance flavor. It's also the only hot chocolate mix that features whole chocolate chips and vanilla extract.

The flavor: The clear crowd favorite. The texture was in a league of its own: "Silky," said Goldstein, but not in a fake way. The flavor was rich and chocolatey without being too dark or bitter. "And the smell is also spot-on," said Sontag. Stone, who was staring longingly into his empty mug at the time, wasn't ready for it to end: "I would have seconds, actually."

The ingredients: The flavor: The ingredients: The flavor: The ingredients: The flavor: The ingredients: The flavor: The ingredients: The flavor: The ingredients: The flavor: The ingredients: The flavor: