We Tried 8 Store-Brand Hot Cocoa Mixes and These Were Our Favorites

Hot cocoa season is in full swing. Here's the mix you should be drinking.

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hot cocoa taste test new
Photo: Allrecipes Illustration

There's a reason humans have been drinking melted chocolate since at least 500 B.C. — cocoa, when heated up and added to water or (preferably) milk is exceedingly delicious. But luckily, we don't have to grind up cacao seeds and other components just to get a taste of this ancient, filling drink. Instead, we can simply pick any of the plethora of pre-made hot chocolate options while picking up our other groceries. And with cold weather already here, what better time to sit down with a warm, chocolate-filled mug?

But which commercial cocoa is most worth your cash? To find out, we tested eight brands of cocoa mix, all of which are available online or in stores. So grab your marshmallows and settle in; here are our rankings, from best to worst.

Best Hot Cocoa at a Glance

Best Overall: Nestle Abuelita Authentic Mexican Chocolate Drink
Runner-Up: Ghirardelli Double Chocolate Hot Chocolate Mix
Best Flavored Hot Cocoa: Starbucks Cocoa Hot Salted Caramel
Best Organic Hot Cocoa: Equal Exchange Organic Hot Chocolate
Best Add-Water Hot Cocoa: Swiss Miss Milk Chocolate Hot Chocolate
Best Budget Hot Cocoa: Signature Select Cocoa Mix

What We Looked for When Ranking Cocoa

Taste: Obviously, taste was the most important factor we considered when sampling cocoa brands. In this test, we tried to veer toward milk chocolate variations. The strength of the mix's chocolate flavor, as well as its texture, were considered while drinking each cup.

Price: Sure, there are some fancy options on this list, but for the most part, we're not looking to break the bank for a mug of cocoa. During this test, we kept an eye out for brands that gave us a good bit of mix for our buck.

Sugar Quantity/Type: As always, the less sugar that a brand can include without sacrificing taste, the better. Naturally sourced sugars received preference in this round-up.

Required Mixer: In an ideal world, we'd probably opt to make every cup of cocoa with either milk or a milk substitute, but since milk isn't always available, we included cocoa mixes that could be made with water in this test as well. Three of our options specified milk for their preparations; we'll note those in our rankings.

Additional Features: In addition to the previous qualities, we also gave consideration to brands that used organic ingredients, as well as to the amount of hot chocolate mix that settled at the bottom of each mug. We also tried to choose brands that are largely available nationwide, either online or in stores.

How We Tested Each Cocoa

For this taste test, I made five of the cups of cocoa by adding hot water to a specified amount of the mix (usually ¼ cup) after boiling the water in an electric tea kettle. I then stirred the cocoa and waited until it was cool enough to drink. When testing Ghirardelli, Starbucks and Nestle's Abuelita, all of which called for milk, I heated the required milk in a pot on the stove and then added the mix, stirring continuously until combined. Most of this test was conducted solo, but two of my roommates graciously offered to help test those mixes which required milk (a terribly delicious sacrifice of their time and taste buds, I'm sure).

Best Overall

Nestle Abuelita Authentic Mexican Chocolate Drink

nestle abuelita hot cocoa mix
Target

For those who haven't tried it before, Nestle's Mexican hot chocolate might seem a bit intimidating. It's not the powdered mix that many Americans have become used to when buying pre-made cocoa, but instead comes in a "tablet" form — essentially, a disc of chocolate about the size of the center of one's palm. Abuelita also requires milk to make, which may not be a part of every cocoa fan's pantry. But, if you have dairy or dairy substitute on hand and several thirsty diners to serve, then Abuelita's is the best bang for your buck. While heating the milk and stirring until the tablet dissolves takes a bit of time, the end result is four cups worth of delicious, creamy, rich cocoa. Throw it in a slow cooker, and you'll quickly have the best (and one of the most affordable) cocoa's we tested this round with hardly any effort at all.

Abuelita's downside is that it contains about 22 grams of sugar per six ounce serving, considerably more than some of its competitors. Cocoa was also fairly far down the list of ingredients, despite Abuelita's ample chocolatey taste.

Buy It: $3.19, Target

Runner-Up

Ghiradelli Double Chocolate Hot Chocolate Mix

ghiradelli hot cocoa mix
Amazon

If you demand the richest chocolate taste you can find, then Ghirardelli is probably going to become your go-to. Ghirardelli's Double Chocolate mix is admittedly almost too decadent, so it's best left for small servings. That means that a little of the mix should go a long way. On the other hand, if you find yourself constantly craving this delicious drink, then take heart; for a specialty hot chocolate mix, it's not all that experience.

At 19 grams, Ghirardelli has a bit less sugar than some of our other picks. Sweetened ground chocolate and cocoa are also the first ingredients, so you can rest assured that you're getting more chocolate for your money.

Buy It: $4.59, Walmart

Best Flavored Hot Cocoa

Starbucks Cocoa Hot Salted Caramel

starbucks salted caramel hot chocolate mix
Safeway

All-in-all, we tried to shy from specialty flavor cocoa, but we picked up a couple from companies whose other products were out-of-stock. Of the two we tried, Starbucks' Hot Salted Caramel Cocoa had the most natural taste without sacrificing the base chocolate flavor we expect from hot cocoa. At 18 grams, it also has reasonably low sugar (and cane sugar, at that). It's more than a bit pricey, which likely relegates it into, at best, an occasional splurge for most grocery budgets. But if you're looking for something a little different than your usual cocoa, this Starbucks variation isn't a bad bet.

Buy It: $7.29, Safeway

Best Organic Hot Cocoa

Equal Exchange Organic Hot Chocolate

equal exchange organic cocoa mix
Amazon

Equal Exchange's biggest drawback is that, even after mixing, it left a fair bit of sludge in the bottom of our mugs. Beyond that, however, it had the deepest chocolate taste of any brand besides Ghirardelli. At 11 grams, it also had the least sugar. This cocoa certainly isn't the most budget friendly, but it is sustainably-sourced chocolate. If you're not constantly having to refill your cocoa supplies, this brand might be a good choice, if not for your wallet, then both ethically and for your health.

Buy It: $6.99, Target

Best Add-Water Cocoa

Swiss Miss Milk Chocolate Hot Cocoa

swiss miss milk cohcolate hot cocoa mix
Target

We get it, cocoa purists — milk is, by most scores, the superior mixer for one of our favorite wintry drinks. But not everyone always has dairy on hand (and some don't care for it in the first place). So if you have to use water to make up your cocoa, Swiss Miss is your best choice. The classic instant cocoa brand had the strongest chocolate taste, and the creamiest texture, of all of the brands we tested using just water. And if you insist on milk, then you can certainly make up Swiss Miss using that as well.

The downside with this brand is that, while delicious, it has the highest sugar content of any of the brands we tried (28 grams). It also uses corn syrup as its sweetener, which some customers may not care for.

Buy It: $2.59, Target

Best Budget Hot Cocoa

Signature Select Cocoa Mix

signature select rich milk chocolate cocoa mix
Safeway

Not all generics are made equal to name brands, but Safeway's hot cocoa mix, taste-wise, is fairly similar to Swiss Miss's. It's also one of the cheapest varieties one can get of instant cocoa, particularly if you buy the canister rather than the individual packets, and at 23 grams of sugar, it's about the same in sucrose value as our top pick. For those living with fans of the chocolatey drink, Safeway's brand may be a good way to stock up without spending too much.

Buy It: $3.59, Safeway

Not Our Favorites

Nestle Rich Milk Chocolate Hot Cocoa Mix

nestle rich milk chocolate hot cocoa mix
Walmart

This was a bit of a surprise, considering the sound applause that Abuelita received. But Nestle's hot cocoa mix is, sadly, exceedingly bland. One could argue that blandness stems from its relatively low sugar content; at 12 grams, it's similar to Equal Exchange in sucrose value (although Nestle uses corn syrup solids). Still, Equal Exchange manages to pack in quite a bit of chocolate flavor without using much sugar, so that's likely not the culprit. If you're into slightly chocolaty water, then this may be the brand for you. Otherwise, might as well keep wheeling down the aisle.

Buy It: $4.98, sTStevens1220&sharedid=ARStoreBrandHotCocoaMixesTStevens1220" title="Walmart " context="body" sid=""/]

Land O Lakes Cocoa Classic French Vanilla Hot Cocoa Mix

land o lakes hot cocoa mix
Amazon

Maybe we've had too much coffee. Maybe we're just not fans of French Vanilla mixed with chocolate. Whatever the case, we didn't get much pleasure out of Land O Lakes' cocoa offering. It didn't quite taste strongly of French Vanilla, but it also didn't taste much like chocolate, which meant that it was ultimately a disappointing (and kind of expensive) venture. After the company gets done removing its old mascot from its packaging (the cocoa we bought still had Mia featured), it might want to take another stab at its cocoa mix.

Buy It: $11.99, Amazon

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