Cheapism: Best budget hot cocoa

Jan. 9, 2013 at 4:29 PM ET

SilentFury / SXC /

By Kara Reinhardt,

On winter days that see warm breath steaming from rosy noses, cold hands eagerly grasp steaming mugs of hot cocoa. It’s an affordable treat that can cost as little as a dime. recently convened a seven-person tasting panel to judge three popular and relatively inexpensive powdered cocoa mixes: Swiss Miss, Nestle, and Ghirardelli. While the latter might seem an outlier, it still undercuts brands such as Starbucks and Land O’Lakes, not to mention gourmet mixes from Godiva and Bellagio.

Here’s how the hot cocoa mixes stacked up in Cheapism’s blind taste test.

  • Swiss Miss Classics Milk Chocolate (starting at 17 cents per serving) emerged the favorite among a majority of tasters, who found the rich, creamy texture and chocolaty aroma familiar from childhood. Some consumers have blasted Swiss Miss online for adding sucralose to its milk chocolate mix. However, this brand is far from the only one to employ artificial sweeteners and, if you read the fine print, you can still find varieties without the offending ingredient. (Where to buy)
  • Ghirardelli Double Chocolate Premium (starting at 40 cents per serving) contains only sweet ground chocolate and cocoa — no artificial sweeteners. Panelists extolled the dense flavor, describing it as more like dark chocolate than milk chocolate. While Ghirardelli appeals to grown-up palates, it may not please kids as much as sweeter, creamier mixes. (Where to buy)
  • Nestle Rich Milk Chocolate (starting at 10 cents per serving) is the cheapest of the three and claims its share of loyalists but received a lukewarm response from the tasting panel. They declared it overly sweet — like Swiss Miss, it contains sugar, corn syrup, and the embattled sucralose — with a weak chocolate flavor relative to the others. (Where to buy)

Cheapism prepared all three hot cocoas according to the package instructions, using hot water for the Swiss Miss and Nestle mixes and whole milk for the Ghirardelli hot cocoa. (The mixes that call for water already contain milk in some form.)

The brands listed above also market myriad other packaged hot cocoa mixes, such as mint, marshmallow, hazelnut, dark chocolate, caramel, diet, and sugar-free. Consumers can choose mixes in canisters that must be measured out, boxes of single-serving packets, and (for Swiss Miss and Ghirardelli) K-cups or pods for Keurig-style coffee makers. For a twist on the traditional drink, try adding hot cocoa mix to your morning coffee in place of sugar, along with milk, to create a “poor man’s mocha.”

Perhaps the cheapest and tastiest approach is to make hot cocoa with baking supplies you may already have on hand. A recipe from Alton Brown of "Good Eats" on the Food Network combines powdered sugar, cocoa, powdered milk, cornstarch, salt, and a pinch of cayenne pepper. The mix earns an average of five stars from more than 200 reviewers and will keep in the pantry all winter.

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