How do you like your hot chocolate; sweet? Salty? Savory? I’ve had all of the above from some of the best chocolate makers in the world, and now I want to help you recreate the experience at home. In this article we cover all the things to add to hot cocoa – from the most common, easy ones to the healthiest options. But don’t forget to consider the role of sugar in your cup of cocoa, either.
If you like to make & sweeten your hot chocolate at home, you can more easily go for natural sweeteners, agave nectar, maple syrup, coconut sugar, or even cinnamon. The best sweeteners for hot chocolate will allow you to enjoy your cocoa with all of the delicious and way less of the guilt.
There are lots of things to add to hot chocolate that may or may not be common where you live, so here’s our list of hot cocoa flavorings that you may want to try for your next fix.
Homemade Hot Chocolate Hacks
Entire restaurant concepts have been borne from the love of chocolate (see: Max Brenner, Awfully Chocolate, etc.), so there’s clearly a lot of interest in elevating the chocolate game. But adding flavorings and mix-ins to hot chocolate is just the beginning. Here’s my short-list of tips for making the best hot chocolate at home, no matter what you have on hand
- Try Ballin’ Out. One of the easiest ways to make hot chocolate these days is with a hot chocolate ball. I still prefer the more traditional shaved chocolate in warm milk, but to each their own.
- KISS – Keep It Simple, Silly. If you make hot chocolate a lot, for example around the holidays, it makes sense to batch-make a lot of this simple chocolate sauce and keep it in the fridge; it will stay good for up to 2 weeks. To turn it into hot chocolate, simply warm some milk or water, and then add the desired amount of sauce until the chocolate is as strong as you’d like. You can even make sauces in each type of chocolate, so kids can choose hot strong of a cocoa flavor they’d like.
- The Darker the Better. When using high-quality chocolate, the more cacao the bar contains, the more chocolaty flavor will end up in your cup. For a more rich hot chocolate, use half & half instead of cream and try using a chocolate with 70% or more cacao content.
- Decorate Your Mug. Just like with your favorite alcoholic beverages, you can decorate the rim of your hot chocolate mug while also adding more flavor. Simply dip the top of the mug into warm chocolate or rim it with chocolate syrup, and then coat with your favorite flavors.
What to Add to Hot Chocolate
Chocolate Hazelnut Spread
There are few flavors that go better than chocolate and nuts. The combination of chocolate + hazelnuts in particular actually harkens back over a century to 1800’s Italy, when there weren’t enough cocoa beans to meet local demand for chocolate. Shop owners diluted their creations with locally-grown hazelnuts, and thus the Italian confection of gianduja was born, and many decades later, the invention of Nutella.
While I’d recommend looking for a chocolate hazelnut spread that contains cacao as one of the first ingredients, any chocolate hazelnut spread will do in a pinch; start with stirring in just one tablespoon.
If you’re allergic to nuts but the idea of a simple spread appeals to you, try adding a tablespoon of cookie butter to hot chocolate. This may sound more like a combo you’d see in a chocolate fountain, but I promise that a smooth cookie butter adds both flavor and heft to hot chocolate. There are even gluten-free cookie butters now, for those worried about wheat.
You may remember that Modern Family episode when Manny’s girlfriend added salt to chocolate milk, and made it taste ten times better. Well the same principle applies to chocolate, including hot cocoa. Adding salt to hot chocolate highlights the sweetness of the sugar in the beverage, and tempers the bitterness of higher-percentage chocolates. I’d recommend starting with just a pinch, added to the top.
Instead of using milk or oat milk, try making your hot chocolate using chai tea as the base. It’s a great option for vegan cocoa when combined with a vegan chocolate, and there are some great vegan milk chocolates you can turn to. Don’t forget the whipped cream!
Pumpkin Pie Spices
Did you know that the ‘pumpkin spice’ in PSL’s doesn’t actually contain pumpkin? You can make your own chocolate PSL at home by adding 1/8 teaspoon of a pumpkin pie spice blend to your next cup of cocoa. Upgrade the experience by adding a couple teaspoons of pumpkin puree and a pinch of salt.
Crushed Candy Canes
Probably the most holiday-themed things to add to hot chocolate, candy canes make great stirrers as well as a delightful topping. While they also go great with a hot chocolate bar, crushed candy canes are by far the best when dusted on top or decorating the rim of a cup of cacao. Think of it like rimming a margarita glass with salt, only it’s hot chocolate and the rocky bits are festively minty.
In stark contrast to candy canes, hot pepper is actually an age-old addition to hot chocolate, one which complements the inherent bitterness of cacao. I recommend you start with just one pinch of ancho chili powder or the like, and work your way up from there.
Citrus is sometimes found accompanying the heat of chiles in modern interpretations of this ancient beverage. However, citrus is native to Asia and wouldn’t have been used in Mesoamerica thousands of years ago. Traditionally accompanying the heat of local chiles would have been other native spices, such as vanilla, honey, and allspice.
Reminiscent of a certain chocolate orange that always populates the grocery stores around the holidays, just 5 or 6 swipes of orange zest is all you need. The scent of the freshly-zested fruit hits your nostrils at the same time as you taste it, doubling the impact with half the effort of cracking open one of those darn foil oranges.
I won’t tell you whether to reach for the Bailey’s or the Godiva Cream Liqueur, or even a generic alternative, but however you spike it, the result is similarly delicious. The added benefit of opting for a cream liqueur in hot chocolate is that it allows you to use a darker, healthier chocolate. Starting with one shot per cup lets you get a bit of a buzz going without overpowering the flavor of a good chocolate.
A Nip of Whiskey
For those looking to strengthen the impact of their tipple, a nip of whiskey in hot chocolate makes the entire drink a bit more more enjoyable, and a bit more Irish (or American!). Most people start with half a shot, but around the holidays my mom & I each like to sneak a full shot of bourbon into our evening cocoa; it’s one of my favorite chocolate inclusions.
On the topic of alcohol, one flavor that goes well with chocolate is also one of the most well-known: vanilla. The extract of this well-known botanical is derived from pressing the liquid out of vanilla pods and mixing it with water and ethanol (alcohol). It has a potent aroma of vanilla, which actually helps to both boost the sweetness and the bitterness of hot chocolate. Adding 1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract to your cup of cocoa can easily boost its rich, almost sweet flavor, and even carries some health benefits.