(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 9, 2009. Your comments ar welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)

First of all, we have to get our definitions straight. Most serious cooks agree that "hot chocolate" is made by melting sweetened chocolate, like a chocolate bar, and by whipping it with hot milk, cream or water. I don't do that kind, I've never done it, and I will not be telling you how to do it here! Never mind, "hot chocolate" was what we called heated milk with sweetened, chocolate flavoring added when I was a kid. In the pre-microwave days, a sauce pan, the stove and a square can of Nestlé's QUIK were all I needed to transform plain milk into something wonderful.

That was probably not the healthiest thing I could have been drinking, which was why my mother reserved it for occasional treats, or after particularly strenuous snow-shoveling on my part. These were the days before low-fat milk, so whole milk is what we drank. Marshmallows were for roasting around a campfire, and do not figure into my discussion of hot chocolates and hot cocoas. (Darius Van d'Rhys has written an article about marshmallows you can read today, for those of you who feel they belong together!)

around 1000 BC
cacao beans eaten (or smoked?) by ancient Mesoamericans in what is now Central America and Mexico
1519Cortez observes Moctexuma drinking 50 cups of a hot, bitter beverage which is made with cocoa, chili, vanilla and other ingredients and then whipped to a froth. Cortez doesn't like the stuff.
1544Mayans are brought to Spain and make their cacao bean drink there. The Spanish take out the chili and add sugar.
Name changes from cacao to cocoa as a result of a spelling error on a ship's manifest.
Cocoa beans are given as a dowry as Spanish nobles and royalty intermarry throughout Europe.
1655England seizes Jamaica, and begins to grow cacao plants there.
1657Hot chocolate house opens in London.
c. 1700 English add milk to their hot chocolate drinks.
1765Chocolate factory in Milton, Massachusetts is first American source of drinking chocolate.
1824John Cadbury opens a hot chocolate house in London.
1828Dutch chemist Coenrad Van Houten invents a process to render cocoa solids more soluble in liquid, using chemicals that change their pH. This technique becomes known as Dutching.
1842John Cadbury sells 16 types of drinking chocolate and 11 of solid cocoa.
1864Cadbury buys a Van Houten cocoa press
1865Ghiradelli invents "Broma" process of removing cocoa butter from chocolate.
1879Milk chocolate invented by Daniel Peter, of Switzerland, using powdered milk invented by his neighbor Henri Nestlé in 1867.
1926Hershey introduces Hershey's syrup.
1935Carnation invents instant hot cocoa.
1948Nestlé introduces Nestlé's QUIK
1950sSwiss Miss in envelopes is offered to airline passengers. Soon is available for sale as retail product.

So technically we will be discussing hot cocoa, meaning that it is made from cocoa powder and not solid chocolate. I still call it hot chocolate in my heart of hearts, however, and you may do so as well.

Spanish explorer Cortez first observed the Aztec ruler Moctexuma (also called Montezuma) drinking as many as 50 cups of a hot cacao beverage a day. Although Cortez was offered a taste, he did not care for the bitter spicy brew. On a later trip, the Spanish brought some Aztec priests (who were the chocolate experts back then) to Spain to the court of Prince Phillip

Once the Spanish took the chili powder out and replaced it with sugar, the drink, while still gritty, was considered a delicacy in the courts in Spain. By 1657 when a chocolate house opened in London, drinking chocolate was expected to replace coffee or tea as the hot beverage of choice. Bear in mind, this drink was still prepared with ground roasted cocoa beans, hot water and sugar. It was still gritty and milk didn't entered the picture until approximately 1700.

When a chocolate house was opened in 1765, in my home town of Milton in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, it was the first such establishment in the New World. Chocolate (still always served as a hot drink) was believed to have many health benefits: as a tonic, a hangover remedy and especially if taken during pregnancy. By the time Morning Chocolate, the painting to the right, was painted between 1775 and 1780 by Pietro Longhi in Venice, chocolate was being enjoyed by wealthy families in Europe.


In Holland in 1828, a chemist named Coenrad Van Houten invented a hydraulic press which would separate the fatty cocoa butter from the cocoa solids. These could then be compressed into a solid block of bitter chocolate, similar to today's unsweetened baking chocolate, or ground into a powder, like today's cocoa powder.

Van Houten further discovered that when treated with alkali chemicals, this cocoa powder would dissolve more easily in hot liquid. From this point forward, cocoa history diverges into the Dutch-process cocoa lovers and those who prefer "natural cocoa."

Van Houten's process of treating cocoa, which is naturally acidic, with alkali chemicals is today called "Dutching" and cocoa which has been treated this way is also simply called "Dutch cocoa," although it may not actually come from the Netherlands. It is usually darker brown and easier to dissolve in liquid, and some prefer its milder flavor. It will react differently in baking recipes than untreated cocoa does.

Cocoa which has not been treated may be labeled "natural" or may not be labeled at all, but it has, others feel, a richer, deeper chocolate flavor. It is lighter in color and is more difficult to dissolve in liquid, although that can be overcome by whipping, whisking, or by the addition of emulsifying agents. (Again Dutched and natural cocoa cannot be substituted for each other in baking.)

Once cocoa, the chocolate part of cacao, had been separated from cocoa butter in 1828, the rest of chocolate bar history proceeds along like a theme and variations. Varying amounts of cocoa butter are added back in along with sugar to form solid chocolate bars. These differ according to how much sugar, how carefully and for how long they are mixed, and whether powdered milk, invented by Henri Nestlé in 1867, is added, with or without other types of fat. We shall leave solid chocolate, with its added fat, its added sugar, and its different difficulties to evolve on its own and catch up with powdered, unsweetened, cocoa powder.

In Fanny Farmer's 1918 Boston Cooking School Cookbook, she gives instructions for making hot cocoa from either cocoa shells, cocoa nibs (the inner meat of the cocoa bean) or cocoa powder, as well as for making hot chocolate with sweetened or unsweetened solid chocolate. So hot cocoa was made from scratch early in the 20th century, at least.

It is difficult to discern exactly what happened next, in the history of hot chocolate and hot cocoa, but in 1926 Hershey's introduced Hershey's syrup in the United States. This liquid, heavily sweetened version of chocolate had the cocoa already dissolved, and could be added to milk (cold or hot) or squirted on ice cream. In 1935 Carnation introduced Carnation Instant Hot Cocoa Mix, which contained powdered milk, sugar and cocoa and needed only boiling water to reconstitute it into a drinkable hot beverage. In 1948 Nestlé counteracted with Nestlé's QUIK. This extremely sweet chocolate-flavored powder was designed to be added to hot or cold milk, and had emulsifiers added to ease the dissolving process.

In the early 1950s came a huge step forward, or backward, depending on how you like your hot chocolate. Swiss Miss developed instant hot cocoa powder which was packaged in single serving envelopes and served on commercial airlines. This product had powdered milk, cocoa powder, lots of sugar, and emulsifiers to help it dissolve. It was soon followed by a similar single-serving size Swiss Miss product available in retail stores. In 1971 Carnation added its own version of single-serving envelopes of just-add-hot-water hot cocoa. Soon these type of instant cocoa products were sold in family-size canisters (instead of single-serving envelopes), and in store brands instead of only by the national name brands.

So after only a little over 100 years, cocoa powder, which was in 1850 unsweetened, virtually fat-free, and high in wonderful ingredients called flavenoids (the same antioxidants which are present in blueberries, red wine and tea), has now come full circle. It has been stripped of its flavenoids so it will dissolve more easily, diluted with corn syrup solids and then disguised by the addition of marshmallows or whipped cream. Several studies have shown the beneficial flavenoids that are naturally present in cocoa powder are missing from Dutch-process cocoa. However, they are part of what gives natural cocoa its deeper, richer, heartier flavor. Apparently, in the 21st century, cocoa is good for you (if you skip the artificial ingredients and chemicals, the added animal fat, and so on).

present in cocoa, red wine and green tea

Many studies have compared the antioxidant properties of pure cocoa to for instance, red wine and tea, and have found that hot cocoa measures up as well or better. But remember, this is without the cream, the marshmallows, or even the whole milk. Maybe the healthiest way to ingest cocoa would be with non-fat milk and artificial sweetener. I like cocoa with 1% milk and 1 tablespoon sugar per serving, myself. People counting their calories may compare the 120 calories that my blend uses to cola soft drinks, which average 85 calories for 8 ounces (not even for a whole can), or one serving of instant hot cocoa mix which also contains 120 calories, and won't taste nearly as good! (Only 12 of my calories are from the cocoa.) Here are some recipes you can try...

My current favorite is 1 tablespoon cocoa and 1 tablespoon sugar with a little bit of salt. For best results, mix the sugar, cocoa and salt together first, then add just enough liquid so you can beat it to a smooth paste. Break up the lumps that tend to occur in the cocoa. Slowly add 4 to 8 ounces of milk. (These days I'm liking my cocoa with the lesser amount of milk and a higher proportion of cocoa and sugar. However any of the flavor additives which follow will juice up the flavor so you can probabably get by with less sugar.) Heat over a low flame while stirring -or- mix very hot milk with the cocoa, sugar and salt in a blender and serve immediately -or- mix a little of the milk with the dry ingredients into a smooth paste in a microwavable mug, then fill with milk and microwave until hot.

cocoa: low fat? yes!
low calorie? maybe not.
but not as bad as you might think.

1 tablespoon cocoa powder 12
1 tablespoon sugar45
6 ounces 1 % milk
yields calories
6 ounces deliciousness

Different people like different proportions of sugar to cocoa. For years I liked twice as much sugar as cocoa, or, usually 2 tsp. sugar and 1 tsp. cocoa. You can decide exactly how rich you like it. Remember, cocoa has no animal fat and very little vegetable fat. The few grains of salt that I add I have found contribute a lot to the flavor for me, but they can of course be omitted; cocoa by itself is a very low sodium food.

Now comes the fun part. You can play around with just about every aspect of this basic recipe. You can use coconut milk or soy milk instead of 1% milk, or whole milk, skim milk, half-and-half, or even hot water. You can use honey or agave nectar instead of sugar, or the artificial sweetener of your choice, or use less or more sugar. You can use any and all brands of cocoa. I used Hershey's for years, then I switched to Ghiradelli, now who knows what will be next? And as I said already, you can adjust the ratio of cocoa to sugar to suit your own taste buds. I conducted a blind taste taste with interesting results, which I shall reveal at the end.


1. Stir with a leftover candy cane (I know you have some).

2. Sprinkle with cinnamon, clove, and/or nutmeg.

3. Mix in a little instant coffee -or- pour in some hot, fresh coffee.

4. Try it with chili and black pepper (the way the Aztecs did?).

5. Add ½ tsp. vanilla extract after heating, or use vanilla sugar (with any of the above).

6. Use almond extract instead (only a drop or two), or any other alcohol-based flavor extract. Remember to add after heating.

7. Mix orange, lemon or other citrus zest with the sugar.

8. Speaking of alcohol, if you like sweet liqueurs or coffee with alcoholic drinks, you'll probably love spiked hot cocoa! Adding alcoholic beverages will, of course, skew the health benefits of cocoa ingestion. Try some with a little brandy, Creme de Menthe (mint), Kahlua (coffee), Bailey's Irish Cream, Amaretto (almond), Frangelico (hazelnut), Cointreau (orange), or any other flavor which would go with chocolate. Raspberries go well with chocolate—try Chambourd, a raspberry liqueur. Please note: I have not personally tried any of these alcoholic concoctions. I'm getting my ideas here.

9. Bulk cocoa—for a crowd, for gifts, for camping trips, for your kids all winter, or if you are a college student eating out of a hot pot and an electric frying pan:

Mix thoroughly
1 cup cocoa,
1½ cups sugar,
6 cups powdered milk and
½ teaspoon salt.

Some recipes suggest sifting the ingredients all together but I just give them a whirl in my trusty food processor. (All I had in college was a big spoon, and I did fine with just stirring.) You can vary this blend by adding creamer, miniature marshmallows, miniature chocolate chips, or spices. Store in an airtight container or package individually to give as gifts with serving instructions. To serve, add 3 heaping tablespoons mix to 6 ounces of boiling water. (If you do decide to give this as a gift, consider making up one of the richer versions with chips, candy canes or maybe purchase a nice mug or something.) But for anyone accustomed to mass-marketed instant hot cocoa (with corn syrup, modified whey, and hydrogenated coconut oil), this should be a fine alternative—more economical, healthier, and tastier, too.

Blind taste test yields interesting results!

A well-trained assistant prepared three small servings of cocoa, according to my recipe above, with 1 tablespoon of sugar and 1 tablespoon of cocoa, 6 ounces of hot milk and a few grains salt. The three types of cocoa used were Ghiradelli's, Hershey's, and the store brand. I could tell which was which, but I did not have a clear preference, other than one based on price. All three were quite delicious, and I will have no trouble working my way though the remainder of the supplies which I now have.

Unsweetened cocoa, by itself, does not deserve the bad reputation it has as a purely indulgent food that will send you running to a cardiologist. The bad news comes when you start adding solid chocolate, cream or other animal fat, or alcohol, or manufacturing it with too much sugar, hydrogenated fats or reducing the proportion of flavenoid-rich cocoa. See the links below for additional health claims for hot cocoa. So mix yourself up some hot, rich, heart-healthy hot cocoa. Bottoms up!

NOTICE: this article should not be taken as medical advice, and should never supercede the advice of your physician.

The Nibble: Chocolate Glossary (more than you ever needed to know about chocolate and cocoa)

Antioxidant properties of cocoa and other health benefits

Chocolate: Health Help or Risk?

Health effects of cocoa at the Field Museum

New York Times: Beyond Delicious, Chocolate May Help Pump Up Your Heart

How the Maya made chocolate

Morning Cocolate is available through Wikipedia Commons.

Cocoa vs. Red Wine and Green Tea, Science Daily provided the data used in the graph,above, which is in the Common Domain.

Also see Dutchlady1's article on Chocolate and cocoa from February 14, 2008,

and Larry Rettig's article on the word chocolate is here!