How Hot Should I Make my Water or Milk for Hot Cocoa? | CoachSweetTooth

How Hot Should I Make My Water or Milk for Hot Cocoa?

Although most of us would squirm if we were to drink the bitter hot chocolate that the high society Azteks have been credited with, there’s nothing like a warm, sweet chocolate drink on a cold winter day. Luckily for us, today’s hot cocoa is widely available in single serving sized packets or multi-serving canisters that require little more than a cup of hot water to turn it into a comforting treat. Instant hot cocoa is so convenient and easy to make. The only thing left to decide is how hot our hot cocoa and hot chocolate should be.

Although this will come down to personal preference, there is a general thought that 130°F is agreeable to most people. That doesn’t mean that you should whip out your digital thermometer and wait until it hits the magic number as there are several factors to consider.  So that begs the question, how do we know when our water is 130°F, or how long do we put it in the microwave? The answer is….that depends on the size and power of your microwave, how soon you plan to drink it, what vessel you drink it in, the quantity you are making, the type of chocolate mix, what you add to your cocoa, and even how you drink your cocoa.

It doesn’t seem like rocket science to make a cup of hot chocolate, particularly if you are using the convenient microwave. However, there are several factors to ponder when you grab your mug. For instance, does the type of mug make a difference? Does it matter if you use milk instead of water? Is there a difference between hot cocoa and hot chocolate? How do add-ins affect the temperature of your drink?

I don’t recall many days in the last several years where I have not had chocolate. Besides teaching and writing about it, I often have my hand in a bag of quality chocolate chips. And then there’s the roughly year’s supply I keep in my basement for indulgences and baking projects. In fact, I love chocolate so much that I would have it for breakfast if it were socially acceptable. Alas, with hot cocoa, I am able to fulfill that fantasy.

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What Factors Influence the Temperature of Hot Cocoa?

Although some people will heat their water in a pan on the stovetop, most will choose the speed of the microwave. The microwave comes with different wattages and so you may find variances in suggested heating times, depending on your microwave’s power.  Most people will conduct a trial and error test to determine the best time. It is better to err on the side of too little time to begin with. Obviously you can add time if the temperature is not to your liking. Setting the time for the upper end of recommended may result in damaged taste buds and in some cases, a mess in the microwave. Water boils at 212°F and may bubble over if your cup is especially full. However, if you follow the directions of some manufacturers and place the cocoa mix in the water before heating, you  run the risk of a significant messy clean-up should the cocoa bubble over. The best way to determine the temperature of your heated water is by using an instant read thermometer. If you don’t have one, reconsider. They may not be necessary for a cup of hot chocolate but will come in handy for a variety of other foods.

Are you a gulper or a sipper? If you intend to drink your hot chocolate within a few minutes, you will want to ensure that the temperature is on the lower, comfortable side. If you take your cocoa to your desk and take an occasional sip, then you will want it to retain its heat longer and so you might start it at a higher temperature. I drink my cocoa with a spoon, so I can afford to have it on the very hot side as the small amount on the spoon cools rather quickly. Restaurants often serve their hot drinks at a significantly higher temperature than comfortable as they are expecting there to be some lag time between preparation and delivery to your table or takeout.

Perhaps you have your favorite mug to drink from. Have you ever noticed that some dishware gets hot in the microwave, while others do not? It depends on what your mug is made from. A typical ceramic mug cools faster than a Styrofoam cup that you might get as a take-out. Now, there are “commuter cups” on the market which intentionally keep your drinks hotter for longer. One popular tumbler is insulated and boasts of keeping your drink warm for up to 12 hours. There are even mugs available with battery powered warmers.

Adding ingredients to hot cocoa is a popular option. For instance, I add a splash of caramel flavored syrup to mine. Although it’s less than a tablespoon, it is enough to slightly lower the temperature of my drink. The addition of milk or cream from the refrigerator will also lower your drinking temperature. Topping your cocoa with whipped cream or marshmallows will cool your drink in proportion to the amount that you add.

Because of the availability and popularity of the “just add water” mixes, I have assumed that you are using that option the most often. However, the “hot cocoa bomb” has become a popular item over the last few years. It is basically a hot cocoa mix in a chocolate shell that dissolves when put in hot water or milk. Technically chocolate has a low melting point (just over 90°F) so it should melt in your warm milk/water. However, it will bring down the temperature in the cup so you will need to start with a warmer base. Likewise, if you are using a chocolate “disk”, a Mexican chocolate tradition, you will need to start with a higher temperature in order to get the entire disk to melt.

How Hot is Too Hot?

I remember years ago (1992) when someone was burned (and subsequently sued McDonald’s) due to a hot coffee spill on her lap. It turns out that McDonald’s, like many other restaurants, heats its hot beverages to over 180° F. Since then, some companies have taken strides to warn customers that “beverages may be hot”. The popular pod cup machines serve drinks at about 170°F.    

Restaurants often heat beverages to temperatures that would scald your tongue. Generally, someone could get a superficial burn starting as low as 110°F. Anything in the 160°F plus will definitely burn your mouth. Then why would anyone heat and serve a drink over the threshold? First, the burning temperature can be different depending on the person. Second, there is the thought that hotter kills germs. And third, the temperature of a hot beverage may be lowered as it is placed in a cooler mug, or if it sits for a minute while the rest of your order is being prepared.

Children are particularly susceptible to burns from hot liquids. This is especially important to remember when you are purchasing a hot drink outside the home. Starbucks, to their credit, offers a lower temperature on their “children’s” drinks. Otherwise, you can expect to be served a piping hot coffee or tea. You may request your drink to be “children’s temperature” for yourself.

Is it Hot Cocoa or Hot Chocolate?

Although I tend to use the words interchangeably, there is a difference between the two. Hot chocolate typically has a base of cream, ½ & ½ , or milk with added chocolate or sugar & cocoa. Hot cocoa also has sugar and cocoa powder but it uses powdered milk as a base, which dissolves at lower temperatures. Does milk boil at a different temperature as water because it contains protein or fat? No, they both boil at 212° F so the different formula does not warrant different heating instructions.

While some prefer their hot chocolate on the hot side, it is probable that most people do not care for scorched taste buds. While there are several factors that influence the temperature of a hot drink, it is best to err on the conservative side when preparing hot drinks, with the thought that you can always add heat by placing it in the microwave for an additional ten seconds.


Lori Gilmore

Lori Gilmore

Lori has been a Culinary Arts instructor for twenty years. She has taught in the public school setting, at the collegiate level and through adult continuing education as well as running several cooking and baking camps for children. She has participated in several cooking, cake & chocolate contests and has been well recognized. She has raised thousands of dollars for charities using the byline “Saving the World one Cupcake at a Time”. Additionally, she has had several articles regarding food published in various magazines.

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