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Hot Cocoa Mix

From Old-Fashioned Breakfast Cakes

How we tested

We wish that everybody had time to make homemade hot cocoa. It’s easy enough to stir together cocoa, sugar, hot milk, and maybe a splash of vanilla and a pinch of salt. But we admit that instant mixes are unbeatably convenient. To find out which are best, we rounded up leading supermarket brands as well as mixes from a few upscale chocolatiers.

Following the instructions on the package, we used water to make the cocoas from most brands. Two of our contenders can be reconstituted with either hot water or milk; we preferred them with 2 percent milk, which we then used to make the mixes that called for milk. Across the board, tasters valued creaminess, which can come from either the added milk or from dry milk in the mix (all mixes that can be reconstituted with water contain some form of dried milk). In the end, however, what separated winners from losers was big chocolate flavor.

One cocoa mix won in a landslide. The mix includes both Dutch-processed cocoa powder and bittersweet chocolate. Our runner-up also has two sources of chocolate: cocoa powder and unsweetened chocolate. A milder, milkier cocoa captured third place. Tasters rated this kid-friendly cocoa the creamiest of the lot, thanks not only to the “dairy product solids” on the ingredient list, but also to hydrogenated oils and stabilizers like guar gum. The last on our list of recommended brands has notes of coffee and cinnamon, and is aimed squarely at grown-up palates.

What was wrong with the others? The losing mixes were all reconstituted with hot water, and they tasted watery. One cocoa was disgustingly sweet—on the ingredient list, sugar, corn syrup, and modified whey all precede cocoa powder.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*