The terms are used interchangeably so often that one might assume they're the same thing, but connoisseurs know differently.
Hot cocoa is made from cocoa powder, which has had most of the cocoa butter pressed out of it. Hot chocolate is made from solid chocolate pieces that have all their cocoa butter and results in a drink that is richer and higher in fat.
Whatever name you use, the closely related beverages are beloved around the world in myriad variations. And although there are many "instant" chocolate drink mixes available commercially, making hot cocoa or hot chocolate from scratch is absolutely the way to go, says Jennifer MacKenzie, a freelance professional home economist from Lakehurst, Ont., north of Peterborough, and a recipe developer for Dairy Farmers of Canada.
"When I make it myself, it's basically just four ingredients — chocolate, a bit of sugar, milk and I always like a touch of vanilla," she says.
"Commercial mixes usually have salt in them and many also have anti-clumping agents to keep them a standard (pouring) consistency. I find some of the prepared ones are overly sweet and you don't get that chocolate flavour," while others "have preservatives and additives that aren't necessary."
When MacKenzie is making a hot chocolate drink for herself or developing a new recipe, her goal is "to make sure my hot chocolate tastes like chocolate and not just sugar." Making your own gives you total control.
In terms of milk, the higher the fat content, the richer and creamier the chocolate drink will be.
"But people who only drink one per cent (milk) would be more than happy with hot chocolate made with one per cent," MacKenzie says. And if you want to add a little touch of cream for extra richness, that's fine too.
The sweetener used also has an effect. Confectioner's or powdered sugar, for example, dissolves quickly and does not become grainy. Brown sugar adds a slight butterscotch flavour. Those wishing to cut back on sugar can use artificial sweeteners, says MacKenzie, who recommends reducing the amount by about one-third if using an artificial sweetener.
Her chocolate of choice is unsweetened cocoa powder.
When making hot cocoa or chocolate, it is important never to boil the milk, says MacKenzie. Her method is to combine the cocoa and sugar in a saucepan and then slowly whisk in the cold milk to create a smooth, non-lumpy mixture. Then she adds a little vanilla and warms the mixture on medium heat, stirring occasionally to prevent a film from forming on the milk. When bubbles form around the edge and the milk is steaming, it's ready to serve.
She says she finds this method "really infuses the chocolate flavour and it blends really well."
Mike Mulhern, a farmer and hot cocoa "hobbyist" from West Lorne in southwestern Ontario, says he'd always liked hot chocolate but got really interested about 10 years ago when he tried "Mayan Hot Chocolate" from a Toronto chocolatier.
"It was wonderfully spicy with a bit of burn to it and I thought 'Wow! You can do a lot with cocoa or hot chocolate.'
"I started experimenting at home and tried various things, including melting solid chocolate with various percentages of cocoa, but finally settled on a good organic (unsweetened) cocoa powder we buy online."
His personal "go-to" recipe is flavoured with cinnamon and cayenne pepper and he uses a full 30 millilitres (two tablespoons) of cocoa powder to make a 250-ml (one-cup) drink, although he concedes this might be too much for most people. He sweetens it with honey, never sugar.
His method is entirely different from MacKenzie's. He makes a smooth paste of the cocoa powder, honey, spices and a little warmed milk in the bottom of his mug. When the rest of the milk is steaming, he adds it to the mug and stirs well to combine.
Mulhern's spiced cocoa takes chocolate drinks back to their ancient roots. Archeological evidence suggests the Maya may have been the first to consume chocolate in drink form in what is now southern Mexico, perhaps 3,000 years ago.
Their concoction, which was not "hot" in terms of temperature, was spicy and bitter, made from cocoa seeds ground into a paste and mixed with water, cornmeal, chili peppers and other spices. They would create a thick foam by pouring it back and forth from one container to another.
The first Europeans who tasted the Aztec version in the 1500s were not impressed. One Spanish missionary reportedly called it "loathsome."
That changed over the centuries, with the addition of sugar and later milk. But both MacKenzie and Mulhern are fans of one trait of the ancient drink —the frothing, which makes the beverage extra creamy.
Neither is particularly fond of topping their chocolate drinks with marshmallows or whipped cream.
"I think that's just a distraction," Mulhern says. "For me, I'm looking for that pure chocolate flavour."
To contact Susan Greer, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.