Alton Brown Holds The Secret To Toasty Hot Chocolate

A little bit of sugar, a heap of cocoa powder (or melted chocolate if you're more of a drink-hot chocolate-with-a-spoon kinda person), a splash of hot milk or water, and there you have it — liquid comfort in a mug perfect for National Hot Chocolate Day. One of the best things about hot chocolate is just how straightforward it can be to whip it up, but that doesn't mean that the simple drink can't be transformed into a rich and indulgent beverage with a clever trick here and there.

Where chefs like Sandra Lee and the Barefoot Contessa use liqueur or espresso powder and cinnamon sticks to give their hot chocolates some oomph, Alton Brown swaps the spices and booze for another ingredient: milk powder. But it's not just any milk powder that Brown adds to his drink; the "Good Eats" host suggests that toasting milk powder first is the key to the toastiest hot cocoa ever.

Brown's reloaded hot cocoa first appeared on season one of "Good Eats: Reloaded," a show where the chef goes back to age-old classics to give them a new spin. According to the recipe for his reloaded hot chocolate, you should spread a thin layer of regular milk powder in a baking tray and pop it in the oven. About 20 minutes later, you'll have golden-brown colored toasted milk powder that will upgrade a humble mug of hot chocolate.

What is toasted milk powder?

Although toasted milk powder is not something you'd have associated with hot chocolate, or with anything for that matter, the ingredient has made quite the name for itself in the world of baking off late. The winner of the "Great British Bake Off" season one, Edd Kimber, once called toasted milk powder the "msg of the baking world" in an Instagram video, adding that it is a flavor enhancer with notes of brown butter and caramelized white chocolate. 

In reality, milk powder is nothing but milk that has been dried until all its liquid evaporates, and the only thing left is milk solids. By toasting these milk solids, you have something that is quite similar to brown butter in taste — the nutty, fatty liquid that is coveted for its toasted flavor. Because brown butter too is made by cooking butter until the milk solids present in it begin to toast and darken, toasted milk powder and brown butter both have the same flavor profile. This is why Kimber even goes on to call toasted milk powder a "secret flavor enhancer" that's more like a seasoning than milk (via King Arthur Baking).

The game changer, however, is that brown butter only has one to two percent of milk solids which is why its nuanced flavor is sometimes overshadowed by other ingredients. Toasted milk powder, on the other hand, is pure milk solids which means it has all the flavors of brown butter except in a more concentrated form.

Toasted milk powder will upgrade the flavor of your hot chocolate

Simply put, toasted milk powder brings to the table what brown butter does and more. Toasted milk powder has the same toffee and caramel-like flavors that make brown butter so excellent in baked goods, and it's these flavors that your hot chocolate could do with as well.

While milk powder is no foreign ingredient in hot cocoa, by adding one more step and toasting it, Brown assured that you're going to get "the best cup of hot chocolate ever. Just trust me" (via Alton Brown). The toasted milk powder will add a depth of flavor to all the sugar, chocolate, and milk, bringing notes of toffee, caramel, and malt to the drink.

To finish the toasty hot chocolate off, Brown adds a touch of cornstarch for a thicker texture, a pinch of cayenne for a spicy kick, and a tiny bit of salt to heighten the warm cocoa's flavors. The only thing to bear in mind when using Brown's trick is that toasted milk powder tends to get clumpy, which can leave lumps of dry powder in the hot chocolate. To get rid of the lumps, simply pop the toasted milk powder in a food processor and give it a few pulses till it blitzes into a fine powder — or pass it through a fine mesh sieve aka a chinois strainer. You can then go ahead and add a few scoops of this secret ingredient for a toasty mug of hot cocoa the Alton Brown way.