This secret ingredient can elevate your hot chocolate, according to science

There’s hot cocoaand then there is hot chocolate. These terms are used interchangeably, but there is undeniably a difference. Hot cocoa is more like steamed hot chocolate milk, made from one’s favorite instant pot or a mixture of cocoa powder and sugar with milk or water.

Hot chocolate is a much richer concoction, similar to hot brownie batter, and so thick it coats the back of a spoon.

Both hot drinks are divine, but there’s at least one less-intuitive ingredient that contributes to hot chocolate’s decadence. If you’re looking for European or Italian-style hot chocolate recipes, the secret ingredient that almost always comes up is… cornmeal.

Boost your hot chocolate with a teaspoon of cornstarch.Shutterstock

What is cornmeal?

This white powder is cornstarch (duh) during the refining process. Corn starch comes from the endosperm of the kernel, which is the main energy store of the young plant, according to Norman Wagner, a chemical engineer at the University of Delaware. Its chemical formula is C6H10THE5. A molecule consisting of carbon with some proportion of H2O is a carbohydrate, so the endosperm is full of carbohydrates and energy to grow the nucleus. Wagner likens starches in plants to fat in humans: both are stored energy.

Amylose and amylopectin are the two main chemical components of starch. Both are polysaccharides, meaning they are complex sugars made up of many sugar molecules rather than a chain of individual sugars (monosaccharides). These complex sugars are long chains of molecules, Wagner says Inversebut they are wrapped tightly like balls of yarn.

What does cornmeal do in hot chocolate?

It’s easiest to see cornstarch work its magic when you make what some call oobleck, a simple corn syrup and room temperature water. This combination creates a suspension, meaning the cornstarch molecules do not dissolve and instead float in the liquid. Thus, it is partly solid and partly liquid. When you vigorously knead this mixture, the water molecules become trapped in the polysaccharide chains, creating a squishy but solid substance as the molecules hold and stick together. Fermenting it slowly keeps it in that weird, runny state.

In fact, oobleck is a type of non-Newtonian fluid. While water is a classic Newtonian fluid that maintains a constant viscosity no matter how vigorously it is stirred, the properties of non-Newtonian fluids change depending on the amount of force applied. Ketchup is an everyday non-Newtonian liquid that can come out of a bottle when we shake or squeeze it, but it doesn’t completely soak our fries.

There are several types of non-Newtonian fluids:

  • Thixotropic: Applied force over time is decreasing viscosity (eg honey)
  • Rheopectics: Applied force over time increases viscosity (eg heavy cream)
  • Shear thinning: The stronger the applied force, the less viscous the substance (e.g. tomato sauce)
  • Expansion or shear thickening: The stronger the applied force, the thicker the essence (eg oobleck)

While cornstarch in hot chocolate does not create chocolate oobleck, it does create another type of non-Newtonian fluid.

It all depends on the temperature, says Wagner. Corn starch, which inside the corn endosperm is a tight tangle of molecular chains, does not unfold in cold water. “If you put the starch in cold water, the water can’t get in, it stays like a grain, and then you get the oplex,” says Wagner. Inverse.

Hot water, on the other hand, unwinds the carbohydrate chains. “If you put the starch in hot water, the water comes in and then the starch expands,” says Wagner. The cornstarch partially dissolves and the swollen carbohydrates create a “soft, cloudy mess.” The result is a thixotropic non-Newtonian liquid that becomes less viscous the more it is stirred, but retains a pleasantly thick mouthfeel when drunk. The same idea applies if you add cornstarch to warm milk or similar liquids such as almond or soy milk.

What is a good way to use it?

It’s possible to make your own instant mix to keep at home by mixing sugar (either refined or confectioners), cornstarch, and cocoa as a shelf-stable combination. Salt and vanilla are also good additions to homemade powder. Too much cornstarch can make the drink into a sticky batter. Some recipes recommend about a teaspoon of starch to a cup of milk for optimal thickness, but we haven’t tried them.

Adequate cornstarch also keeps the mixture cohesive. At the bottom of a mug, there is usually a layer of undissolved sugar and cocoa powder that settles. “This starch can give a thickener to the liquid to make the viscosity very high so that these small particles don’t settle to the bottom as quickly,” says Wagner.

If you melt some of your favorite chocolate into this drink, you will have an even more luxurious treat.

PLEASE CHECK it is one Inverse series that uses biology, chemistry and physics to debunk the biggest myths and assumptions about food.

Now read this: What is artificial banana flavor made of? A food neuroscientist reveals the truth

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