Welcome to the Great Brownie Challenge!
Brownie recipes started showing up in American cookbooks in the early 20th century and immediately found their place as a staple of potlucks, bake sales and even corporate box lunches. The thing about a brownie is that everyone has opinions about what makes a brownie great-- fudgy or chewy; the middle pieces or the edges. I spent a three day weekend making 11 brownies recipes, 1 box mix using at least 42 eggs and lots and lots of butter to figure out for sure what I like most about brownies.
For the life of me, I cannot cut brownies evenly. There will always be one side that’s too small, another side that's too large - and hopefully some that are just right. Also, I can’t spell Ghiradelli to save my life, so when you see the mispellings y'all know what I mean. Last but not least, one of my favorite Instagram bloggers (and friend!) is featured. I met Liz from Flour de Liz on instagram a couple years ago-- and we immediately hit it off. That said, all of the authors I've chosen are bakers that I've been following for a while and admire or were recommended by people that know their way around a brownie.
The Goal of the Great Brownie Challenge
Unlike the CCC challenge - the goal of the brownie challenge isn’t to find the best brownie recipe. Honestly, when we make brownies, 95% of the time we make a Ghirardelli box mix. I just don’t have the same sentimental attachment to brownies that everyone seems to have with Gingerbread or CCC.
My goal for the Great Brownie Challenge was to try as many different baking methods for brownies to figure out once and for all what I love about brownies.
Shout to my roommates from college who were immediately onboard with the Brownie Challenge Idea and immediately sending me links and photos of their favorite brownie recipes!
To my Instagram followers who participated in my unscientific brownie poll-- y'all had lots of great ideas and suggestions, so thank you!
To my daughter, who was disgusted that this challenge was not the sugar cookie challenge she requested and immediately acted like nothing important happened that weekend.
Shout out to the real MVP of the Great Brownie Challenge: my husband Jamie. This man baked the control box brownies, washed numerous rounds of dishes and took the taste testing incredibly seriously. I’m talking about a legal pad and several pages of bullet points. Don’t worry I’m going to share all of that goodness.
1. Follow the recipe as written. This continues to be a problem for me because I tend to skim. I’m basically a professional skimmer. I would never get any actual work done if I read ALL of the words that cross my desk. But I will admit that not reading recipes all the way through is a bad habit I’m trying to break. Not only did I read the recipes, but I followed the instructions completely, with one notable exception: I modified one bake time because I know my oven runs crazy hot.
2. No crazy mix-ins. I know that brownies are insanely customizable but for our purposes the only thing that I folded into the batter was chocolate chips. This rule also includes nuts. My daughter is allergic to most nuts, so to make everything safer we're skipping them.
- Ghiradelli Box Mix
- Chocolate Fudge Brownies by Cheryl Day
- Cocoa Brownies by Alice Medrich
- Glossy Fudge Brownies by Stella Parks
- Better than Box Mix Brownies by Liz from Flour de Liz
- Black Ass Brownies by Holly Haines
- Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Brownies By Vallery Lomas
- Ultimate Fudge Brownies by Mike Bakes NYC
- My Favorite Brownies by Sarah Kieffer
- The Best Fudgy Brownies by Sweet Anna
- Best Brownies by Angie submitted to All Recipes
- Cakey Brownies by King Arthur
Choosing the recipes was harder than in previous challenges. I knew that we would make a box of Ghirardelli brownies as the control brownie. These are the most common brownies that we make at my house. After that, I knew that we needed a mix of brownie textures – fudgy, chewy, and cakey. According to my very unscientific instagram poll, cake brownies aren’t very popular. In my house alone there were loud declarations that cake-like brownies should just be cake. I decided to only make one cake-like recipe. The rest are either fudgy or chewy.
Eventually I narrowed the recipes down by ingredients:
- cocoa powder only [Alice, Anna, King Arthur, Holly]
- recipes with chopped chocolate and cocoa powder [Mikes, Liz, Sarah, Stella]
- recipes with chopped chocolate only [Vallery, Cheryl
Once I had that down, I started looking for variation in the method
- Melted butter and chopped chocolate [Cheryl, Vallery, Stella, Mike]
- Hot liquid (water or milk) [Liz, Anna, King Arthur]
- Melted Butter + Cocoa Powder [Holly, Sweet Anna]
- The notorious Alice Medrich butter, sugar and cocoa powder method
- Whipped eggs [Stella & Mike]
From there an interestingly subcategory emerged: the (former) lawyers [Vallery, Mike & Liz] . If this isn’t on brand I don’t know what is.
A notable exception to this baking challenge is one of my baking favorites - the Displaced Housewife, but only because of a technicality- her recipe called for an 8x11 pan that I couldn’t find. (Update: I found it. Facepalm)
Gathering the Ingredients
- First step: buy a ridiculous number of chocolate baking bars. I used a combination of Ghirardelli Baking Bars and Baker’s Bars (Unsweetened and 60% versions).
- Then I realized the day before a North Carolina “snow” storm that I needed at least 36 eggs. Y’all, when I went to the store people were shopping like we might never leave our homes again! And there I was buying the last three dozen eggs in the store. You know I took myself through the self check out.
- For the Dutch Process Cocoa I ordered Cacao Barry Extra Brute and Ghirardelli Majestic Cocoa Powder online in bulk.
- The Butter. I’m sure quality butter would make brownies even better– but I used up my butter stash (e.g., all the butter that I bought when I saw it on sale during the Christmas Holidays). I used all kinds – Wal-Mart brand, Land of Lakes, Cabot, basically whatever I had on hand.
Overall this was the easiest baking challenge out of all of the challenges because I was able to knock out the brownie recipes very quickly. Mixing the batter and baking a batch and washing all of the dishes, could be achieved in under 45 minutes. 10 out of 12 recipes could be done with a whisk or wooden spoon.
The recipes tended to follow a pattern: Cocoa/ Chocolate; a fat [either butter, oil or a combination] sugar (granulated/brown), [hot liquid], eggs, vanilla/espresso powder, salt + raising agent, then flour.
- Vallery’s brownie had the thinnest batter and the most texture on the top.
- Holly’s batter was the thickest, and that color– chef’s kiss.
- Twenty minutes into the bake on Mike’s recipe I had to take the pan out of the oven and bang it on the counter a couple of times. Interestingly enough, I expected this step in Sarah’s brownie, since she’s known for her pan-banging cookies.
- Sarah's recipe had the most perfect crinkly top.
- Cheryl’s recipe used the most chocolate and it wasn’t wrong.
- Sweet Anna’s method was like magic – the melted butter alternated with the boiling water was SO cool. I will definitely make those again just because it was fun.
- The King Arthur recipe also called for boiling water and 5 FIVE eggs.
- Liz’s recipe is the only one that uses milk and 3 (three!) cups of sugar.
- The icing for the All Recipes brownies was supposed to go on while the brownies were still warm, but I had a helper for that period and was kind of delayed.
The most unusual ingredient:
Honey. The All Recipes “Best Brownies” recipe called for honey in the frosting. I swear this brownie tasted just like a public school cafeteria brownie. It was Nostalgic.
The Cocoa Brownies:
While they all had slight variations, the constant was that each recipe involved heat of some sort. Anna’s recipe called for boiling hot water. For Liz’s recipe the milk and butter were heated together until warm. The first step in the Alice Medrich brownie recipe is to put the butter, cocoa powder, salt and sugar in a heat proof bowl over a pot of boiling water to melt the butter. In Holly’s recipe the butter is melted before adding the cocoa powder and sugars.
The Stand Mixer Recipes
Mike & Stella’s recipes both call for a defined amount of time to mix the eggs with the sugar. In the case of Mike’s whipping the air into the eggs created a beautifully light brownie. It was mostly fudgy without all of the heaviness that you would expect.
Stella’s instructions increased the amount of mixing time and the result was the best fudge consistency you could imagine– it wasn’t as light as Mike’s– but overall just delightful.
The Kid Friendly Category. All Recipes, Sarah Kieffer, and Ghirardelli.
Just because the targeted audience is children, this is the hardest category to win. I can’t speak for all children, but my child has definite preferences and she is not afraid of voicing her opinion. She doesn't care about your feelings.
The Best At Being Chocolate Cake. King Arthur.
When I tell you there is a strong bias against cake like brownies, I was not kidding. My husband ate a half a bite of this brownie, called it cake and never looked back. If you actually like cake brownies, this is a really good recipe– the chocolate flavor is good and the extra eggs in the batter (5!) really make the brownies tall, fluffy and ready to be topped with the frosting of your dreams. (Espresso icing! More Chocolate! Peanut butter! Mint!)
The “I’m Not Sharing These” Brownies. Holly Haines, Mike Bakes NYC, Alice Medrich & Flour de Liz.
These are the brownies that you make for yourself and people you love. These ones don’t last long on the counter and you might fight someone (even if you love them) if they take the last one.
The Church Potluck All Stars. Vallery Lomas, Cheryl Day & Sweet Anna.
Somebody’s grandmother made these and wrapped them in plastic wrap OR piled them high on some fancy looking platter for the church potluck or the school bake sale. These are the ones that you strategically pick up first because you know they aren’t going to be hanging around long.
Yes, Stella gets her own category. This should surprise no one. The amount of time that I spend being amazed by her recipes is becoming ridiculous. Honestly, I think she might be disqualified from future challenges because it’s not fair to me to have to compare hers against the other people’s. We know already: Stella’s stuff is good.
Before we get to the reviews: about my husband:
Brownies are literally his favorite dessert of all time. He is a known chocoholic and given the opportunity to order any dessert on a menu he is going to always pick the chocolate option. While he generally supports all of the insane challenges that I come up with, this one was personal. He was committed to this research and the experimentation in the pursuit of a new favorite brownie recipe. This man approached the tasting component of this experiment with a fresh legal pad and a palate cleanser.
Jamie's Brownie Tasting Notes:
Now for the notes you’ve been waiting for [edited lightly for clarity]:
Mikes: Light, good flavor, grown up. Would not use it for a brownie sundae because ice cream would be too dense. This is a Super Bowl Party brownie.
King Arthur: I don’t love cakey brownies. Flavor is good and the chocolate chips are a nice addition. It’s a good chocolate cake.
Anna: A little more dense than Mike’s but a good “show off recipe” to take to a party. Fudgy and chewy texture and the chocolate chips help with flavor balance. Reminiscent of a DC catering brownie.
Liz. Goddamn. Fudgy, chewy, NOSTALGIA. This brownie is dense, chocolatey and reminds me of my great grandmother’s recipe which I haven’t had in over 30 years. Kind of like a variation of a Mississippi mud cake. Perfect for a sundae or mix in for ice cream.
Vallery Lomas: Church bake sale. These are the brownies you find at a southern church bake sale or potluck, you hope that a very specific person brought them. Because everyone can't make them right. You pick one of them up first because you know they won't be there if you wait. I didn't enjoy how crumbly they were, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't eat a whole pan of them.
Holly Haines: Love the name, the black cocoa flavor isn’t what I was expecting but I like it. Very gooey– eat warm and eat these with ice cream or a cup of black coffee.
Stella Parks: Crowd Pleaser. Fudgy Goodness. This is the brownie that I picture in my head when someone says the word “brownie”. If you don’t like this one, you really don’t like brownies.
Sarah Kieffer: Fudgy and chewy. Kids will dig this one, combining a grown up taste with the classic elements of a brownie.
Alice Merdich: A solid brownie– another one that would be great with ice cream.
Cheryl Day: Stunt on ‘em. Incredibly rich, whole ass dessert in a bite.
All Recipes: Not a big fan of the frosting on brownies, but it works with this one. This is a catering style brownie – you won’t be disappointed to find it waiting in your pre-packaged lunch box.
The Top 3 Favorites
We couldn’t rank them – it was already hard enough to choose only three!
Jamie: Mike, Stella & Liz; honorable mention Holly
Richelle: Liz, Sarah & Cheryl, honorable mention Stella
If you made it this far...
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