clockwise from upper left: CI, Baked, Outrageous, box
Sometimes these recipe comparisons are a little silly. Once recipes reach a certain point of outstanding-ness, it’s almost meaningless to try to pick a favorite. Plus, we’re talking about brownies – how picky do we really need to be?
But since I’m not one to be deterred by practicalities, I went ahead with a brownie comparison post. I chose three superstars – Cooks Illustrated’s Classic Brownies, my favorite for years; Ina Garten’s Outrageous Brownies, very popular and the clear winner of another comparison; and the Baked (a bakery in Brooklyn) brownie, famous among people who care about these things. I also threw a boxed mix into the roundup. I chose Ghirardelli because it’s widely available in stores and often receives positive reviews. Plus it was on sale.
All three homemade recipes are made the same way, by melting the chocolate and butter together, whisking in the sugar, then the eggs, and finally folding in the dry ingredients. I baked the brownies in disposable foil pans (sorry, Earth!) because I was taking them camping. For baking, each foil pan was placed in a metal baking pan of the same size, in an effort to encourage more even heating than the thin foil pans could manage on their own. I chose a basic boxed mix and kept the homemade recipes at their most basic as well, leaving out nuts, spices, etc. I used Ghirardelli brand chocolate for everything.
It’s a good thing I had 9 tasters, because all of the recipes were good and no clear winner emerged. Here’s the breakdown:
-Ghirardelli boxed mix: This was the favorite of one person. Take that for what it’s worth – the same person had a McDonald’s chicken biscuit for breakfast after I’d made strawberry scones for him. He liked that the brownies were “sugary and moist.” Everyone else thought they were too sweet and not chocolately enough.
-Ina’s Outrageous brownies: When I made these, I was surprised by how much instant coffee powder the recipe calls for. I checked and double-checked. It was the correct amount, and that was the deciding factor for opinions of these brownies. Those who liked the bitter coffee taste (Dave was one) liked these brownies best.
-Cook’s Illustrated brownies: These were the general favorite of those who weren’t as excited about the Outrageous brownies’ coffee flavor. They were described as “cakey” by one person, and while they shouldn’t be confused with truly cakey brownies, I do think they have the most balanced texture. I guess I don’t want my brownies to be “outrageously” rich. They also have a nice strong chocolate flavor. One friend noted that both the initial taste and finish were chocolately, with none of the bitterness associated with the other homemade recipes. Perhaps because this was the only homemade recipe without coffee added?
-The Baked brownies: Major caveat – I underbaked the Baked brownies. (Ironic, no?) The toothpick came out clean, and it isn’t even supposed to be clean for brownies. Apparently the crispy top was scraping the batter off the toothpick during my tests. I think that really affected people’s opinions of these brownies, which were often described as “too fudgy.” I did think the flavor was well balanced between sweetness and chocolate, and I liked the texture of the less-gooey edge pieces.
I’m going to have to conclude that any well-reviewed homemade brownie recipe (and there are many more than these three) is going to be great. I often hear people say that they’ve never had homemade brownies better than a boxed mix, and that I don’t understand at all. Either they’re making the wrong brownies or they’re buying a much better mix than I did (or they like sugar a lot more than chocolate, like my chicken biscuit-eating friend). And since homemade brownies take only a few minutes longer to make than boxed brownies, I really don’t see the point.
Unfortunately, I don’t feel like this was the fairest comparison. What really matters with a brownie recipe is texture and chocolate flavor. But Ina’s brownies were dominated by the coffee flavor, which is very easy to vary by adding more or less instant coffee powder. The Baked brownies were impossible to judge because of my baking screw-up. I’d love to do another comparison that corrects these errors, but that will have to wait. One result of these comparison posts is that I end up burned out on the food for months to come. And I still have brownies in the freezer.
Okay, I guess I’m not that upset about it.
(I apologize for the lack of photos of each brownie’s texture, which I know would have been informative. I was camping and hanging out with friends I rarely see, and there was just a lot going on.)
Update: I made the Baked brownie again, this time actually baking them, you know, all the way. I really like them, and they got great reviews from the people I sent them to. But, I still like Cooks Illustrated’s Classic Brownies better. For one thing, the Baked brownies are so fudgy that it’s difficult to accurately test their doneness.
One year ago: Buttermilk Coleslaw
Classic Brownies (from Cook’s Illustrated)
CI note: Be sure to test for doneness before removing the brownies from the oven. If underbaked (the toothpick has batter clinging to it) the texture of the brownies will be dense and gummy. If overbaked (the toothpick comes out completely clean), the brownies will be dry and cakey.
1 cup (4 ounces) pecans or walnuts, chopped medium (optional)
1¼ cups (5 ounces) cake flour
½ teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon baking powder
6 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped fine
12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, cut into six 1-inch pieces
2¼ cups (15¾ ounces) sugar
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1. Adjust oven rack to middle position; heat oven to 325 degrees. Cut 18-inch length foil and fold lengthwise to 8-inch width. Fit foil into length of 13 by 9-inch baking dish, pushing it into corners and up sides of pan; allow excess to overhand pan edges. Cut 14-inch length foil and, if using extra-wide foil, fold lengthwise to 12-inch width; fit into width of baking pan in same manner, perpendicular to first sheet. Spray foil-lined pan with nonstick cooking spray.
2. If using nuts, spread nuts evenly on rimmed baking sheet and toast in oven until fragrant, 5 to 8 minutes. Set aside to cool.
3. Whisk to combine flour, salt, and baking powder in medium bowl; set aside.
4. Melt chocolate and butter in large heatproof bowl set over saucepan of almost-simmering water, stirring occasionally, until smooth. (Alternatively, in microwave, heat butter and chocolate in large microwave-safe bowl on high for 45 seconds, then stir and heat for 30 seconds more. Stir again, and, if necessary, repeat in 15-second increments; do not let chocolate burn.) When chocolate mixture is completely smooth, remove bowl from saucepan and gradually whisk in sugar. Add eggs on at a time, whisking after each addition until thoroughly combined. Whisk in vanilla. Add flour mixture in three additions, folding with rubber spatula until batter is completely smooth and homogeneous.
5. Transfer batter to prepared pan; using spatula, spread batter into corners of pan and smooth surface. Sprinkle toasted nuts (if using) evenly over batter and bake until toothpick or wooden skewer inserted into center of brownies comes out with few moist crumbs attached, 30 to 35 minutes. Cool on wire rack to room temperature, about 2 hours, then remove brownies from pan by lifting foil overhang. Cut brownies into 2-inch squares and serve. (Store leftovers in airtight container at room temperature, for up to 3 days,
Outrageous Brownies (from Ina Garten/Barefoot Contessa)
2 sticks unsalted butter
8 ounces, plus 6 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
3 ounces unsweetened chocolate
3 extra-large eggs
1½ tablespoons instant coffee powder
1 tablespoons real vanilla extract
1.125 (7.85 ounces) cups sugar
½ cup (2.4 ounces) all-purpose flour, plus 2 tablespoons
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 13 by 9 by 1 ½-inch baking pan.
Melt together the butter, 8 ounces chocolate, and unsweetened chocolate on top of a double boiler. Cool slightly. Stir together the eggs, instant coffee, vanilla and sugar. Stir in the warm chocolate mixture and cool to room temperature.
Stir together ½ cup of the flour, baking powder and salt. Add to cooled chocolate mixture. Toss the 6 ounces of chocolate chips with 2 tablespoons flour to coat. Then add to the chocolate batter. Pour into prepared pan.
Bake for about 30 minutes, or until tester just comes out clean. Halfway through the baking, rap the pan against the oven shelf to allow air to escape from between the pan and the brownie dough. Do not over-bake! Cool thoroughly, refrigerate well and cut into squares.
The Baked Brownie (from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking from the Baked Bakery in Red Hook, Brooklyn, via Smitten Kitchen)
1¼ cups (6 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons dark unsweetened cocoa powder
11 ounces dark chocolate (60 to 72% cacao), coarsely chopped
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1½ cups (10.5 ounces) granulated sugar
½ cup (3.5 ounces) firmly packed light brown sugar
5 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter the sides and bottom of a 9×13 glass or light-colored metal baking pan.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, salt, and cocoa powder together.
3. Put the chocolate, butter, and instant espresso powder in a large bowl and set it over a saucepan of simmering water, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate and butter are completely melted and smooth. Turn off the heat, but keep the bowl over the water and add the sugars. Whisk until completely combined, then remove the bowl from the pan. The mixture should be room temperature.
4. Add 3 eggs to the chocolate mixture and whisk until combined. Add the remaining eggs and whisk until combined. Add the vanilla and stir until combined. Do not overbeat the batter at this stage or your brownies will be cakey.
5. Sprinkle the flour mixture over the chocolate mixture. Using a spatula (not a whisk), fold the flour mixture into the chocolate until just a bit of the flour mixture is visible.
6. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake in the center of the oven for 30 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time, until a toothpick inserted into the center of the brownies comes out with a few moist crumbs sticking to it. Let the brownies cool completely, then cut them into squares and serve.
7. Tightly covered with plastic wrap, the brownies keep at room temperature for up to 3 days.
(Another apology: I didn’t realize until I uploaded this picture that it says ASS on the bottom left corner. I’m too lazy to fix it. Plus, it’s appropriate for a box full of brownies, no?)