It’s once again time to document my attempts to perfect a particular staple food item. This time around it is brownies. The internet seems to love brownies and there is quite a wide variety of recipes to try that give all kinds of textures and flavor. Brownies, more than most other baked goods, are really in the eye of the beholder so I will try to convey something of how to get the brownie you want rather than just my preferences.
1. Calibrate your oven temperature with a thermometer.
2. Weigh ingredients.
3. Do not bake in a dark, glass or pyrex pan as this will make sure that your brownie edges are too hard before the inside cooks. If you must, drop the temperature by 25 degrees and check the brownies earlier.
4. Beat your final batter vigorously for close to a minute if it contains a relatively small amount of flour as most modern brownie recipes do. This may seem against conventional wisdom, but with such a low amount of flour undermixing is more of a danger than overmixing.
5. Like most cookies, letting your batter rest in the fridge overnight will improve flavor.
6. Line your pan with foil rather than greasing it for easy clean up. Just lift them right out after they cool. The only downside is that the lines of the brownie aren’t as clean, particularly at the edges, but oh well.
7. Unlike cookies, brownies do not taste best straight of the oven. If anything I think they taste best about a day later, but after about three days they start to dry out.
8. Brownies freeze really well and you can eat them right out of the freezer.
9. Finally a note about size conversion. Most recipes are for 8×8 square pans, but a few are for 9×13. The latter is just an insane amount of brownies and even an 8×8 is usually too much to consume by myself before they go stale. I have taken to making them in a loaf pan which is about a half recipe.
9×13 rectangle=2 9×9 squares = 2 8×8 circle = 4 8.5×4.5 loaf pans
10. For keenly cut brownies use a serrated knife and chill the brownies first and clean the knife between cuts.
The ice bath method:
Employ an ice bath for more toothsome and fudgier brownies. Adjust your baking temperature upwards about 50 degrees and pull them out earlier, a good sign is when the edges pull away from the side or you can poke in the middle and you want to see some wet crumbs. When they are done, drop the pan in an ice bath or directly in your freezer or even both if you have room (I never do).
The high temperatures give you a crackly crust without cooking the inside and the ice bath serves to make sure the brownies don’t cook more once out of the oven. I call it brownie searing as it looks like a proper meat sear with a browned skin and then perfect moist texture in the middle. Alice Medrich claims that a good guideline for this technique is that the recipe should use at least a half cup of flour and no more than 5 oz of chocolate (that should be adjusted by the percentage chocolate you are using, i.e. 10 oz of 50%). This follows because recipes not fulfilling this criteria are probably fudgy enough.
Chocolate: Brownies are a chocolate dessert and so it is important you get a decent tasting chocolate. I am not like some people advocating very expensive brands; I don’t think you can tell the difference between Callebeut and Ghiradelli in a brownie and even if you could the marginal difference is not worth the extraordinary price increase.
However, I made a few recipes with Baker’s unsweetened chocolate and I am fairly sure that it contributed to a rather underwhelming chocolate flavor, though it’s hard to really taste test unsweetened chocolate unless I made the same brownies twice with different chocolate. So do find a chocolate that you like and can trust. For your benefit I have compiled the higher ranks of Cook’s Illustrated taste tests of various chocolates.
Unsweetened Cocoa Powder
Winner: Hershey’s Unsweetened Cocoa Powder
Hershey’s Special Dark Cocoa
Winner: Hershey’s Unsweetened Baking Bar
Valrhona Cacao Pate Extra 100%
Scharffen-berger Unsweetened Dark
Baker’s was absolutely trashed by the testers.
Winner: Ghiradelli 60%
Hershey’s Special Dark (50% though they have an Extra Dark version that is 60%)
Cooking Light liked Special Dark the best. I don’t think more expensive brands were tested.
Who would have thought Hershey’s would do so well? Not me and it’s pretty much the cheapest. I have also heard great things about Trader Joe’s chocolate but I don’t think it was included in this taste test. Their prices are also pretty good on chocolate so it may be worth trying. Also I should mention that I used chocolate chips for essentially all my baking needs. I guess they are supposedly slightly different than bars to make them hold together while baking (why would I want that anyway?), but it all seems the same after I melt them. I do this because chips are like half as expensive as bars at my supermarket.
Recipes: I am going to list them in approximately my order of preference, but the top ones are really close and different enough to warrant having any of them.
1. Alice Medrich Cocoa Brownies – If you told me that cocoa brownies could be this good I would laugh at you before eating these. These have the deepest chocolate flavor and because there is little cocoa butter and all regular butter it has the most tender and divine texture.
2. Baked Brownie – While I love the above brownie, this is far more like the platonic ideal of a brownie with it’s fudgy rather than tender texture and slightly sweeter chocolate flavor. The addition of brown sugar is pretty much genius. I really want to give these a whirl with the ice bath technique to see if we can’t make them even better.
3. Ad Hoc Brownie – Thomas Keller made a pretty great traditional chocolate chip cookie so I had to try his brownie. But being Keller it’s going to be a bit fussy. I was worried when I saw that he creams the eggs and sugar in a brownie recipe that I was getting a cake, but these turned out wonderfully. The texture is most definitely not fudgy, but neither is it cakey, holding some ineffable middle ground. The addition of chocolate chips is brilliant. I thought they would just get lost in a chocolate brownie, but nope just a contrasting chocolate flavor to that of the brownie.
I should note that I used vanilla extract instead of paste with no real loss. Also it calls for a rather awkward 9×9 pan which is about 5/4 bigger than an 8×8 so my egg proportions were a bit different. Finally, be aware of the really long bake time and that these are very tall brownies. Interestingly, I made these and the next week I went to Vegas and had the eponymous Bouchon at Keller’s Bouchon Bakery, essentially a cork shaped brownie, and I enjoyed the brownie far more.
4. Lebovitz’s Favorite Brownie – David Lebovitz is a well known pastry chef so when he declares this his favorite brownie I listen. Very fudgy and a deep chocolate flavor, but not good enough to crack the top 3.
5. Supernatural Brownies – Like the Baked brownie, these are made with brown sugar. These have gotten rave reviews, but as you can tell by the recipe, this has a fairly low amount of chocolate and I want my brownies intensely chocolatey. I will save the lighter chocolate flavor for cakes where I pair it with something else. I did the ice bath on these as well and the texture was again flawless.
6. Alice Medrich New Classic Brownies – This was my first attempt at an ice bath and it totally converted me giving the textural contrast between crispy crust and toothsome center. However, I believe the flavor was sabotaged by using Baker’s unsweetened. I might try a variation with lower percentage cacao or just another brand because Medrich really knows her brownies and it’s hard to believe these can’t be amazing.
7. Serious Eats Brownie – I love Serious Eats, but I have not made any of their baked goods. These were as fudgy as advertised, but overall it was not exceptional. It reminded me of a slightly better potluck brownie. Note that I used the peanut variation which is a great idea.
8. French Chocolate Brownie – Dorie Greenspan is a not unfamous chef known for her sweets and French cooking and people said good things about this recipe. However, I was relatively unimpressed, though I did enjoy the addition of raisins. This is definitely on the cakier side and the chocolate flavor was unimpressive. Furthermore, the brownies collapsed on me and this seems pretty common on the internet. Brownies should not collapse. That said, probably the best brownie for topping with things, the others on the list are just too fudgy and chocolatey to really go with ice cream.
Other brownies to try?
King Arthur Flour – Lots of good buzz, but using Dutch cocoa and then claiming it tastes better makes me dubious. The differences in cocoa are miniscule and only in natural’s favor.
Ina Garten – As I said above, similar to Lebovitz’s brownies, but maybe the very small differences matter? It certainly has a lot of people saying best ever.
CI Brownies – There are two, but neither seemed that interesting. I mean one is meant to emulate a boxed mix…