Thursday, October 2, 2014

perfect box brownies

I felt silly even as I wrote the title of this post.  I am claiming to have 31 days' worth of great ideas/recipes/suggestions for comfort food, and the second day I want to talk about how to make something that already comes pre-mixed

And I see that point. 

But here's the thing.  Although I am an enthusiastic baker, and I make some very labor-intensive things when I have time (such as, oh, let's see, the truffle recipe that takes 14 hours), probably the thing I bake the most often is brownies.  Truffles and truffle torte are maybe more delicious depending on my mood.  But for a truly comforting (and also extremely delicious) dessert, in my opinion, brownies and chocolate chip cookies are tied for first place, and brownies are more versatile and faster.  So if you make dessert, you have to master brownies. 

And for many years, I confess to you, I had not.  I was the sad person who at work pot-lucks would scarf down the brownies made by others, ooh-ing and ah-ing over their moistness, their denseness, their fudgy-ness.  I followed the directions on the box faithfully, and my brownies were a crumbly, dried-out, crusty-edged mess.  They were inadequately delicious. 

Then one day I decided that I would not be a victim of inadequately delicious brownies.  In the great dessert crisis of our time, I could no longer remain passive.  Never again would I withdraw from the oven a pan of sad, flat, dried-out brownies.  It was time to fight back. 

First I undertook a meditation on my brownie priorities.  After reflection, I concluded that a good brownie is very moist; very thick; and almost raw in the very center.  (I understand that there are people who prefer the crustier "edge" brownies, and I try not to let it disturb me.) 

Then I made a searching and fearless culinary inventory of my errors to date.  I had baked the brownies in a pan roughly similar to that described on the package.  I had used a standard Teflon-coated metal pan, as I believed other home bakers did.  I had attempted to decrease the baking time in order to make the brownies more moist, and ended up with slop.  I had failed.  And the definition of insanity would be to continue these efforts and hope for a spontaneously improved result. 

I extended my reflections to baking triumphs and losses past.  In one memorable experiment in my teen years, I had decided that chocolate and peanut butter cookies would be the best kind of cookie, and the rest of the world must simply have overlooked that fact until I came on the scene.  So I found a chocolate cookie recipe in one of my mother's cookbooks, and added what I considered to be a suitable amount of peanut butter.  She came along when I'd got them in the oven, and politely inquired as to my methods.  She did not have a particular talent for allowing her children to learn from their mistakes; but in this case she employed the Socratic method masterfully, encouraging me to spell out what I did and didn't change from the recipe, and what I expected to happen.  I was very proud of my restraint: I had only added peanut butter.  She opined that I should therefore have subtracted almost an equal amount of margarine; otherwise, the cookie would never bake at all.  I professed this to be absolute nonsense - I had never witnessed a cookie that would never bake; perhaps the time would simply be longer - and I didn't believe in this fairy-tale unbakeable cookie. 

I probably don't have to tell you that my mother was right.  I was a stubborn child, and I finally gave in at about four times the recommended baking time.  At that point the cookies were still liquid - but as soon as they cooled they fused with the pan.  We spent the next several days chipping off shards of them with a butter knife for a snack (we were poor children, and not likely to turn down sweets, even if in a peculiar form), and I'm not sure my mother was ever able to use that cookie sheet again. 

There are several lessons here, but for purposes of brownie wisdom, the important one is that if you increase the amount of fat in a baked good, it takes longer to set; if you decrease the fat, it sets faster. 

My major problem was that by the time I had gotten the brownies to set (no longer leave streaks on a cake tester), they were overcooked. 

Another factor I knew would be relevant was the amount of water in the recipe.  Even if the amount of oil was decreased to allow the batter to finish baking faster, excess water would leave it soupy.  If I wanted to shorten the baking time, I was going to have to decrease the water too. 

Finally, my brownies were too flat.  The simplest explanation was that I was using a pan of too large a surface area, and I decided to try fixing that first. 

And, thus fortified by the fruits of my reflections, I embarked fearlessly on the Great Brownie Experiments.  I attempted various alterations of the oil and water levels.  I tried a few different pans.  I altered the cooking time and, on one occasion, the temperature.  I went through at least four ovens, though that is another story.  I even tried different brands of boxed brownies, because obviously, the most important factor in selecting a brownie mix is which one is on sale. 

I have arrived at what I consider to be the basic commandments of perfect box brownies; this was not a short or an easy road, but it is my obligation for the good of humanity to share the fruits of my journey with you here, that you may be spared some of this hardship yourself.  Your strength may then be devoted to other challenges, that the cause of the race may be advanced.  You're welcome. 

For perfect box brownies:
  1. Betty Crocker makes an excellent mix, but Pillsbury's is slightly better.  Duncan Hines's is inferior, and Ghirardelli is useless (I bought that one once because of the beautiful picture, and it didn't turn out.  Never again). 
  2. The only acceptable mix is the dark chocolate/fudge/darkest-and-richest-flavor as described by the particular brand.  The milk chocolate is inferior and shall not be used. 
  3. The classic large-sized clear glass Pyrex pan is the correct baking vessel for two full recipes (i.e., two boxes and attendant eggs, oil, and water).  For a single recipe, the correct baking vessel is the large circular "French white" Corningware baking dish with the tuxedo stripes that everyone who got married in the last decade or so registered for as part of a baking-dish-set (and I note that when you receive this set you should immediately open it and check that all the provided lids are the correct sizes, because they frequently aren't). 
  4. It is not necessary to oil the baking dish.  If the brownies are adequately moist they will be easy to remove.  Any residue that is not eaten by you with a fork the next day can be soaked in water briefly and then very easily removed with a sponge.  Also, Teflon is the devil. 
  5. The other reason not to oil the baking dish is because you can mix the entire recipe in the baking dish with a fork (you then lick off the excess from the fork, wash the fork, and use it to test for doneness after baking).  This takes box brownies from "very easy" to "embarrassingly easy."   
  6. Do not add an extra egg in hopes that the directions on the box offer an attractive alternative.  I don't know what "cakey brownies" is supposed to mean.  It should just say "bad brownies." 
  7. To get the correct texture, you do not need to change the oven temperature from that which is recommended.  (Using the "convect bake" option on a convection oven also doesn't require you to change the temperature, although I think my oven is sneakily doing that behind my back.)  You need to short the oil by about 10% (just eyeball this) and the water by about 20% (also eyeballed). 
  8. You do need to short the cooking time.  If your oven is accurate or cool, set the timer for five minutes before the shortest time listed on the box.  (If your oven is over-hot, make whatever time adjustment you usually need to, and then subtract an additional five minutes.)  Test with a fork every two minutes starting at the alarm.  Remove from the oven when the fork is almost but not quite clean of brownie. 
This precious knowledge forms the foundation of a competent home-baking enterprise. 

And I must make one final note on the superiority of box brownies as opposed to non-box brownies.  It's like Aquinas's view on the best form of government: scratch brownies are the best form of brownies when the recipe is exceptionally virtuous, and the worst form of brownies when the recipe is bad.  And the recipe is not good most of the time: most scratch brownies are not nearly chocolate-y enough. 

I have identified one exception to this (there may well be others).  After eating the surpassingly delicious brownie at Le Pain Quotidien, I was convinced I had found the key to a scratch brownie recipe that would actually be better than the box mix.  I just had to find the recipe that Le Pain uses.  (No problem, right?)  I found one on the internet that professed to be said recipe, and it is, indeed, as magical as Le Pain's.  It is, therefore, better than box brownies.  But the ingredients are also more costly; the process is far more involved (if only because box brownies are so extremely easy); and the finished product is somewhat fragile and difficult to serve.  So for those occasions when one needs an even-better brownie, I make that recipe.  For all other brownie-warranting occasions, the not-quite-best box brownie, executed perfectly (as described above), is in fact the perfect brownie. 


  1. Thank you for this wonderful and very timely post. On Friday afternoon, I pulled out a box of brownies before I had seen this post and I am glad I didn't get around to making them, as I would probably committed the same sins (in terms of brownie making) I have been committing all along. I am now ready (it is Sunday afternoon) to take on this challenge and will report back. I am starting with a Betty Crocker Dark Chocolate Fudge Brownie Mix but it is the 13X9 family size…so we shall see. I do have two boxes, so if this comes out to thin, I may have to take your advice on the next batch and use one of the tuxedo round baking vessels (yes, I do have one!).

    One thing that I have been doing lately is spreading a thin layer of carmel sauce (the ice cream topping kind) over the warm brownie pan. My husband and I both like that addition and it keeps them moist. Messy, but good. And if I am feeling really adventurous (**sarcasm**) because me and adventure when it comes to cooking is kind of a joke…I don't usually stray far from the tried and true. Ahem…anyway, sometimes I may add a tiny dash of sea salt over the top. You know, because that ol' salted carmel / chocolate thing hasn't been done to death, but I do like it!!

    1. I omitted something important! All of my references to "one box" are to the family-sized box, so that is definitely not too big. I don't really see the point of a small box of brownie mix :).

    2. Also: I am going to try that caramel sauce idea the next time I make brownies. It's a bad "perfection" that can't be improved!