This might sound funny but…
I’ve never made a batch of brownies from scratch that could compete with the ones I’d bake as a kid, the box mix kind that call for two or three eggs and some hydrogenated oil and maybe even a “chocolate flavor packet” if you feel like getting fancy. For a significant portion of my adult life, when the bake sale required brownies, I’d deliver a from-scratch Alice Medrich batch, only to watch the kids bypass my sea-salt-sprinkled beauties for the crinkly-topped box kind with its (somehow delicious) artificial aftertaste. These kids are no dummies.
Eventually, I accepted the fact that no homemade brownie — no matter how artisanal or cheffy — would ever win in the fight against nostalgia. A realization, of course, which begged a very important question: Which supermarket box mix brownie is best?
We turned to an expert to make the call. When we found out that Chocolate For Basil‘s Jerrelle Guy was swinging through town from Dallas for the James Beard Awards (her awesome book Black Girl Baking was nominated), we jumped on it and organized a box mix brownie taste test.
Not surprisingly, Jerrelle, who describes herself as a “hypersensitive baker” in her book, has a very specific idea of what makes the ideal brownie: “It has to have a sturdy edge and be fudgy in the middle,” she told me, while surveying the array of baked goods before her. “In a perfect world, my ideal brownie is warm, and I’m an edge girl, so a double-edge brownie is going to always have a leg up.” What about chips? I ask. “No chips or anything else!” she said, as though I’d suggested arsenic. A purist! Just as we figured.
Jerrelle tested five of the most widely available brands: Duncan Hines, Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, Whole Foods and Ghirardelli. Almost all of these brands have a line of brownie mixes — Fudgy, Chewy, Cakey, Milk Chocolate, Dark Chocolate, Double Chocolate, Triple Chocolate, Chocolate Supreme, you get the idea — so to keep things as straightforward as possible, we decided to test their “Chocolate Fudge” versions. All were baked according to package directions, which for the most part was in a butter-greased 9-by-9-inch dark-coated baking pan at 325°F.
Like all of our taste tests, this one was blind — Jerelle didn’t know which brand she was trying. Between each bite, she cleansed her palate with a few sips of oat milk.
As she chewed and analyzed, I asked her to report on the following factors: texture (was it dry? fudgy? cakey?); crinkliness (obviously what it looks like on top is a huge consideration); and flavor (was the chocolate authentic or artificial tasting, keeping in mind, one might not necessarily be better than the other?). Finally, as I played stenographer in the corner of the kitchen, I asked her to give an overall score, from 1 to 5 (5 being the best).
#1: Pillsbury Chocolate Fudge (The Winner!)
Score: 5 out of 5 points
“This one wins,” Jerrelle said definitively as soon as she took a bite of the Pillsbury. It was the last one in the lineup, and it followed Duncan Hines, which was her childhood favorite (“I always remember Duncan Hines as the special one, the fancy one”), so this news was no small thing. “The flavor is better than all of them,” she reported. “The chocolate has a nice roundness. And it’s soft chewy, not dense chewy.” As for the crucial texture on top: “I like that the top is thin and crackly, but that I still get a chewiness,” she said, closing her eyes. “Which is really an accomplishment. I’ve gotta give it a 5.” Wow.
#2: Duncan Hines Chewy Fudge Brownies
Score: 4.5 out of 5 points
You could see all kinds of synapses lighting in her brain when she took a bite. “Oh, this one is nice! Tastes almost buttery to me.” (Note to reader: Definitely no butter.) “Something special about this one,” she reported, clearly tapping into something sentimental. “I give it a 4.5.” (So close!)
As for the rest of them?
#3: Ghirardelli, the most expensive brand, still scored well — 4 out of 5. “My mom likes her brownies cakey, and she’d really like these,” she said. “You can tell it would be good with ice cream.”
#4: The Whole Foods’ brand (scoring a 3.5) was a little too cakey. Still, Jerrelle appreciated the richness of the flavor, which reminded her of a strategy she uses in her own kitchen. “I add espresso to my chocolate baked goods,” she said, which enhances the flavor. (Pro tip! And no, this doesn’t make her chocolate taste like coffee.)
#5: Lastly, Betty Crocker scored the lowest — a highly specific 2.9 — because she thought they tasted “chemically.”
What was most interesting about the experiment was how many helpers came out of the woodwork to assist with the taste testing. (Shown above: Sadie, who lives in the home where we held the photo shoot; and Eric, Jerrelle’s boyfriend.) Can you blame them?
Thank you so much Jerrelle! We love your book! For more Jerrelle, you can follow her on instagram.
P.S. Two more taste tests: ice-cream sandwiches and jarred pasta sauce. And homemade brownies recipes: salted caramel brownies and brownies with buttermilk frosting.
(Photos by Christine Han for Cup of Jo.)