brownie bake-off

Todd claims he is an equal-opportunity brownie eater – he’ll unquestionably devour any brownie that crosses his plate. As a result, we’ve collected a lot of brownie recipes over the years, primarily from Scharffen Berger Essence of Chocolate Recipes and Cooks’ Illustrated.

A few date nights ago, Todd and I made a deal that if I measured and set out all of the ingredients, we’d do the ultimate brownie bake-off and for once, determine the best brownie recipe. There were six recipes in total including:

* Scharffen Berger New Classic Brownies
* Scharffen Berger Cakey Brownies (cookbook only)
* Scharffen Berger Robert’s Fudgy Brownies
* Scharffen Berger John’s Favorite Brownies
* Cooks Illustrated Chewy Brownies (March 2010)
* Cooks Illustrated Chewy, Fudgy, Triple Chocolate Brownies (May 2000)

We used Valrhona for the cocoa powder, 70% Scharffen Berger for the chocolate (unless otherwise specified), weighed every ingredient to the gram, double-checked our internal oven thermometer, and omitted all optional nuts to ensure the most fair home kitchen comparison as possible. After doing a taste test that evening, I took the remaining brownies to Meebo where my teams provided their own comments. Here’s a quick summary of the feedback and relative ordering.

1. Robert’s Fudgy Brownie (8 oz chocolate, 3/4 c + 2 tb sugar):
“Tastes the most chocolate-y and moist. This definitely shows off the chocolate but could use more salt.”
“I like fudgy and this one is really good. Chocolate is slightly acidic. My favorite.”
“Favorite, top crust and moist but not too much.”

2. John’s Favorite Brownie (6 oz chocolate, 1 1/2 c sugar):
“Cake’y topping. Nice texture but not as chocolate’y.”
“Moderate chocolate, it tasted like a faint but very dark chocolate. It’s good, I quite like it.”
“Best texture. Good chocolate flavor.”

3. New Classic Brownies (4 oz 99% chocolate, 1 1/4 c sugar):
“Doughy and solidly chocolate though not very complex.”
“Fine texture but weird chocolate taste.”

4. Cooks Illustrated Chewy Brownies (6 oz chocolate, 1/3 c cocoa, 2 oz unsweetened chocolate, 1 1/2 tsp instant espresso, 2 1/2 c sugar):
“A really good brownie but I can taste the oil and feel the greasiness. This tastes like a box mix but I’m not sure that’s a good thing.”

5. Scharffen Berger Cakey Brownies (4 oz chocolate, 1/3 c cocoa powder, 1 c sugar):
“Light but bland.”
“Too dry but nice crumbly top.”

6. Cooks Illustrated Chewy, Fudgy, Triple Chocolate Brownies (5 oz semisweet, 2 oz unsweetened, 3 tb cocoa powder, 1 1/4 c sugar):
“It’s moist but chalk-y tasting. My least favorite.”

Final Comments

I don’t think it’s coincidence that the favorite recipe, Robert Steinberg’s Fudgy Brownie, was the one with the most chocolate (a full 8 oz bar). The more the recipe depended upon cocoa powder, the more likely it was to sink to the bottom. John’s Favorite Brownie was a close second place and a few actually preferred it to Robert’s Fudgy Brownie.

The other recipes were good but not great. The New Classic Recipe prides itself on an amazing texture by using high heat and then an ice bath. After going through the trouble, I wouldn’t bother again. The textures in other recipes were comparable or better. Also, the 99% chocolate is going to be harder to purchase and I thought it left some off flavors.

The Scharffen Berger Cakey recipe had a beautiful, crackly top. However, that is where its charm ended. The taste was bland. One taster at Meebo said they tasted leavener and though the recipe uses egg whites for leavening (there’s no baking soda or powder), I agree that the cocoa powder gave a chalkier taste.

The Cooks Illustrated recipes’ baking times were off. I used the suggested recipe times for a fair comparison. However, I’ve made the Triple, Chewy, Fudgy Cooks Illustrated recipe before and when I have, I’ve added a few minutes more than specified and have had better texture (though not flavor) results. The Chewy Brownie recipe was new and I didn’t know to leave it in a bit longer. Both Cooks Illustrated recipes were needlessly complex – combining three different types of chocolate (semisweet, bittersweet, and cocoa powder) is not going to lead to a superior flavor (chocolate is chocolate) and is more likely to introduce variation in home kitchens.

Finally, they are all good recipes. For years, Todd’s go-to brownie recipe has been the Cooks Illustrated Chewy, Fudgy, Triple Chocolate recipe. We were primarily looking for the recipe that would show off great chocolate (more on that later) and John and Robert’s recipes seemed to do that the best. However, if you are looking for a cakey, chewy recipe, I don’t think any of these recipes would qualify.

In case anyone is inspired to do their own bake-off, I came across this amazing cookie tasting taxonomy today in Sensory Evaluation of Food: Principles and Practices by Harry T. Lawless, Hildegarde Heymann. It was a bit too late for my brownie bake-off but hopefully someone else will find it useful! – Elaine

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