Don't get boxed in.

By Stacey Ballis
March 25, 2019
Photo: Aaron Kirk; Prop Styling: Heather Chadduck; Food Styling: Pam Lolley

There is a reason that brownies are one of the first foods many young bakers learn to make.

It’s because there are tasty boxed mixes that turn the project into a one-bowl, one-pan project that a four-year-old of moderate intelligence and motor coordination could handle. Maybe mom would need to read the numbers on the oven temp, and handle the hot stuff, but let’s be real, dumping eggs, water and oil into a bag of powder and stirring is a very kid-friendly project.

WATCH: How to Make Waffled Cookie Brownies

Even when it’s time to graduate to higher level measuring and from-scratch techniques, brownies are a simple classic for a reason. They are super easy, can come together from basic pantry and fridge staples, and have that wonderful bit of instant gratification built in. You can go from “I’d like brownies” to “Brownies in my face hole!” in about an hour, and not even be risking burning your mouth.

And while recipes tend to vary slightly from one to another, the basics are usually the same.

Photo: Oxmoor House

The Basics

Melt butter and chocolate together to a smooth liquid, and then add your sugar. Brownies differ from cakes and cookies in that the butter is melted instead of creamed. This helps give you that fudgy dense texture, since there is no air incorporated the way it is during the creaming process. The sugar blends easily into the chocolate butter mixture and will begin to dissolve.

Beat eggs and add them to the slightly cooled chocolate mixture. The eggs are your main leavening for these bars but are still part of the liquid of this recipe, so are added to the chocolate mixture. This is usually followed by some vanilla extract.

The dry ingredients are then measured into a separate bowl, and mixed well, before getting added to the wet ingredients. While fudgier recipes tend to just have flour and salt in the dry mixture, cakier brownies might include a bit of baking soda or baking powder.

Once the wet and dry have been combined, the batter, often very thick, is spread into a greased pan and baked in a moderately hot, usually 350- to 400-degree, oven until done.

Get the recipe: Best Fudgy Brownies

Photo: Jonny Valiant; Styling: Kate Parisian

The Mix-Ins

Brownies, for some, are a purists delight: no mix-ins, toppings, or frostings needed, just a basic block of chocolatey heaven. For others, brownies are a palette upon which to display their wild creativity, stirring in nuts, crispy cereals, dried fruit, or chopped candies. Swirling in nut butters or sticky fruit swirls or cheesecake batter. Topping with caramel or toasted marshmallow or thick frosting. Adding a bit of malt powder to the batter. It’s all fair game.

Get the recipe: Coconut-Macadamia Brownies

My 4 best tips to keep your brownie game on point

  1. Use the best quality chocolate you can buy. It is the main flavor, so make it count. For recipes that call for unsweetened or baking chocolate, I use Guittard baking blocks. They come in wrapped 2-ounce slabs for easy portioning. For recipes that call for bittersweet or semi-sweet I usually use Callebaut if I can get it, Lindt or Ghiradelli if I cannot. If your recipe calls for cocoa powder, try Valrhona or Droste. 
  2. I always add a teaspoon of instant espresso powder to the dry ingredients. The coffee flavor doesn’t come through, it just amps up the chocolate. 
  3. If I am going to mix-in anything, from chocolate chips to nuts, I toss them in a small amount of cocoa powder before I stir them in. This acts as kind of a glue that helps keep them suspended in the batter so they don’t sink to the bottom. (For muffins and cakes that aren’t chocolate, I use flour for this but I don’t want any white streaks in my brownies. Ditto for dusting pans for chocolate cakes.) 
  4. I always salt the top of the batter just before baking with a light flourish of sea salt. Not heavy flaky salt, and not a lot, maybe 1/8 teaspoon over the pan. It just gives that little hit of salt to your palate before the sweet chocolate settles in and makes a world of difference.

Whether you are making your aunt’s famous recipe, or our Guinness Brownies With Irish Whiskey Frosting, go forth and brownie!

Photo: Gina DeSimone; Prop Styling: Kashara Johnson; Food Styling: Karen Rankin
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