If you pay close attention to your Twitter feed, you may have noticed that many moons ago, CV(D) tweeted at me. Which is a normal enough occurrence, until you consider the subject matter: brownies. More specifically, Real Simple’s Best Brownie Mixes. She knew that once she opened this little can of worms, I wouldn’t stop till I did some investigation of my own.
We did an informal comparison of my own favorite mix and one of the ones on the list, but her husband was the first to point out that this task was nowhere near complete, nor would it be until we had made and consumed each of these brownies, in true taste test fashion, which is to say, in the same sitting. So time passed, as it tends to do, and the plan grew (as it tends to do when the kitchen and I are involved).
During a recent purge of old cooking magazines, I came across another, similar list, this time from Cook’s Country. But this list had seven kinds of brownie mixes, instead of four.
You know how The Barefoot Contessa always calls for good olive oil, or good mustard, or good whatever in a recipe? I remember an old episode of the show where Ina explains exactly how she discerns good ingredients from regular ingredients. I want to say it was the episode where she makes Italian Wedding Soup because that involves chicken sausage and I know she used that as her example. But it seems it’s cut out here. Ahem, as I was saying. To determine what is good chicken sausage and what is simply, chicken sausage, Ina runs to the grocery store (which I can’t really picture), and picks up everything the store offers. She invites some friends over, cooks everything up, and they decide once and for all which they like.
So we did that, but with brownie mixes. I got as many boxes as I could from Cook’s Country’s list (which overlapped with Real Simple), and made a couple substitutions where necessary. The list was published in 2009, so some of the mixes weren’t available, and some were the same, but have different names now. I brought the list of mixes with me each time I went shopping, and gradually amassed all I needed. As soon as I brought each home, I stuck a (different) piece of washi tape on the bottom of each box, and a corresponding piece on each baking pan. I baked two boxes worth of brownies two days before the event, and baked four boxes on Brownie Taste Test Eve. And yes, I temporarily removed the tape while the pans were in the oven. The night before my friends arrived, I spent an hour watching the Olympics and, inspired by this post from The Kitchn, making washi tape testing flags. The flags were key, so we would nibble away at each bite, without being swayed by whichever brand was behind it.
The contenders (in the order Cook’s Country recommends):
Ghirardelli Chocolate Supreme Brownie Mix
Barefoot Contessa Outrageous Brownie Mix These don’t exist anymore, which I find quite tragic. But I’ve made them from scratch and they truly are outrageous. They are deeply and divinely chocolatey.
Pillsbury Chocolate Fudge Brownies (not exactly what Cook’s Country called for, but the closest in name I could find)
Betty Crocker Ultimate Fudge Brownie Mix
Duncan Hines Chewy Fudge Brownies
King Arthur Flour (gluten free) Brownie Mix (I couldn’t get the regular mix King Arthur sells currently shipped to me in time, but I found their gluten free mix in the aisles at Target. Good enough.)
Cherrybrook Kitchens Fudge Brownie Mix with Chocolate Chips
The results: We couldn’t decide. Everyone liked something different. So here are my notes, in order of my favorite, to least favorite.
Pillsbury (yellow washi with white dots): Loved these, but they were also the least well-done of all the brownies. And I’m a sucker for what I like to call, “salmonella brownies.” I want practically raw. So I’m declaring them my favorite, while also not being completely sure. They didn’t taste quite as sweet as the others, which I enjoyed.
Duncan Hines (white washi with gold dots): These were in almost everyone’s top half. They were my runner up, but I wonder if my judgement is clouded by my past. Queen Cupcake relied heavily on these while we were growing up, so they’re tied to some good memories.
King Arthur Flour (navy washi with white polka dots): Surprisingly, these gluten-free squares made the top half of many of our lists. I recognized the texture as being gluten free right away, but I bake a lot. Not everyone could tell. These were also darker and richer than the other brownies, which I loved. I want to get my hands on King Arthur’s gluten-filled brownies, because I imagine they’d be the best in the land.
Betty Crocker and Ghirardelli (small flowered washi and large flowered washi, respectively): I’m putting these two together because I couldn’t tell a difference between them. Which surprised me, because I thought my refined palate would go for Ghirardelli. I’ve made a different Ghirardelli box before and loved it. And doesn’t everyone rave about Ghirardelli box-mix brownies? These both tasted cloyingly sweet, even for a box mix, and interestingly enough, both involved a chocolate syrup packet being whisked in. They were middle of the road brownies for almost all of us.
Cherrybrook Kitchen (solid blue washi): Real Simple touted these as the ones that tasted most like homemade, but none of the ladies chose this as our favorite. In fact, it was exactly the opposite for most of us. If this had been packaged as cake, I might have been more willing to consider it a contender. But it was too sponge-y to be a brownie. Worth noting is that my own and CV(D)’s husbands ranked this as #2. So perhaps if you haven’t the time to make Man-Catchers, these will work in their stead.
Dear readers, the evening was a rip-roaring success, and it left us asking, “What do we taste-test next?” Suggestions welcome.