A brownie is a dessert that doesn’t require a lot of advance planning. Cakes, breads, cinnamon buns—these are all things you spend your week daydreaming about, ordering special ingredients for, and organizing your weekend around. Brownies, on the other hand, usually get made when someone says, “You know, I could really go for a brownie right now.” I’m a professional baker, and you’ll still find a box or two of brownie mix somewhere in my cupboard, just for emergencies. While they are certainly convenient, all boxed mixes are not created equal. Which is most worthy of your time, effort, and appetite? To find out, I devoured six pans of brownies made from mixes commonly found at most supermarkets.
I was joined by three guest judges: my husband, Matt, and our two sons, aged 11 and 13. To ensure that the brownies would taste exactly as they would in the average American kitchen, I removed my expertise from the equation and recruited my 13-year-old, who is a cooking novice, to bake each batch. He made every mix in a 9" square pan exactly as instructed by the box, opting for fudgy brownies over the cakey kind.
Each pan was assigned a random number, and the four of us judged each pan blindly, accompanied only by a glass of milk. After evaluating each brownie for flavor and texture, we each ranked our choices from 1 to 6. We then added all of our rankings together, with the lowest score winning. (The worst possible score is 24, while the best possible score is a 4.) Here are the losers and winners, in ascending order of tastiness.
Duncan Hines Milk Chocolate (23 points)
Over the past few years I’ve fallen in love with milk chocolate again, thanks to the quality European-style bars that can be easily purchased at Aldi or Lidl. I had high hopes for this milk chocolate brownie mix, but sadly, it was a reminder of why exactly I had fallen out of love with milk chocolate in the first place: American companies, for some reason, believe that the lower the cocoa content is, the higher the sugar content should be. This brownie physically hurt my mouth because of the sweetness and made we want to suck all my teeth down my throat for their protection. After sugar, the next dominant flavor was (possibly highly artificial) vanilla extract, or some other artificial flavoring that has no counterpart in the natural world. The texture reminded me of those times back in middle school when I’d buy myself a Little Debbie fudge brownie, throw it in my backpack, and then forget about it until it had been so jostled by my textbooks that it was nothing more than a cellophane package full of compact goo. It as not as pleasant as I found it to be in sixth grade.
Betty Crocker Milk Chocolate (19 points)
This is better than the Duncan Hines milk chocolate offering, but not by much. Betty Crocker Milk Chocolate Brownies also taste mostly of sugar, though unlike the previous entry on this list, you can make out some defined cocoa flavor if you concentrate. I’m concentrating because I have to, but when the average person eats a batch of homemade brownies, they shouldn’t need to focus so hard to detect chocolate. It’s a treat that should be free of mental gymnastics; as such, I choose not to waste any more time trying to pinpoint all the ways these milk chocolate brownies have disappointed me.
Duncan Hines Chewy Fudge (18 points)
Good news: These don’t taste as strongly of sugar and artificial flavoring as Duncan Hines Milk Chocolate brownies. Bad news: They don’t really taste very strongly of anything. When I eat a brownie—a fudge brownie at that—I want to be bombarded with luxury. I want to know that every single calorie I put into my body is worth it, and those calories had better taste like chocolate and more chocolate. This looks like a brownie and feels like a brownie, but when eating it, all I could think was, “meh, I’ve had better.”
Pillsbury Chocolate Fudge (9 points)
Though Pillsbury comes in third on this list, I must stress that it is exponentially better than the fourth-place brownie. In fact, this brownie is so much better than the bottom three brownies in the taste test that it’s almost unfair to put them on the same list at all. The true brownie ranking begins now; all previous brownies can just be considered “brownie-flavored product.”
In my taste-testing notebook, the only note I wrote next to Pillsbury (a.k.a. Mystery Brownie #1) was: “It tastes like a bake sale.” This might not be the haute, intensely rich brownie you’d enjoy from your local bakery or a scratch-made recipe—in fact, it’s pretty obvious that this brownie comes from a boxed mix. Is there anything wrong with this? Absolutely not! This is exactly the thing you’re hoping for when you hear that the drama club is selling baked goods in the lunchroom so they can buy a giant French flag for the spring production of Les Miz. Pillsbury’s brownies are just a tad too sweet for my palate, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying them, because it’s the sort of thing you’d gladly spoil your dinner with on the ride home from school.
Ghirardelli Double Chocolate (8 points)
There was a generational divide between our top two brownies. My husband and I, with our sophisticated adult palates, chose this brownie as our top pick, and I highly recommend this for someone who is looking for an outstanding boxed brownie without a whiff of nostalgia.
After forcing myself to eat multiple brownies that tasted almost entirely of sugar, tasting one whose most dominant flavor was (gasp!) cocoa was revelatory. The sugar is well incorporated in this mix: it is a supporting player that adds just enough sweetness to balance the naturally bitter cocoa without overwhelming it. The end result is a near-perfect level of semisweetness, falling right into the Goldilocks zone that will please milk chocolate and dark chocolate lovers alike. The texture was also a good balance, falling right smack in the center between cakey and fudgy, studded with chocolate chunks. While its virtues are many, I found the most remarkable characteristic of this brownie to be its ability to satiate; it took only one brownie to leave me perfectly content. One, two, and three days after the initial taste test, these brownies became slightly dryer with each passing day, but they remained phenomenal.
Betty Crocker Fudge (7 points)
It takes only a single bite to identify this brownie as the snacktopian ideal that burns bright in the imagination of every American child. This is the brownie we had at classroom birthday parties, at playdates and sleepovers, at Grandma’s house on the weekends. It is the Apex Brownie that every other recipe, knowingly or not, aspires to be. One of our younger judges gave it perfect marks, and it missed the top spot on everyone else’s scoring sheets by a single point, on account of being just a teeny, tiny bit too sweet. Though that same sweetness doomed most other competitors in this taste test, the extra bit of sugar here is what transforms this brownie from a baked good into a time machine. Unlike Ghirardelli’s entry, this is not a brownie that you will be able to eat over the course of a few days. This a pan of brownies that you leave on the counter with an announcement to one and all that they may each have a small piece after dinner—then you find they’ve all mysteriously disappeared when you sneak downstairs for one at 3 a.m. When you find yourself dreaming about brownies, this is the one you’re dreaming of.