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Food Faceoff: Homemade vs. Boxed Brownies

One of my big pet peeves is the general population’s reliance on boxed cake, brownie, and cookie mixes. I just don’t see why people settle for these and why the prevailing school of thought is that it’s so much harder to pull together a dessert from scratch.

So to disprove the haters, I decided to do a head-to-head test of my favorite homemade brownie recipe (a very easy one; no chopping chocolate involved) and what I consider to be a decent-tasting boxed mix, Cherrybrook Kitchen’s Fudge Brownie Mix with Chocolate Chips.

First up: the Cherrybrook Kitchen box, in addition to the mix, called for:

  • 1/3 cup melted butter
  • 3/4 cup cold water
  • 2 tsp vegetable oil

It took me 2 minutes to melt the butter—this would have been quicker and easier if I had known exactly how many tablespoons of butter melted down to 1/3 cup, but I had to keep chunking butter and melting in the microwave until I got the right amount (it’s about 5 tablespoons, for future reference).

It took another 5 minutes to stir all the ingredients together, and another 5 minutes for the oven to heat up to 350 degrees. Although the package said it would take 16-18 minutes to get a cakey brownie, it took 20 minutes with the homemade brownies baking alongside.
Total time: 32 minutes

Next, the homemade brownies:
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Fudge Brownies

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
Makes 1 9-inch pan of brownies
adapted from the Best Cocoa Brownies recipe in Bittersweet by Alice Medrich

Ingredients:

  • 10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour

Method:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

double boiler for browniesMake an ad hoc double boiler by bringing a small pan of water to a simmer.

Place the butter, sugar, cocoa powder, and salt in a heatproof bowl while the water heats.

Set the bowl over the simmering water and stir occasionally for another 5 minutes until the butter melts and the mixture becomes warm and shiny but still a little granular.

Remove the bowl from the heat, stir in the vanilla, then the eggs one at a time. Add the flour and beat well for about 30 seconds until just incorporated.

Bake for 20-25 minutes.

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Note that for both recipes, I used a greased and floured 9-inch square glass pan and did the toothpick test, removing the brownies from the oven when a toothpick inserted into the center of the pan came out with moist cakey chunks on it.

homemade on the left, boxed on the right
homemade on the left, boxed on the right

Final verdict:
In a shocking conclusion, the mix brownies were overwhelmingly embraced by all and even I will admit that they were actually very, very good. The homemade recipe was intensely fudge-like and smooth, almost like a flourless chocolate cake, while the boxed mix was cakier and really did benefit from the inclusion of chocolate chips. The general consensus was neck and neck, but some were turned off by the homemade brownie’s richness.

After a few days (hey, I’ve been testing them on various friends and co-workers!), the homemade brownies started to get a little stale, but creepily enough, the boxed mix still tasted fresh. I don’t know if this is a pro or a con, to be honest.

I’ll definitely continue to make the homemade recipe if I need a base for a brownie sundae or am craving the fudgy texture over cakey, and being me, I’ll also try out a few more homemade brownie recipes for the hell of it. However, if you can’t abide baking (ahem, Danielle), it’s probably worth it to find a smaller purveyor’s boxed mix. You won’t save that much time by doing so, but you won’t lose that much in taste either.

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7 Comments

  1. I’ve never heard of a box mix that called for butter! I have a sneaking suspicion that’s why they tasted so good. I made a Trader Joe’s gluten free brownie mix last Sunday and it tasted like natural chemicals. So, I have a feeling I will be buying a brownie today.

    1. I need to check the ingredient list again but I don’t remember any specific weirdly chemical ingredients – that’s part of the reason why I picked that brand, to keep things on the same “natural” playing field. Still, you have to wonder…

  2. I’m with Danielle, not all were born to bake! As for the brownies, both sound good so where do I buy that mix?

  3. I’ve never had a homemade brownie that was better than a commercial brownie. I love my Betty Crocker’s boxed brownies. The Starbucks espresso brownies come in a close second. After that there is a huge drop off in quality and I’m not interested in them… Ghirardelli’s are really particularly horrible

  4. Being a scientist and an avid baker, I have to point out that you can’t really compare a boxed recipe that contains both cocoa and chocolate with a scratch recipe that only contains cocoa.

    At the very least you should do this again and add chocolate chips to your scratch recipe, but I think you’ll get even better results if you use a good quality dark chocolate, break it into chunks and melt it in the microwave with the butter on top, stirring every 30 seconds or so.

    :)

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