Brownies are like perfect vacations; they mean different things to different people – and, as with destinations, there are countless variations on the brownie theme.
Brownie adherents have their favorites: fudgy, gooey, dense, cakey, all edge, with nuts, never in the same room as nuts, made with cocoa, made with couverture chocolate, frosted, crisp, chewy. To get what you want, you have to know how to get there. See? Just like vacations.
Texture’s a great starting point. Fitting their names, fudgy brownies are moist, with full-frontal chocolate and a texture somewhere between fudge and cake. Gooey ones all but melt away, leaving a fabulously fatty chocolate memory in the mouth. Dense and chocolatey, chewy brownies bring resistance to the conversation. Cakey brownies are fluffy, and they sometimes come with frosting — a horror to some brownie aficionados, and a source of sweet delight to others.
An asset to frosting: because it isn’t baked, you can add booze to it, turning your batch of brownies into an adults-only affair.
You know what you want. How do you get there?
Chill your batter. This isn’t only summertime advice. In Bittersweet: Recipes and Tales from a Life in Chocolate, Alice Medrich advocates setting your batter-filled pan in the refrigerator for a few days. This will improve the texture – the same way it does when you chill dough for scones–and give flavors time to blend (as with stews, so with brownies).
“Using chocolate will give you a melt-in-your mouth, fudgier brownies,” says Miro Uskokovic of Gramercy Tavern, “while cocoa powder will give you a chewier, cakier brownie.” Uskokovic likes his brownies crisp on the outside and gooey in the middle. For him, “less flour is better. Use a cake flour, because that gives you a denser, gooier middle.” His final tip: “slightly underbake it.” If you bake it fully, then that gooiness in the middle will go away.
Kansas City pastry chef Nick Wesemann is another one for playing with textures. “A cakey brownie has a higher portion of eggs,” Wesemann says, “which extends the protein network.”
To hone your skills at changing recipes, Wesemann suggests finding a recipe you like and changing the mixing method. “For a fudgy brownie, melt your butter and chocolate together and add that to the whipped eggs and sugar. For a cakey brownie, cream the butter and sugar with a paddle for five to ten minutes, slowly add the eggs, and then finally add melted sugar and cooled chocolate.”
Either way, you’ll add the flour and other remaining ingredients at the end – but these changes in method, Wesemann says, “will allow you to create two types of brownie without the stress of wondering whether a newly created formula is going to fail.” In short, it’s a recipe for success — two ways.
To build a fudgier brownie, Wesemann suggests increasing the sugar. Both Wesemann and Uskokovic say that you can get a gooier brownie by changing from white sugar to brown. Remember, you don’t need to change everything. A shift in ratio — subbing brown sugar for some of the white — may deliver the results you crave.
Another easy way to bump up fudginess is to add an egg yolk. That will make the brownie richer, without adding oil. Don’t go overboard. Brownies should have some give. Keep it to one added yolk, and you’ll get a more substantial bite without making brownies as hard as overtime.
If you like your brownies on the dry side, then you can move that way and elevate your cocoa game with one ingredient change: black cocoa ($17.95 at Amazon; free shipping with Prime). Very low in fat, it has none of mass-market cocoa’s bitterness. Because it’s acid-free, it won’t react to baking soda. Look for recipes with baking powder instead – or sub just a little bit of black cocoa in a recipe. Your brownies will be darker and richer, with a warm, vanilla-like note.
Brownies are great for mix-ins. Uskokovic is a fan of chocolate chips. Ashley Dickson, pastry chef at Pondicheri in New York City, likes nuts. Dickson also adds cinnamon to her brownies — not enough to turn them into cinnamon brownies, but enough to brighten the flavors and make that next bite harder to resist.
Start testing for done-ness well before the recipe’s end time. Check again every five minutes. When you push the brownie with the flats of your fingers, it should feel set, and not wobbly. To make sure, test the batter. If you always have toothpicks around, you have the tool you need. If not, then buy a cake-tester. OXO makes one that won’t slip from your hand and land on the hot oven door – not that that’s ever happened to a baker. It’s $8.89 at Amazon, which is a bargain for something that will help you to achieve brownie perfection. You don’t want to see damp batter. When the pick comes out with a few crumbs, your brownies done.
Pan size matters. This may look obvious, but it’s a rookie mistake plenty of experienced home bakers make. If a recipe calls for an eight-inch pan, and you reach for a pan that’s thirteen-by-nine, then you’re going to have thinner, crisper brownies. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you love the ingredients in a recipe, but want a different texture, then changing the size of the pan may bring exactly the results you desire. Flatten your brownies, add edges, maximize thickness . . . Just know that you’re changing the recipe, and how.
On the subject of pans, don’t bake your brownies in glass. Glass’ heat-absorbing properties increase the likelihood that your brownies will burn. That’s never good news.
Fact of life: baked goods get sticky, especially when and where you don’t want them to – and chocolate chips seem to delight in adhering to pans. Make brownie removal smoother with parchment paper. It’s in every pastry kitchen. One try, and you’ll understand exactly why that’s so.
For those who like eating on the edge, Amazon offers not one, but two, edgy brownie pans. The Baker’s Edge ($35.95; free delivery with Prime) turns back and forth like a Friday night queue for a trendy nightclub. For easy carrying to parties, there’s a silicone lid ($15.95; free delivery with Prime). That comes with wedges, for making smaller recipes. (Who’d want to make a smaller batch? Freeze the extras, share them with family members, or use them to make new friends.) With holes and bends, the Bakelicious ($22.95; free delivery with Prime) turns out brownies with edges everywhere.
If you’re tough on gear, consider the My Brownie Pan. Made of heavy, dark, anti-rust stainless steel, this pan will help you make brownies that are crisp at the edge and tender at the heart – and it takes a beating ($15.99; free delivery with Amazon Prime).
Alice Medrich’s chewy, crisp-topped brownies make the most of cocoa powder. Smitten Kitchen’s adaptation is made with seven ingredients you’re likely to have in your kitchen (there go the excuses), with walnuts and pecans as options. Get the recipe.
Not all brownies are square. These vegan rounds have crusty tops and tender, almost melt-away centers. To up that ante, add chocolate chips and eat the brownies while they’re warm. Flax stands in for eggs – no weird, unpronounceable ingredients required. Get the recipe.
These fudgy buttermilk brownies have a hint of tartness in the batter and frosting. They pack enough richness to induce a very happy chocolate coma. Get the recipe.
David Liebowitz’s deep chocolate brownies get their density from black cocoa and dark brown sugar, and sophistication from espresso and flaky sea salt. These are brownies you could bring to the most elegant dinner party – or cheerfully keep to yourself for an offline weekend at home. Get the recipe.
Move from gooey to oozy, and add a complementary flavor. These brownies have a horizontal layer of creamy caramel. You’ll get crisp, rich, and delightfully messy in every bite. Get the recipe.
Going grain-free doesn’t mean missing out. Drizzled with dark chocolate, these tahini-based brownies taste like decadence. Your biggest problem will be keeping the grain-eating omnivores from stealing all of your brownies. Get the recipe.
These brownies bring crackle on top and chew in the middle, with a smattering of chocolate chunks to keep things darkly interesting. Get the recipe.
— Head photo: Chowhound.