10 Easy Ways To Kick Your Brownies Up A Notch

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You may not know it, but biting into brownies is biting into an itty bitty bit of U.S. history! The famed Chicago Palmer House Hotel is credited with concocting the first recipe for this now timeless snack in the late 19th century.

According to Forbes, the rich chocolate desserts were first crafted for the historical 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, an event marking the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus first arriving to the West Indies. The celebration was supposed to also showcase just how much the city had recovered from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and involved other major food history moments such as the introduction of Juicy Fruit and the hipster staple of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

The brownies were brilliant, whether intentionally or not, by showcasing the major import and export of the Columbian Exchange: cacao and sugar. Still, there were practical reasons for the dessert — brownies were designed to be easily taken in boxed lunches for the fair. 

It's clear that this idea was a winning one, and to this day, the Palmer House, now the Palmer House Hilton, serves a rich brownie topped with walnuts and an apricot glaze to hotel guests and visitors alike.

Today, there are plenty of ways to enjoy this American tradition at home in bigger and better ways. Below are 10 ways to take your boxed brownies up a notch.

Get the best kind of brownie mix

Really, your meals are only as good as the ingredients you have. Some may argue that when you're reaching for the brownie mix, you're already compromising on quality, but we maintain that with food costs being the way they are these days, there are some truly stellar brownie mixes out there. Before making your brownies, pay some mind to what sort of chocolate and ingredients you'd prefer in them, what brands you like, and your price range.

Sometimes the days we want brownies are those very days when we want to keep our sweatpants on and stay nestled inside the house. If you have some old brownie mix lying around this will do too, just keep an eye on the sell-by date.

When stored in a cool, dry place, like the pantry, brownie mix doesn't spoil. However, older mixes may not rise in the way you would like. Leavening agents, like baking powder or soda, tend to become less effective a few months or years after the expiration date. 

For those who want a lighter and fluffier brownie, this is less than ideal. Thankfully, old mixes can still be modified. Can It Go Bad recommends adding a teaspoon of baking powder per two cups of expired brownie mix that is more than a year expired, and one teaspoon per four cups for mixes that are less than six months out.

Find your perfect pan

It's an extremely personal question as to what sort of brownie best suits you: Some prefer the extremely gooey center piece, while others like the crunch of a corner slice. The good news for those who prefer the crunch is that there are multiple options to make sure that you get just what you're looking for when you pull the pan out of the oven.

As of this writing, there were at least two separate pans that can be used to make a full tray of full-corner brownies. The Baker's Edge Brownie Pan, available on Amazon for a considerable $55, guarantees a tray of brownies with crunchy edges and a chewy center. For those looking on a budget, the Beasea Brownie Pan has a similar effect for $16 on Amazon. While using a different design, one reviewer does note that the cheaper pan is considerably hard to clean.

For those who are more concerned with cutting the brownies evenly, the SUJUDE Brownie Tray is a fantastic investment. Available for $19.99 on Amazon, one reviewer celebrates the removable tray while another gives the helpful hint to insert the tray's removable divider only once the brownies are cooling for easier cleaning.

Decide: Gooey, cakey, or chewy?

Aside from what cut of brownie you prefer, the texture of the brownie also divides brownie fans into three camps as described by Land O' Lakes. Some prefer a light, almost cake-like brownie that is as airy as it is chocolately, while others like their brownies as gooey and fudgy as they can be. Those who want a little of both may opt for chewy, which are slightly dense with a bit of "bounce" to their bite that is reminiscent of cake-like brownies.

By deciding which sort of texture you prefer, or at least want to try your hand at making, you can make necessary adjustments to your recipe and baking to get achieve desired results. More cake-like and lighter brownies, for example, should definitely include baking powder or soda in their recipe.

Both gooey and chewy brownies call, on the other hand, for heavier and creamier ingredients like butter and cream. One will also see when looking at recipes specifically for gooey brownies call for a little bit more mixing to ensure ideal ooey gooey results. Chewy brownies, while using heavier ingredients, typically call for a higher heat to achieve desired results. There are many roads to Rome, and it would seem that all roads here lead to deliciousness.

Add a smidge more cocoa

If there is consensus on brownies, it's that they need to be chocolatey! There's a reason why chocolate has captured the hearts of humans with its incredibly robust flavor profile that combines bitterness with floral and fruity, and when combined with sugar? Absolute heaven.

There's a way to deepen this flavor with a simple adjustment: More cocoa! Sources like NuNuChocolate recommend adding a bit of cocoa to milk chocolate brownie mixes for a good twist. They maintain that adding cocoa enriches and intensifies the mix's chocolatey flavor. But, don't go too dark with the chocolate; the site recommends nothing higher than 70% cocoa, as anything higher will likely dry out the batter. 

Typically, however, the site notes that 60% tends to be the sweet spot when baking with cocoa and getting that rich, but not too intense chocolate flavor profile. Granted, there are some there who want to go ham when it comes to chocolate. For that, there are many tricks to get the chocolatiest brownie out there.

Butter over oil

As LiveStrong points out, there are special considerations to take when baking brownies. Brownies are in no sense of the term a light snack, combining a heavy amount of sugar and fat. Those who are looking to cut some of the latter out of their recipe may opt for oil, which doesn't contribute to the overall flavor of the brownie, but it is also much lower in fat than butter.

Still, for those who can and want to budget the extra fat into their diet, butter adds an extra punch of flavor to any brownie batter. Butter will also help brownies have a more fudge-like flavor and texture that just about melts in your mouth as soon as you eat it. Plus, butter will help achieve that desired "crinkly" effect that leaves the top layer of the brownie slightly crunchy yet soft and tender on the inside. Still, even when opting for butter, there are many different options for choosing the right butter for baking. Good to note is that brownie recipes already call for salt, so unsalted butter is often the ideal choice.

If using oil, go for coconut

Despite all of the benefits of incorporating butter into brownie mixes, there are any number of reasons why one may opt for oil instead. So, when looking at different oils to use in backing, there's one that stands out. Coconut oil is an extremely rich oil that's high concentration of saturated fat makes it extremely versatile in the kitchen without the typical fats of butter or animal by-products.

Among all its uses in cooking, coconut oil is a true legend when it comes to baking. It's pretty easy to bake with and can even be substituted in the same ratio as butter. That being said two special consideration needs to be taken when using it. Firstly, ensure that all ingredients are at room temperature. If some ingredients are too cold, like say the milk, there's the risk the coconut oil will re-solidify. Secondly, opt for unrefined coconut oil to avoid adding unintentional flavors to your brownie mix. That being said, if you do want to add a nutty twist to your brownie mix, unrefined coconut oil may be interesting to experiment with.

Enhance the chocolate

There's no shortage of TikTok food hacks that have rocked worlds and kitchens alike. One of our favorites is Butter Salt Bread's suggestion to replace water with equal parts coffee to give boxed mix brownies an extra richness and edge.

When baking it's clear that coffee and chocolate make for a perfect pair, and there's no shortage of ways to combine them. Scientifically, one 2020 study seemed to find that when paired together, coffee made the focus groups noticeably more sensitive to the sweeter aspects of chocolate.

When it comes to brownies specifically, a bit of espresso powder can also do the trick when looking to take the mix the extra mile. For those who don't like the buzzy brew, the coffee flavor won't really be detectable or caffeinated, as it's in such a small quality. Rather, the rich and bitter subtle notes of the coffee will draw out the sweetness and depth of the chocolate.

Furthermore, to add some further depth to the instant mix, there's one more coffee-adjacent twist to add to your brownie mix musings. Coffee creamer can act as a rich and flavorful alternative or addition to milk.  When choosing your creamers, keep in mind all the wonderful flavors out there that may be able to bring out the best in your brownies.

Extracts (and liquors) will add a good twist

It's true that chocolate is the star of the show when it comes to brownies, but there are many other flavors that will wonderfully play off of chocolate and add rich notes to a simple brownie mix recipe. For those looking for a more grown-up twist on the classic brownie, a bit of rum will do the trick. The toasted and caramel-leaning flavor profile of the rum will play off nicely with the deeper notes of cocoa in the brownie mix. 

On the other hand, there are other flavors to avoid. The L.A. Times recommends, for example, skipping vanilla extract in brownie mix recipes. They note that the vanilla can dull the chocolate's flavor, which, when baking brownies, is the last thing you want to do. There are, however, other extracts that can work with, and not against, cocoa. Almonds, for example, have several shared flavor components with chocolate and complement it nicely. Almond extract is thus a natural choice to bring out all the goodness of the brownie with a slightly floral twist.

Add some salt and find the perfect mix-ins

Sea salt has long been a staple in the kitchen, as it will add a unique, yet slightly briny flavor that enhances the flavor of whatever it's sprinkled on. Adding a bit, or rather a pinch, of sea salt is the easiest and quickest way to kick your brownie game up a notch or two. The intense saltiness will create a larger sensitivity to the richness and sweetness of the brownie, and make an indulgent treat all the more decadent.

There are other ways to improve upon your brownies, and it all comes down to a matter of taste. While sometimes there's no use in gilding the lily, other times, more is simply more. Any sort of candy, nuts, and even dried fruit can all add texture and flavor to any brownie recipe. Also, whipped cream or a nice glaze can also add another flavor or two to the classic brownie recipes. S'mores brownies which combine two childhood classics into one pan are sure to delight anyone who's gathering around the campfire, both young and young at heart.

Do this to give your brownies a crackly top

For many, the sign of a truly amazing brownie is apparent at first glance: There simply needs to be a crinkly, sometimes referred to as a crackly, top. This top not only has a nice initial texture but is also a sign of an extremely rich brownie. Above, we mentioned adding a good amount of butter to secure that crinkle. But, one Reddit thread on R/Baking provided some other clues on how to get the best texture atop your brownie.

Redditors provided anecdotal evidence that everything from melted chocolate to chocolate chips and high-fat cocoa is a means to secure that desired texture. Really, the trick to getting the desired brownie crust is to ensure that the recipe's sugar melts fully and that the egg white forms a light meringue with it to give the brownie that shine and crunch. Thus, properly melting and mixing the butter, while using high-fat ingredients will help your brownies get their shine on.