What's not to like about brownies? They're like small, shortcut chocolate cakes without all the fuss. But is there really much of a difference between those familiar boxed brands from our youth and the newer, higher-profile versions? Well, I and five other unsurprisingly willing chompers let the proof be in the brownies.
Barefoot Contessa Outrageous Brownie Mix
About: Barefoot Contessa is the nom-de-Food-TV of on-air personality Ina Garten - which seems like a made-up name itself.
Price: A stunning $9
Needed to make: A whole stick of butter, two eggs, eight-inch baking pan, mixing bowl, double boiler, electric mixer, lots of time, patience, and a pain-relieving or mood-altering tablet (optional)
Comments: These were the clear and unanimous winners. Tasters found them to be buttery (I would hope so), with a deep and lingering chocolatey flavor and a great cakey texture.
One brownie-downer wrote, "Imagine an excellently textured, moist chocolate chip cookie devoid of all that was not chocolate chips," and another chewer summed it up with, "taste close to homemade -which they should, considering their expense and labor-intensive preparation process."
Stonewall Kitchen Triple Fudge Brownie Mix
About: The boutiquey Stonewall Kitchen brand began in 1991 as the lovechild of two guys from New England who claim they named their enterprise after "the graceful stone walls that surround the original farm where the business took off."
Price: A hefty $7
Needed to make: One egg, water, oil, eight-inch baking pan, mixing bowl and sufficient manual dexterity to wrangle with the "fudge packet" - a real pain because of the extreme thickness of its enclosed contents.
Comments: Most tasters voted these as an easy second-place pick and remarked positively on their (fudge-packet-derived) dark fudgy exterior squiggles. One fan wrote that they were outstanding, whereas a minority dissenter found them to be "nutty and puny" (Stonewall's brownies baked to about half the size of the others).
Ghirardelli Chocolate Syrup Brownie Mix
About: Though Ghirardelli was acquired by the esteemed Swiss chocolatiers Lindt in 1999, this San Francisco-based company has been synonymous with premium chocolate since 1852.
Price: A that's-more-like-it $3.35
Needed to make: Water, oil, one egg, eight-inch baking pan, mixing bowl
Comments: Considering its fine pedigree, Ghirardelli's distant third-place finish was disappointing. In general, tasters found the brownies to be very average - sweet but not very chocolatey. One called them non-descript, but with a dense, cake-like chewiness; another noted they were "the most normal-tasting brownies;" and a third said they were "good all-weather brownies."
Betty Crocker Hershey's Original Supreme Brownie Mix
About: Betty Crocker never actually existed - hers was a made-up name dreamed up by a forerunner to General Mills. In effect, Betty was created to personalize the company's answers to its myriad questions about baking.
Price: A perfectly reasonable $3
Needed to make: Water, oil, two eggs, eight-inch baking pan, mixing bowl
Comments: Betty's were by far the thickest brownies of this bunch, and "her" fourth-place finish was just barely behind Ghirardelli's. Most tasters commented that they were pleasantly chocolatey. Some called them moist, while a couple called them gummy. One taster's bottom line seemed apt, "Unremarkable, but like all brownies, worthy of considerable affection."