EDITOR’S NOTE: National Brownie Day is Dec. 8. This article originally published in 2004 in the Contra Costa Times and was distributed nationally by Knight Ridder.
Simplicity isn’t always simple. Take brownies: A few pantry ingredients. A bowl or two. Some mixing. And into the oven. In less than an hour, you’re staring at a pan of deliciously humble baked chocolate.
But before you bite, wait.
Did you crave fudgey but bake cakey?
You didn’t bake them too long or too hot, did you?
Bittersweet or semisweet? Dutch alkalized or natural unsweetened cocoa powder?
With or without nuts?
And don’t cut into them yet – maybe not today or even tomorrow.
For all the controversy, you would think you were making the queen’s coronation cake.
Starting to feel like your Deadhead cousin slipped you one of those brownies?
Go ask Alice Medrich about just one brownie point.
“Most people say they like chewy rather than cakey brownies,” the Berkeley chocolate mistress writes in her recent book, “Bittersweet: Recipes and Tales from a Life in Chocolate.”
“I suspect that ‘chewy’ is sometimes confused with ‘moist, dense and gooey.’ You can’t tell unless you ask about sweetness. If they say they like especially bittersweet brownies, then what they really mean when they say ‘chewy’ is moist, dense and gooey. Brownies that are truly chewy in the old-fashioned way require far too much sugar to be really ‘bittersweet.’ “
Got that? If your head is reeling like a toddler with a sugar Jones, slowly step away from that Duncan Hines. Making a great brownie from scratch is a piece of cake, or in this case, an easy bar cookie.
Kitchen lore attributes brownies to a careless baker whose chocolate cake sank when he forgot the baking powder. The first known brownie recipe was published in the 1897 Sears Roebuck catalog. Medrich says that over the past two generations, brownies have become more dense, more chocolaty and less sweet.
Traditional brownies call for unsweetened chocolate. You can use almost any chocolate you wish – bittersweet, semisweet or milk chocolate. Excellent chocolates abound, from Scharffen Berger to Guittard to Ghirardelli. But humble brownies don’t need fancy chocolate. Supermarket baking squares produce chocolatey good results.
Cocoa powder is essentially dry, concentrated cocoa bean, the pod from which chocolate springs. Cocoa powder retains all of chocolate’s flavor but almost none of its fat (what’s missing is the cocoa butter).
Made with lower-quality beans, natural cocoa powder tends to be acidic and strong. Dutch-process cocoa powder is alkalized to take the edge off. Dutch-process cocoa has a luscious, dark-red color but is less flavorful. While you can substitute Dutch-process cocoa for natural cocoa powder in most recipes, don’t do it when the recipe has a lot of baking powder or soda.
Because cocoa powder has less fat and sweetness than chocolate, the butter and sugar content of brownies made with cocoa is usually pretty high. This produces a candylike crust and soft interior.
Medrich pines for the elusive shiny, crackled crusts of yore. Based on obsessive, weeks-long sessions of brownie testing and note-taking, she recommends refrigerating the batter from two hours and two days before baking. Even with fudgey brownies, this method produces a thin layer of crackly crust.
Brownies are commonly baked in a 9-by-14-by-2-inch pan that’s known as a brownie pan. Eight-inch square pans are also popular. Obviously, if you want thick brownies, use a smaller pan. If you want thin brownies, use a larger pan.
If you’re using a dark, nonstick pan, lower the oven temperature by 25 degrees. Brownies, like all bar cookies, tend to bake with crusty edges, and dark, nonstick pans amplify the process.
As tempting as it is, don’t cut brownies until they are completely cool. This should take at least an hour. People with willpower cool their brownies overnight. This allows the chocolate flavors to deepen. Some of us even like to let brownies get stale for a couple of days, adding an extra dimension of chewiness.
For the record, brownies should not be super-sized. Anything more than 3 inches by 3 inches deprives you of seconds.
If you like them gooey . . .
If you crave dense and intense brownies that collapse into moist, molten decadence, there’s no way to fudge fudgey.
Melt a lot of chocolate. Even a small batch can call for a pound or more of chocolate.
Choose a recipe that has less flour. It’s no coincidence that fudgey brownies have a lot in common with flourless Chocolate Decadence Cake.
Mix by hand. Whisking a minimal amount of air into the eggs reduces their leavening power. Gently stirring in the flour avoids toughening the batter.
Keep your oven cool and under-bake. A lower oven temperature (325 to 350 degrees) helps fudgey batters bake smoothly. Removing brownies from the oven just before the center sets ensures moist gooieness.
If you like them chewy . . .
If you want light, cakey brownies, here’s the skinny:
Chewy or cakey brownies have more flour (and other dry ingredients such as cocoa powder). Flour gives them structure. They don’t fall after baking. They stand up to icing.
They have less solid chocolate, sometimes even no solid chocolate. They include cocoa powder and more sugar. Cakey brownies that have high sugar content get a crustier surface, as granulated sugar replaces solid chocolate’s ultra-fine sugar particles, which melt smoothly and soften the batter.
They have more butter. Extra butter compensates for the small amount of fat in cocoa powder. Since butter melts faster than cocoa butter, brownies with a high butter content will bake soft.