Serious Eats: Sweets
Taste Test: Boxed Fudge Brownie Mix
#1: Market Pantry (Target)
#3: Duncan Hines
Whether you were a kid bringing in a sweet for a bakesale, or a college kid making a late-night study break, we've probably all had brownies made from a boxed mix. They're easy to make, most requiring just vegetable oil, eggs, and water, and typically take less than 30 minutes to bake. So when the moment comes that you too want a dump-and-bake treat to satisfy your chocolate craving, to which mix should you turn?
We chose nationally available brands, and to keep things simple*, chose mixes that all fell in the "Fudge" or "Fudgy Brownie" category.
*It's been a while since we shopped for brownie mixes, but there are now as many low-fat, dark chocolate, milk chocolate, extreme, and gluten-free mixes on the market as there are plain brownies.
For consistency, each brownie mix was baked in a disposable aluminum pan of the size stated on the box (all 9- by 13-inches, except Ghirardelli, which called for an 8- by 8-inch pan) . We baked the brownies to the lower number in the suggested baking time (i.e 10 minutes if it suggested 10-12 total) in order to increase the "fudge" factor.
Tasters were asked to judge the brownies based on fudgy texture, chocolate flavor, and sweetness. People were also asked to note their thoughts on edges—Too much edge? Not enough? Hard as a brick? And because we were specifically tasting fudge brownies, having a moist, slightly chewy texture was key. Dry or cake-like brownies were out.
While many of us expected old favorites like Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines to win the day, it was actually Target's house brand, Market Pantry, which won for a combination of good fudgy texture and deep chocolate flavor. Pillsbury also did well, thanks to balanced sweetness and thick, chewy edges. The brands that did the worst had poor textures or off, artificial flavors.
The bad: Somewhere along the way we got accustomed to homemade brownies, and we were surprised by how many brands struggled with delivering real chocolate flavor. The good: For the amount of exertion needed to throw these mixes together, the brownies were more than passable. Get a scoop of ice cream on there and call it a day.
#1. Market Pantry (7.2/10)
Many of us hadn't heard of Target's house brand, Market Pantry, but now we'll be sure to keep it on our radar. These brownies were the clear winners for their moist texture and authentic chocolate flavor. "Tastes the most like real chocolate," said one commenter, after noting that many of the other brownies uh, did not. Others liked them for the fudgy texture that was neither hard and overly chewy nor fluffy and dry.
#2. Pillsbury (5.7/10)
Even without the funfetti sprinkles mixed in, tasters liked this brand, finding them balanced in the sweetness department and with the most respectable amount of edge.
#3. Duncan Hines (5.4/10)
Before the test, many tasters noted that they ate this brand growing up. While they still loved the soft, moist texture, this is where things started to go downhill in the chocolate department. "Tastes like hot cocoa mix, not chocolate" was one complaint.
#4. Ghirardelli (4.9/10)
These were the most finicky brownies to make, requiring an 8- by 8-inch pan (the other boxes give you options with related baking times) and a longer baking time (40-45 minutes versus 20-25 minutes for the others). They came with an optional packet of fudge frosting, so we tried the brownies both with and without the added layer. Plain, the tasters found the brownies to be "too cakey", with a devils food cake-like flavor. The icing didn't help matters, as many tasters found it "cloying."
#5. Betty Crocker (4.5/10)
The loose texture of these brownies pleased a few tasters who liked that they resembled under-baked brownies, but many found them oily. They also found them to have off-flavors, noting, "These taste wrong, like someone snuck in some artificial strawberry."
Our Tasting Methodology: All taste tests are conducted completely blind and without discussion. Tasters taste samples in random order. For example, taster A may taste sample #1 first, while taster B will taste sample #6 first. This is to prevent palate fatigue from unfairly giving any one sample an advantage. Tasters are asked to fill out tasting sheets ranking the samples for various criteria that vary from sample to sample. All data is tabulated and results are calculated with no editorial input in order to give us the most impartial representation of actual results possible.