The sweet aroma wafting through our halls could mean only one thing: brownie taste tests. Inside our labs, we baked more than 100 batches. An enviable job, though one tester later joked that he never wanted to see a brownie again.
The winners? Trader Joe's Brownie Truffle and Barefoot Contessa Outrageous, the only mixes in our tests that come with semisweet chocolate chips and call for butter instead of oil. The brownies are chewy and dense, with complex, intense chocolate flavor and a freshly baked impression. Trader Joe's mix costs $2.99 per package; Barefoot Contessa's is $10. You get 12 to 20 servings with most mixes, though it's nine for the Barefoot Contessa because the 2.3-ounce serving size is double that of the others. The tested brownies have about 170 calories, 8 grams of fat, 1.5 grams of saturated fat, 17 grams of sugars, and 100 milligrams of sodium per serving, but each Barefoot Contessa serving weighs in at 374 calories, 22 grams of fat, and 39 grams of sugars. Outrageous, indeed!
The higher-rated mixes tended to have more chocolate flavor and better texture, but some didn't taste freshly baked. Three mixes for people with allergies scored lower than the rest. Cherrybrook Kitchen Fudge, labeled as peanut-, dairy-, egg-, and nut-free, was less sweet than most, somewhat dry, and low in chocolate flavor. Pamela's gluten-free brownies were dry, gritty, and chalky; the gluten-free version of Trader Joe's felt greasy in the mouth and had off-notes, such as an almost baconlike taste.
We made fudge-style brownies; texture may vary if you add another egg to make cakelike ones. We used unsalted butter instead of margarine when we had a choice, and vegetable oil when it was called for.
Tasters also tried refrigerated, ready-to-eat Pillsbury Sweet Moments Bite-Size Brownies Chocolate Fudge. They're OK but pricey at 78 cents per serving. Each serving has 180 calories and 9 grams of fat.
Read our review of the Perfect Brownie Pan Set.