Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Versus: Brownies

If one food - and one word - summed up store-bought box-mix convenience foods, it would be this: brownies. Whether you like 'em cakey or fudgy, chocolatey or chewy, there's no denying that sometimes, a simple brownie square is all it takes to satisfy your craving for sweets. Recently, a number of companies have gotten into the gluten-free brownie game, which meant it was time for us to cook up a Versus post and declare a winner.

The competitors are:
King Arthur Flour's gluten-free brownie mix,
Gluten-Free Pantry's chocolate truffle brownie mix,
Betty Crocker's gluten-free brownie mix, and
Pamela's chocolate brownie mix

* Stonewall Kitchen also recently came out with a gluten-free chocolate brownie baking mix, but it wasn't included in this head to head (to head to head) face-off.

The Methodology

In order to ensure consistent apples-to-apples comparisons of the brownies, we set some basic parameters:

1) Every batch of brownies was baked in an 8x8" square baking pan.

2) Some box mixes provided instructions for using oil or butter. We used butter across the board for consistency.

3) Every batch of brownies was allowed to rest for at least 15 minutes before being sliced and removed from the pan.

4) Every brownie was photographed with three pieces, including at least one edge piece and one center piece.

5) In addition to Kelli and me, we had two additional taste testers - both gluten eaters - who tasted the brownies blind, for impartial feedback.

The Criteria

The brownies were similarly evaluated across a common set of criteria:

1) Price

2) Ease of preparation (after all, we're making brownies, not puff pastry...)

3) Nutrition (very loosely speaking... at the end of the day, it's dessert)

4) Taste and Texture (one of the most important criteria, including the "fudge factor" - how cakey or fudgy or chewy is the brownie...)

The Predictions

I'll be honest, based on our experience with other products from some of these companies in the past, and based on our reading of their ingredients and methods, Kelli and I had some pretty strong predictions for how things would shake out in today's Versus post. We figured Pamela's would come out at or near the top, King Arthur and Betty Crocker would have a cage match for the middle positions, and Gluten-Free Pantry would come in last. Boy were we surprised (and wrong)!


On the average, these suckers are expensive. Prices for a single box of brownie mix ranged from about $4 on the low end (Gluten-Free Pantry) to about $7 on the high end (King Arthur). Stonewall Kitchen's brownie mix, not included in this review, is priced at a staggering $10 per box. (That thing better have edible flecks of gold in it...)


Rather than give a specific critique of the nutrition of each brownie mix, I think it's more valuable to paint the big picture by simply looking at their ingredients:

King Arthur = sugar, specialty flour blend (tapioca starch, rice flour), cocoa processed with alkali, leavening, natural vanilla flavor, salt

Gluten-Free Pantry = sugar, chocolate chips (sugar, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, vanilla extract), cocoa powder processed with alkali, white rice flour, potato starch, corn starch, xanthan gum, salt

Betty Crocker = sugar, semi-sweet chocolate chips (sugar, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, vanilla extract), cocoa powder processed with alkali, white rice flour, potato starch, corn starch, xanthan gum, salt

Pamela's =  molasses and honey, brown rice flour, natural process cocoa powder, white rice flour, organic chocolate chunks (organic natural evaporated cane sugar, organic cocoa paste, organic cocoa butter, non-gmo soy lecithin, organic vanilla), tapioca starch, sweet rice flour, potato starch, natural flavor, sea salt, xanthan gum, baking soda

Some things to note:

1) The only one that seems to really hint at striving for healthy ingredients is Pamela's, with their use of some natural sweeteners (molasses and honey) and brown rice flour. Everyone else is using more refined starches and flours (and Pamela's does, too).

2) With the exception of Pamela's, everyone is using alkalized (also known as Dutch process) cocoa, whose natural acidity has been neutralized. This isn't necessarily good or bad. It just is, and affects both flavor of the cocoa and how it reacts (or doesn't) with leavening agents.

3) No one is using crazy unfamiliar ingredients. For the most part, all of the ingredients labels are surprisingly legible and familiar. A good thing.

4) Everyone's recipes all call for adding butter, eggs, and sometimes, water, to the mix, to prepare the brownie batter.

5) Suspiciously, if you look carefully, you'll notice that Gluten-Free Pantry and Betty Crocker use the EXACT same ingredients in their recipe formulations, right down to the very last one, and in the same order. Coincidence? Their recipes do have slightly different nutritional breakdowns, suggesting the ratio of ingredients in their respective mixes may differ, and Betty Crocker calls for just 4 tbsp butter while GF Pantry calls for 7 tbsp.

Ease of Preparation

None of the mixes were difficult to work with. Any troubles came after baking, when trying to remove them from the pan. Pamela's was one the edge of gooey, and difficult to remove in tact. Both GF Pantry and Betty Crocker required a bit of "chiseling" along the edges to separate the brownie from the pan. Of the two, GF Pantry was the worse offender in this regard. Also - and we couldn't believe this when we read it - the instructions on the GF Pantry box said that, for best results, "freeze 1 hour before cutting," followed by "may be frozen." What? Seriously!? a) I've never heard of such a thing, and b) what if you wanted a warm brownie? We ignored their suggestion and let the brownies cool at room temp in the pan for 15+ minutes like everyone else.

Taste and Texture

And at last, what you've been waiting for...the breakdown of taste and texture. First, an across-the-board compliment: our two gluten eating taste testers both agreed that none of the brownies inherently tasted gluten-free. They were indiscernible from gluten brownies. Bravo!

King Arthur = chewy. strong chocolate flavor. looked like a good brownie. quickly emerged as a favorite among our four tasters.

Gluten-Free Pantry = surprised us with its excellent taste and texture. chewy. almost had a hint of nuttiness or cinnamon in the flavor profile, as if made with Mexican chocolate. quite good.

Betty Crocker = as sweet as the previous two, but not as chocolatey. the taste was not as rich. slightly bland. good chewiness, though the driest of the four. one taster thought it was too tough. one taster detected a "soapy" aftertaste. nonetheless, still good.

Pamela's = the softest of the bunch. a very different flavor profile than the other three (totally different brownie ballpark). something "off" with the texture. tasted "mealy" in the mouth. 4 out of 4 tasters quickly judged it their least favorite.

3 out of 4 tasters judged King Arthur's their favorite brownie in this category.

1 out of 4 tasters judged Gluten-Free Pantry his or her favorite brownie in this category.

In practice, GF Pantry and Betty Crocker were a close 2 and 3 (they are made from the same ingredients, with GF Pantry using more butter, so this doesn't surprise...).

I hate to say this but, tasted against the other three (and faced with a sudden surplus of brownies from our Versus bake-off), Pamela's went in the garbage. We didn't deem it worth saving.

The Winner

On the measure of taste and texture alone, King Arthur emerged as our clear winner. It's a delicious, well-executed brownie. If you combine taste and price, Gluten-Free Pantry was the unexpected king of the brownie pile. You'll save roughly $3 per box compared to King Arthur, and only take one step down in the taste and texture department.

So there you have it... Now get baking!

- Pete


BoogaJ said...

Great review! I also love the King Arthur brownies and have found them to be my favorite. I'm glad you didn't even attempt the Trader Joe's GF Brownie mix -- they are awful!

~M said...

Great review! My friends who are gluten-eaters really enjoy Bob's Red Mill's GF brownie mix, made with sorghum flour (and refined starches) and Ghirardelli cocoa.

Amanda on Maui said...

I haven't had much luck with Pamela's products. Many times I find that they just refuse to bake fully in the center. My mom had this problem as well, and we live on completely opposite ends of the globe (me in Hawaii and her in South Carolina). We've both had cases of leaving Pamela's products in the oven for up to a half an hour longer than directed without much improvement.

I have yet to try any of the King Arthur mixes as they all seem to be made with low nutrition quality ingredients but with an extremely large price tag.

Have you tried any mixes from The Pure Pantry? I've only used their all purpose mixes (both buckwheat and regular) with tasty results. I like them because they're organic and they use high quality nutritious ingredients.

Thank you for jumping under that bus for us!

Kristin said...

Oh Man!! I just bought 3 bags of the Pamela's mix on clearance for $3.13 and I thought I was getting a steal!!! Looks like I better make those first before I try any other GF brownies so that I start out with the bad ones only to upgrade to the better ones! Thanks for a great review.

~M said...

@Kristin: You could try using some of these tips to doctor it up: http://glutenfreegoddess.blogspot.com/2005/12/best-gluten-free-brownie-mix-taste.html

Or check out the cake mix doctor book and see if you can't doctor it with one of their suggestions.

~M said...

@Kristin: You could try using some of these tips to doctor it up: http://glutenfreegoddess.blogspot.com/2005/12/best-gluten-free-brownie-mix-taste.html

Or check out the cake mix doctor book and see if you can't doctor it with one of their suggestions.

Good luck!

Jeanine said...

Fantastic post! The things us food bloggers do for our readers, huh? The sacrifices! Looks fantastic, I've heard great things about KA mixes.

Heather said...

Are you kidding? King Arthur beat my beloved Pamela's? I definitely need to pick up a box. I love a good bake-off. Thanks!


GF Gidget said...

King Arthur mixes are by far my favorite, too. Have you tried their Chocolate Cake Mix? It is AMAZING!

Kelsey@KingArthurFlour said...

What a great comprehensive GF brownie review. So glad you liked our GF Brownie Mix! Have you seen our GF recipes on-line? You can view them here: http://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/gluten-free/view-all Happy baking!

peterbronski said...

Hi Everyone... Thanks for chiming in with all your great opinions, recommendations, and suggestions!

Cheers, Pete

beyondriceandtofu.com said...

Gluten Free Pantry has been our household favorite for the past 15 years! Beth was the only one making mixes back then though so I may be biased in that 1) it was pretty much the only GF brownie I ate for years and 2) I like Beth a lot as she was a pioneer for us all!
But I have a Pamela's and BC mix in the cabinet though so we'll have to see what we think. My husband used to request the GFP Truffle Brownies for his birthday though...and we do love their gooey-ness. They'll be hard to beat in this family.

Samantha said...

Loved the King Arthur brownies...was missing a chewy, fudgy browny...I've tried Pamela's and found them too caky...not chewy at all...wonder what I did differently. It is also interesting that so many are having a hard time with Pamela's...I usually have to pull things out a few minutes early, but otherwise....really enjoyed the chocolate cake mix and its my go to for waffles. Thanks for the brownie head to head!

peterbronski said...

Hi Samantha... Yeah, we were surprised by Pamela's. We're fans of other products of theirs, but the brownies just missed the mark.

Cheers, Pete

poobail said...

Have you tried the Namaste mix? They are my favorite, altho I must say I haven't tried the others on your list, just Bob's Red Mill. (I am in CO, too, and found Namaste at King Soopers).

peterbronski said...

Hi Poobail... We haven't tried the Namaste yet, but it's on our radar!

Cheers, Pete

Tabethao said...

I think it is super important to point out that this is only a box brownie comparison. You have to be completely out of Peter and Kelli's artisan GF flour mix to even try a box brownie. Their brownie recipe from cookbook is so very easy and AMAZING! I add walnuts for pure bliss. I write this as My family and I enjoy the chocolate chip cookies from the same cookbook and they are mot even glutan intolerant. Thank you for the cookbook and congrats on your cupcake book, can't wait to get it. Your blend is a lifesaver to me. I think it is the lack of tapioca flour that makes it so similar to regular baking. It is not gritty like most GF products!!! Thank you!

peterbronski said...

Hi Tabethao... Thanks for your compliments!

Cheers, Pete