Real talk: Guilty pleasures are the best. Love is Blind? A soothing balm. The Fast & Furious film franchise? My medicine. Boxed cake mix? Especially.
When it comes to unbridled enthusiasm about guilty pleasures, I’m also very suggestible. After reading Sohla El-Waylly’s breathless recommendation for Ghirardelli’s dark chocolate boxed brownie mix, I had an almost immediate urge to face plant into a batch myself. Can you blame me? She describes the edges as “a little crunchy and a lot chewy while the middle has just the right amount of soft doughy texture and melty chocolate.”
The problem is, Ghirardelli’s boxed brownie mixes aren’t widely available in Canada. I’ve tried No Frills, Loblaws, Sobeys, Costco—and the few options available on Amazon run upwards of $15 for a box, which isn’t exactly a level of commitment I’m willing to make for an impulse bake project.
So I did the next most impulse-y thing: I picked up every brand of boxed brownie mix I could find at my local grocery stores, baked them all, and asked staff at Chatelaine, Today’s Parent, and Flare to pick their favourite (Editor’s Note: This taste-test occurred pre-pandemic).
Here, in no particular order, is what we tried:
Some disclosure: for brands that make multiple types of brownie mix I opted for dark chocolate where possible, and baked every batch on the lower end of the instructions’ time frame to give them all a good chance at staying as dense and moist as possible. In every case, I mixed dry ingredients into wet. (You might have a different opinion about ingredient order; bake as you will!) It was quick work: most boxed cake mixes just ask you to add oil, water, and a couple of eggs.
It also was, unsurprisingly, not that difficult to get a bunch of editors to line up for a brownie buffet. Everyone tried a bite of each and cast a vote for their first and second favourites.
The far-and-away best boxed brownie mix winner was Duncan Hines’ Chocolate Decadence, which at least one editor voted for twice. The things people loved about it seemed to mirror a lot of what El-Waylly describes about Ghiradelli: sugary crackle top; fudgy middle; corner pieces with a highly pleasurable contrast of crunch and chew.
The runner up, No Name’s Fudge Brownie, has the distinction of having a simpler ingredient list, with soybean instead of palm oil. It had all the qualities of the Duncan Hines brownie, with a denser interior, which—if you ask me—is the best part.
Overall, though, the exercise was a lesson in what a boxed mix can do, and what it can’t. While Bob’s Red Mill wasn’t a top contender (more cake than brownie bar), everyone was surprised to learn its version was gluten-free. But the carefully wrapped leftovers of this experiment dried out after two days (we’re a hungry bunch, but seven batches of brownies was a lot for even this staff), while my all-time favourite homemade version usually lasts about a week, if it stays uneaten that long.
In an ideal world, everyone would have time to carefully melt chocolate bars with butter and make them from scratch. That doesn’t mean that those who are looking for a shortcut to treats (or have a bake sale to appease) don’t deserve brownies—and good ones, at that.
Originally published March 2020. Updated March 2021.