Introduction: Best, Easiest Brownies (Great for Beginners!)
Brownies are probably one of the easiest and best baked goods out there.They're practically impossible to screw up (unless you forget about them in the oven or something, not like I've done that) and they are universally loved. Sure, you could easily go to the store, pick up a box of brownie mix and pop them in the oven easy peasy, but what you end up with is overly sweet, overly soft, and overly unappealing (I may be a bit of a brownie snob...) This recipe is my all-time favorite brownie recipe (thank you, Deb Perelman of SmittenKitchen.com.) While I may not have made it up myself, it's too good, simple, and versatile not to share! Also, there are minimal dishes involved, so that's always a plus. :)
**I've included a lot of extra notes in this recipe. When I was growing up and baking with my mom, she would always tell me to do things in a certain way but never explain why. As a result, when I got out on my own I skipped a lot of those steps and learned the hard way why she told me to do them! For those of you who are new to baking, I've included some notes on the why/how for a few of the steps and ingredients. I've also included my opinion on some things as well if you're interested. If you're not new to baking or don't care to know my opinion, just skip the notes, denoted by an asterisk*! Happy baking!
Step 1: Gather Your Ingredients
Being a firm believer in having a well-stocked pantry, the only thing I had to go to the store for was chocolate and unsalted butter (my usual stockpile got used up over Thanksgiving.) Other than those two things, everything else is pretty basic! But if you want to get fancy, I've added some optional things you can add in at the end. Here is what you'll need for a 13"x9" pan of basic brownies. There are some notes on the ingredients at the bottom:
6 ounces (85 grams) unsweetened chocolate
*2 sticks (8 ounces or 230 grams) unsalted butter
*2 2/3 cups (530 grams) granulated or caster sugar
4 large eggs
2 teaspoons (10 ml) vanilla extract
*1 teaspoon flaky sea salt or 1/2 teaspoon table salt (about 4 grams)
1 1/3 cup (170 grams) all-purpose or plain flour
1 cup walnuts, roughly chopped
Peanut Butter Swirl-
1 1/2 cup smooth peanut butter
1 1/3 cup (270 grams) sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
a couple pinches of coarse sea salt
Cream Cheese Swirl-
3 ounces (85 grams) cream cheese, room temperature
2 tablespoons (28 grams) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/4 cup (50 grams) granulated or caster sugar
1 large egg
1 tablespoon (8-9 grams) flour
*Yes, you need unsalted butter for this recipe, and for most, if not all, baking recipes! The reasoning is so you can better control the amount of salt in the recipe because amounts of salt in regular butter vary by brand. Though, if the only thing you don't have in your pantry is unsalted butter, then just use regular butter and cut down on the salt in the recipe. (I have no idea by how much, just by taste.)
*Caster sugar is called baking sugar in the US and comes in a carton, not a paper bag. It's a little more expensive than regular granulated sugar, but has a finer texture so it dissolves better/faster in syrups, drinks, meringues, etc. It can be used interchangeably with granulated sugar.
*If you don't have flaky sea salt, don't worry about it-I never do, and I honestly don't really know what it adds to the recipe that regular old table salt can't. :)
Step 2: Prepare Your Pan
Preheat the oven to 350° F (180° C). You could wait until until you're done mixing the ingredients if you oven is super fast, but mine is old and slow, so I always turn on my oven before I start cooking.
Now to prepare your pan: You'll need a 9x13" (23x33 centimeter) baking dish for this recipe. The material doesn't really matter so much, but I always use glass for brownies for some reason. Grab some parchment paper or foil and line the bottom of the pan. Again, you don't HAVE to do this, but it helps to ensure that the brownies don't stick to the bottom of the pan. After the pan is lined, rub the whole thing, paper/foil and all, with some butter or spray with a nonstick cooking spray. I used to not worry that much about prepping my baking vessels, but after one too many mishaps of ruining baked goods while attempting to shift them from their dishes, I wised-up. Yes it takes a little extra time at the beginning, but it saves you in the long-run!
Step 3: Melt the Chocolate and Butter
Roughly chop your chocolate and cut up your butter into small pieces. They don't have to be perfect but it ensures that they melt evenly and quickly.
*Make a double-boiler: I don't know a single person who actually owns a double-boiler, so they're really easy to improvise. Just take a small-medium saucepan, pour in about an inch (2-3 cm) of water and set it on the stove over low heat. Take a large mixing bowl and set it on top of the pan and there you have it - your very own double boiler!
Once the water is steaming, place the bowl on top of the pan and toss in your chocolate and butter. Stir it together with a spoon or rubber spatula until most of it is melted completely. Then take it off the heat and continue to stir until it is completely melted and smooth and shiny. You don't have stir vigorously or anything - just enough to keep everything moving.
*You use a double boiler for things like melting chocolate because if you're like me and have cheap, thin saucepans, it becomes very easy to burn the chocolate if you melt it directly in the pan. Double boilers are a much safer and gentler method for melting/cooking ingredients that are prone to burning or curdling.
Step 4: Measure and Incorporate the Rest of the Ingredients
*Now it's time to measure out all of the rest of your ingredients and add them into the mix. (Unless you did that at the beginning because you're prepared and like to make life easier on yourself - I am not one of those people)
Pour in your sugar to the chocolate/butter mixture and stir until combined. It will look grainy and awful, but don't worry, it will look ok in the end!
*Crack your eggs into the batter one at a time and whisk to combine after each egg. Then stir in your vanilla and salt. Do you NEED a whisk? No - you can totally beat the pulp out of this with a spoon or spatula. Should you bite the bullet and just go out and buy one because they're one of those utensils that will always come in handy and make things like mixing/whipping eggs infinitely easier? Yes.
Stir in the flour until combined, and you're done! I prefer to add the flour in two batches because my mixing bowls are shallow and if I don't flour gets all over everything, even if I'm being careful. It also makes it a lot easier to stir because you're incorporating a smaller amount of a dry ingredient into a wet mixture, but do whatever you want! It will all come out in the end. (If you do spill flour everywhere, though, just scoop it off the counter and back into the batter - no one will know.)
*You can either use a kitchen scale or cups and tablespoons - I use a combination of both. Scales are a lot more accurate (baking is a science, after all!) and, in my opinion, take a lot of the guess-work out of measuring. Plus, you don't have nearly as many things to wash when you're done, which is always a plus. (They're not that expensive, either! I got mine for $15 at Bed Bath and Beyond) However, if you don't have one or prefer using cups, just make sure you level off the cup with a knife or finger to ensure that you have the proper amount. Too much or too little flour or sugar can throw off the recipe and make it too dry/wet, or too sweet/bitter.
*Do take the time to incorporate your eggs one at a time. If you add them all in at once, you risk scrambling the eggs because the chocolate/butter are still fairly warm and adding them one at a time slowly cools everything down. It's also just easier to incorporate them in small batches because the sugar makes the mixture so thick.
Step 5: Pour Into Pan, Bake, and Serve!
Now the best part - the baking and eating!
Pour your brownie batter into the prepared baking dish and spread it evenly into the corners with your spatula. And make sure you scrape every last morsel out of the bowl - waste, not, want not! It helps if you hold a corner of the parchment paper while you're spreading everything out. Because the mixture is fairly thick, the paper likes to move around.
*After everything's smoothed out, pop your pan in the preheated oven for anywhere between 35-45 minutes. Mine took about 43 minutes this time around, but set the timer for 40 minutes and check them by sticking a toothpick or cake tester in the middle. If it comes out clean, you're done! If not, keep an eye on them and check every 2-3 minutes, testing them again each time.
Once the brownies are baked, let cool in the pan for at least 20 minutes and enjoy the wonderful smell that is wafting through your house. If you don't wait, they won't cut or come out cleanly, so just do it!
These are great by themselves, or served with some ice cream as a brownie sundae. :)
*Baking time/temperature may vary depending on your altitude, but I know nothing about how to account for that because, as a midwesterner, I've never had to. Google it!
Step 6: Extras:
If you choose to use any of the extras (nuts, peanut butter, cream cheese) in your brownies, here are the directions you should follow:
Roughly chop the walnuts into small-ish pieces and stir them into the finished batter, after you've added the flour. If you chop them too big, they will sink to the bottom. If they're too small, you won't get a good crunch - use your best judgement.
Bake as directed in basic brownie recipe.
Whisk all ingredients together until smooth.
Once both batters are assembled, spread a thin layer of brownie batter in the pan. Dollop peanut butter batter on top with a big spoon, then do the same with the remaining brownie batter. The goal is to alternate the batters, but it doesn't really matter because once all of the batters are in the pan, take a butter knife and swirl them together a few times. I like to do figure 8's, but do whatever you think looks nice.
Bake as directed in basic brownie recipe
Beat cream cheese and butter in a medium bowl until light and fluffy (a hand or stand mixer will help, but aren't required.)
Gradually add sugar and beat until well blended, then beat in the eggs and flour.
Pour half of brownie batter into the pan, followed by all of the cream cheese mixture, followed by the rest of the brownie batter. Then swirl the two together with a butter knife until you're happy with how it looks.
Bake as directed in basic brownie recipe.