Here's how to make brownies, according to a 'Top Chef' pro
The best tips, tricks, and gear for making the perfect brownies.
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If you find cinnamon rolls too fussy and sourdough too time consuming, this doesn’t mean you need to be an outcast in the home-baking trend. Try brownies! This second round of stay-at-home orders is just the time to turn yourself into a brownie-making pro.
We tapped Top Chef brownie-making champ, Montreal caterer and chef Jo Notkin of Zoe Ford Montreal, who famously won a challenge by creating what judge Janet Zuccarini dubbed the best brownie she had ever eaten.
“I do think brownies are a great starter for someone who wants to master baking,” says Notkin. “As with anything, you tweak it and you master it and you make it yours. But the great thing about brownies is it’s a tray of chocolate. It’s hard to come away without something that isn’t satisfying in some way,” says Notkin.
Since making a dessert is famously the kiss of death in any Top Chef challenge, we figure Notkin knows what she’s talking about when advising us on how to make the absolute best homemade brownie from scratch.
Determine your ideal brownie type
Notkin says that before you even embark on your brownie-making adventure, figure out what kind of brownie you like—since there are many variations on the dessert.
“Brownies are incredibly subjective. Everyone has their favorite kind,” says Notkin, who adds that her preference is for a really fudgy brownie filled with chocolate flavor and an almost truffle-like texture.
“I’m a texture person so everything to me is about how all the textures play off each other. If I want cake I’ll have cake but if I want a brownie I want something completely different texturally, so I want something fudgy,” she says. “You need to find out what kind of brownie you get excited about. After you do that, you can find a recipe you love or tweak almost any recipe to make it your own.”
Types of brownies
Before you even begin baking, you should figure out what sort of brownie you like.
“Everyone has their preference. You should think about if you want a cakey, chewy, or fudgy brownie first and go from there,” says Notkin.
If you’re a serious chocolate lover, a fudgy brownie will satisfy your cravings because it's basically a super-sized chocolate truffle. These kinds of brownies are intensely rich and dense, and often have a semi-gooey texture.
To get the fudgiest brownies, you'll need to increase your fat-to-flour ratio. You can get there by adding butter and either high quality bittersweet or unsweetened chocolate. A typical first step for this type of brownie is to melt the butter and chocolate together and then hit the mixture with an added chocolate bomb of cocoa powder.
Just like the name implies, these brownies are reminiscent of a decadent piece of chocolate cake. They are lighter, fluffier, and more airy than other types of brownies. Cakey brownies are made with a higher flour content, a lower fat content, and additional baking powder for leavening.
When making these kinds of brownies, a recipe will typically call for butter and sugar that are creamed together in a mixer, rather than starting with melted butter or oil.
Chewy brownies straddle a little bit of what you love in both the fudgy and cakey counterparts. This is the batch where everyone reaches for a corner piece.
They have well-structured and chewy edges while they tend to have a very moist and sometimes even gooey center. Chewy brownies tend to call for more flour than fudgy brownies, which is what gives them their structure and their bite.
Get the right chocolate
Notkin says you should invest in some high quality cocoa and baking chocolate, unless you want your homemade brownies to taste like a boxed mix (not necessarily a bad thing!).
“If you’re really going to spend the time and savor every bite, I say find the best ingredients you can afford,” she says. For cocoa powder, she recommends 100% Dutch process cocoa powder. Her favorites are two high-end brands, Valrhona or Callebaut which, if you haven’t tried either, now is the time. Both are highly esteemed in the baking world for their quality and their pure chocolate flavor.
Regardless of brand, make sure to purchase bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate. And if you plan to make chewy or fudgy brownies, make sure your chocolate has a high cacao percentage. As the cacao percentage increases, the total fat from cocoa butter increases as well, making for a more decadent brownie. Notkin recommends you always look for chocolate with 61% cacao or higher.
How to make brownies worthy of a Top Chef win
Here are some of Notkin’s favorite tools, as well as one of her favorite brownie recipes. While Notkin wasn’t able to share with us her Top Chef-winning recipe for her now-famous Jewelbox Brownie, she was able to share one that she has adapted from a tried and true Martha Stewart favorite. (But lucky for us, her Jewelbox Brownies are available to order via the Zoe Ford website.)
Here are some of Notkin’s favorite baking items.
Bowls: “I have limited space so I like a beautiful set of nesting ceramic bowls that are easily stacked but can be left on the counter and still look beautiful,” says Notkin.
Spatulas: “These spatulas are excellent and they look great while working hard,” she says.
A quarter sheet baking pan: “I actually really like a basic, restaurant-grade baking sheet. I wasn't able to find the one I like in the United States, but this one is great and one I recommend,” says Notkin.
Measuring cups: “I don’t like measuring cups that have a handle that’s soldered onto the side. I like one piece that you can have your whole life—if it’s a set that is two pieces the cups will wear with age and eventually break apart,” says Notkin.
Measuring spoons: Notkin’s favorite spoons aren’t available in the United States, but these are a close second.
Parchment paper: Notkin recommends you get full-sheet parchment paper. “I like lining my baking sheets with parchment paper so I can just pull the whole sheet of brownies right out without nicking my pan,” she says.
Cocoa: This one comes highly recommended by many bakers, including Notkin.
Adapted by Notkin from one of her favorite recipes by Martha Stewart.
- 1 stick unsalted butter, cut into pieces, plus more, softened, for pan
- 3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour, sifted
- 2 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder, (like Callebaut)
- ¾ teaspoon kosher salt
- 8 ounces semi-sweet chocolate (over 60 percent), chopped (about 2 cups)
- 1½ cups sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 1 cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips (like Guittard, Lindt)
- 6 tablespoons of raspberry jam
Time needed: 1 hour
Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 9-inch square baking pan and line with parchment, leaving a 2-inch overhang on two sides; butter parchment.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa, and salt. In a large heatproof bowl set over (but not in) a pot of simmering water, combine 1½ cups chocolate (6 ounces) and butter; heat, stirring, until melted. Remove from heat. Immediately add sugar and whisk for 10 seconds.
Add eggs one at a time, then vanilla; whisk vigorously until glossy and smooth, 45 to 60 seconds. Using a rubber spatula, stir in flour mixture until just combined, then fold in remaining ½ cup chocolate (2 ounces).
Lightly fold in the chocolate chips to incorporate them, being sure not to over mix.
Transfer batter to prepared pan, smoothing top with spatula. Spoon on 6 tablespoons of raspberry jam and swirl through with the back of a spoon.
Bake until top is shiny and crackly and a tester comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack and let cool 20 minutes. Using parchment overhang, lift brownies from pan. Let cool completely on rack before cutting into squares. Store in an airtight container at room temperature up to 2 days.
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