While brownies made from scratch are delicious in their own right, for me, boxed brownies will always reign supreme. They’re easy and reliable, and—contrary to other quick alternatives, like canned soup, that are chosen more for convenience than flavor—are actually pretty equal to their homemade counterparts. Sometimes there’s a craving for a fudgy brownie with a glossy top that only a box of Duncan Hines or Ghirardelli can fulfill.
But while I’m loyal to boxed brownies, there are plenty of times that call for taking the batter to the next level. Whether you want to bring them over to a friend’s house, or just make movie night a little more special, sprucing up a box of brownie batter is an incredibly simple task. I have my own tricks for doing this, and I also know my colleagues do, too. Here are our favorite tips for elevating the boxed brownies you already love to a level you didn’t even think was possible.
Fruits and Nuts
Fruits and nuts are great for introducing more flavor and texture to your brownies. When it comes to nuts, you can reach for whatever you have in your pantry—salted, candied, or otherwise. “When I make brownies or blondies, I like to add toasted nuts for extra crunch and flavor,” says culinary editor Genevieve Yam. “Any nut will do, but my favorites are pecans and walnuts.” Feel free to chop them up and mix them into the batter, or add them on top for even more visual appeal.
Candied fruit like orange peel, ginger, or pineapple are great for extra sweetness and chew. When mixing in preserved or fresh fruits, Genevieve recommends tossing them in a bit of flour before incorporating into the batter to prevent them from sinking to the bottom. Some stem ginger in syrup would also be a wonderful addition.
Spices and Salts
Spices and salts can really transform the overall flavor of a brownie. Chile powder is famous for pairing well with chocolate, so you can start by adding a small amount—about 1/2 teaspoon—and adjusting to your liking. Cinnamon and cardamom are also excellent pairings (and known friends of chocolate!). If using a flaky sea salt like Maldon, pour your brownie batter into the pan first and then finish it off with an even sprinkling over the top of the batter for extra crunch and textural contrast.
Sweet, Savory, and Boozy
Swirling in new ingredients doesn’t just add flavor, it can also give your brownies a beautifully marbled appearance. It’s also easy to find new and inventive flavor combinations just by looking in your pantry. Try pastes like pistachio or nut butters, tahini, or even jams. Caramel is another great option, including cajeta or dulce de leche. “Brownies are always better with caramel, and a quick caramel sauce swirled into the batter with a sprinkle of salt adds extreme decadence to the ordinary,” says commerce writer Jesse Raub.
Sprinkles are an easy swap-in (and ones that kids will especially love), which you can either incorporate into the batter or sprinkle on top before baking. If you’re a fan of brittle, you can easily crush or chop it up and mix it into the batter. And if you want something savory, ingredients like crushed up potato chips or pretzels also work well flavor-wise while simultaneously adding an element of texture.
Another easy (if perhaps less common) option is incorporating sweetened cheeses like cream cheese or mascarpone. When going this route, Genevieve notes the importance of straining the cheese if it’s on the wet side (i.e. ricotta), or you’ll end up introducing unwanted moisture.
Some of our team’s favorite ways to spruce up brownie batter involve using flavor enhancers like malted milk powder, browned butter, and high-quality vanilla (either extract or from the bean).
“I’ll never forget when Stella told me that malted milk powder is basically the umami bomb of the baking world—a flavor enhancer that maximizes sweet foods in deliciously butterscotchy ways,” says senior culinary director Daniel Gritzer. “To that end, spiking a brownie mix with some malted milk powder sounds like a pro move for a subtle boost. According to Stella, you can add it to most desserts without throwing off the rest of the recipe, making it an easy add-in.”
Updates editor Jake Dean loves to go the browned butter route. “My wife Andrea is the baker in our house, and our friends often request she make brown butter blondies,” he says. “I think using browned butter in place of regular melted butter adds an intriguing quality to easy baked goods, and would be a great way to add nuance and depth to store-bought brownie mix.” Genevieve notes that since water evaporates when you brown butter, you may need to add a little more browned butter than what the box calls for with regular butter.
One final tip that shouldn’t be missed? A splash of a dark liquor like bourbon or rum is a simple and boozy way to round out the rich chocolate flavor of a boxed brownie. Perhaps the biggest question left to answer is which trick you’ll try first!