The Great Baking Chocolate Debate

Editor's note: This column marks the debut of Ree, aka The Pioneer Woman, on Serious Eats. Many of you may already know her from her own blogs, Confessions of a Pioneer Woman and The Pioneer Woman Cooks. As she describes herself there, "I’m a former city girl. I used to live in Los Angeles, where I wore black pumps, ran into celebrities, and ate sushi, Thai food, and Mediterranean cuisine every time I turned around. Then I met and married a hunky cattle rancher, moved to his ranch in the middle of nowhere, and spent the next decade figuring out how to cook for men who think the sun rises and sets in a steak and baked potato. It’s been a hilarious culinary journey." You can find out more about her here, but for now, let's cut to the chase. —Adam

Does the quality of baking chocolate really matter? As a former food snob, this question has always plagued me.

I stirred up a tiny bit of ire on my own cooking site when I dared to suggest, in a post about lasagna, that it was permissible to use processed Parmesan cheese in the recipe. I would like to state for the record that it was not my intention to personally offend anyone with this suggestion. But when you're a former city girl living in the middle of nowhere on a working cattle ranch, you learn to improvise with the ingredients you can get.

Baking chocolate is no exception. My local grocery store carries one brand only, and I generally use it with a smile. Still, sometimes I hear the voices in my head—the voices of many a pastry chef who came before me (well, I'm not a pastry chef, but follow along here)—who've always said that the quality of baking chocolate makes all the difference in baking. This has bothered me for awhile, so while my husband was working cattle over the weekend, I decided to get to the bottom of The Great Baking Chocolate Debate. I decided to make brownies.

I dug up a basic brownie recipe—one my mom used to make. My plan was to incorporate two different baking chocolates into two different batches of the same brownie recipe, and I wanted it to be a recipe I was familiar with so I'd focus solely on the flavor of the chocolate itself. I made plans to conduct a blind taste test with some people in my life and possibly a couple of cows, since I don't have any neighbors. My objective was simple: to find out, once and for all, if there was any merit at all to this baking chocolate hype. Come along and see what happened!

For one recipe of the brownies, I used this:

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You can get it at most grocery stores in America. In terms of baking chocolate, it doesn't get any more basic than this.

For the other batch, I used this:

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It's Scharffen Berger "Pure Dark Chocolate." Not only did I have to mail-order the stuff, I had to sell a few cows to be able to afford it. It's made in San Francisco, and according to its label, it's "Perfect for baking." Heh—we'll just see about that!

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I poured the two different batters into separate identical baking pans and baked them in the same oven, at the same time.

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Then…shhhh…because I'm a rascally middle child and like to stir things up, I decided to bake up a batch of Betty Crocker "Original Supreme" brownies and throw them into the race. I'm sorry, but I really wanted to blow the lid off this whole high-quality chocolate debate once and for all. Please don't hate me. Please, please don't hate me.

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Oh, one thing. When you're conducting high-level culinary experiments, it's imperative that you have good help in the kitchen.

OK. When the brownies were all done, I prepared three sets of three plates and placed brownies on each plate.

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The first, labeled "A", were made with Scharffen Berger chocolate.

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The second batch, labeled "B", was made using the chocolate from my local grocer.

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And the final batch, labeled "C", was brought to us by Betty Crocker. That Betty Crocker—she's such a saucy little minx, isn't she? And what a little troublemaker. She's the Ross Perot of brownies.

I delivered one set of plates to my friend, Hyacinth. Her husband's a judge and I knew their family would be fair and impartial. I delivered another set to one of our cowboys, because he's single and always starving and I knew he'd be a willing participant in this experiment. Finally, I kept back a set for my own household, because I knew there'd be a mutiny if I didn't.

I waited on pins and needles for the results. I had a sneaking suspicion that A and B would taste too similar for anyone to detect a difference, and I even had the crazy notion that Betty Crocker might run away with the victory. And then where would I be? But deep down, because I tend to pull for the underdog, I really wanted the grocery store baking chocolate—the cheap stuff—to win.

I'll just tell you right now: The Betty Crocker brownies did not win. They came in second. My husband picked them as his favorite right off the bat, as did my baby. But don't listen to them, because they love canned biscuits.

The winner, folks? It was A—the brownies made with Scharffen Berger chocolate—hands down. And without looking at the plates until after I tasted, as much as I hate to say it, I chose the Scharffen Berger brownies, too. The brownies made with the grocery store chocolate, surprisingly, came in third—even below the Betty Crocker mix. While I didn't spend a lot of time polling all the taste-testers beyond their A-B-C votes, I'll tell you my thoughts:

The brownies made with Scharffen Berger chocolate had a smooth, deep chocolate flavor. Period. There was nothing detracting from the chocolate flavor, and no aftertaste. The Betty Crocker brownies, while flavorful, were way too chewy for my tastes. And the brownies made with the grocery store chocolate? They just didn't measure up. The chocolate flavor didn't sustain itself through each bite, and the flavor just felt flat. In addition, there was a noticeable aftertaste that just didn't exist with the Scharffen Berger brownies. Curses!

So, where do we go from here? What does this mean for us brownie lovers in Rural America? The way I see it is this: how bad can a brownie be? While the Scharffen Berger brownies were definitely out of this world, I wouldn't exactly turn down a plate of the brownies made with the grocery story chocolate if they were offered to me. So stick with the brownie recipe you're used to baking and know that you aren't committing a sacrilege.

But if you're ever in the mood to really treat yourself, try brownies with a high quality chocolate like Scharffen Berger.

Just be prepared to sell a few cows to do it.

The Great Baking Chocolate Debate

About This Recipe

This recipe appears in: 'The Pioneer Woman' Movie Coming to the Big Screen?

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