Cheap vs Expensive Ingredients in Brownies - Handle the Heat
Filed Under: Baking Science | Brownie

Cheap vs Expensive Ingredients in Brownies

June 21st, 2023

Is there a difference between using cheap vs. expensive ingredients in brownies? Find out in this brownie experiment where we compare the taste, texture, and appearance of brownies made with budget-friendly ingredients vs. the most premium ingredients we could find!

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Cheap vs. Expensive Ingredients in Brownies: which look better to you? Do premium ingredients automatically equate to more delicious brownies, or do more inexpensive ingredients still yield the same results?

I had suspicions about what the differences would be, but wanted to know for sure. Mostly I wanted to taste test the differences. So I took to the kitchen, armed with my crazy-popular Chewy Brownie Recipe and two sets of ingredients.

The first set of ingredients were the cheapest ingredients I could find at the local grocery store. The second set of ingredients were the most expensive ingredients I could find.

We previously performed the same experiment in my Cheap vs. Expensive Ingredients in Chocolate Chip Cookies – check out those side-by-side comparisons and my verdict here.

Disclaimer: We recognize the words ‘cheap’ and ‘expensive’ are relative and mean something different to everyone. Just being able to bake brownies is a privilege in itself – a privilege that none of us at HTH take for granted. We certainly aren’t trying to exclude anyone baking on a budget with this post – instead, we’re aiming to see if expensive really is worthwhile!

Cheap vs. Expensive Ingredients in Brownies: Which is Better?

Before we start to experiment with these ingredients, here are the predictions I made in advance before baking.

The Cocoa Powder

In most brownie recipes, either Dutch-process or natural cocoa powder can be used since they typically contain little to no leavening (learn about cocoa powder differences here).

So the fat content in cocoa powder becomes the key point of consideration in brownie baking:

Prediction: I believe this will be the biggest factor in the Cheap vs. Expensive Ingredients experiment.

The Butter

I personally find that I don’t get the most *consistent* results using store-brand butter (hello Buttergate, 2020), so in my day-to-day baking and recipe testing, I always use my favorite butter, Challenge Unsalted Butter. It’s widely available here in Arizona and Walmart carries it nationwide.

  • The main difference between unsalted butter products: butterfat content (sensing a theme here?)
  • American-style butters = about 80% butterfat
  • European-style butter = 82% and up (such as Kerrygold)
  • This difference in water content and fat content can change the results of your baking. They are not always interchangeable, such as in my Homemade Toffee Bit Recipe.

Prediction: This could go either way in impacting our brownies. I suspect butter differences impact recipes like pastry, pie, and scones more than brownies.

The Vanilla

While you’ll usually see most food bloggers insisting that high-quality vanilla extract is the only vanilla you should ever use, I don’t believe that’s always the case.

  • High-quality vanilla extract is important when it’s the star ingredient (like in my Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream, for example)
  • In brownies, chocolate will outshine the vanilla so it’s usually not worth the splurge.

Prediction: I believe this will have little to no effect in our Cheap vs. Expensive Ingredients experiment.

The Flour

I use bleached Gold Medal Flour for all my recipe testing. It’s widely available, economical, and consistent.

  • For this experiment, the cheapest flour was the Safeway store brand which was bleached. The most expensive was Bob’s Red Mill, which was unbleached.
  • Bleaching weakens the proteins and prohibits gluten formation, often resulting in a more tender texture. Bleached flours in general soak up more water and produce thicker batters.

Prediction: There’s so little flour in my brownie recipe to maintain a fudgy chewy texture so I don’t think this will greatly impact our Cheap vs. Expensive Ingredients experiment. I’m curious to see if the ‘cheap’ batch made with bleached flour will yield a thicker batter.

The Chocolate Chips

High-quality chocolate is always going to outshine low-quality chocolate in a noticeable way.

  • In brownies, chocolate choice is a matter of personal preference and the intensity of chocolate flavor you want.
  • I find many lower-priced brands to be overly sweet and have an artificial aftertaste.
  • I prefer Ghirardelli chocolate chips which are found at most grocery stores. But when I want something really special, I’ll splurge on Guittard or Valrhona.

Prediction: I believe this will have a big impact on our Cheap vs. Expensive Ingredients experiment. The most expensive chocolate chips at the store were Guittard and they make very large chips, so this will certainly impact the overall mouthfeel.

The Sugar, Oil, Eggs, Cornstarch, Salt, and Leavening Agents

In my experience, the brand of these pantry staples won’t make as big of a difference, if any. Here are some tips for these ingredients:

  • Make sure your sugar isn’t overly coarse. I actually find some organic sugar products have much coarser granules so I usually opt for C&H Sugar or the store brand. Finer sugar granules help that shiny brownie crust to form.
  • Never use oil with an off smell. Neutral oils (such as vegetable, canola, or avocado) can typically be used interchangeably. These oils can go rancid easily, which luckily can be sniffed out before using. That rancid taste and smell will ruin your entire bake.
  • Use large eggs, about 56 grams in shell. White and brown eggshells reflect no quality difference and can be used interchangeably, but sizes can vary, especially for pasture-raised and farmer’s market eggs. Weigh the egg if you’re not sure to retain the correct brownie batter ratios.
  • I prefer to use fine sea salt in all my baking, but table salt is fine too. Check out my article on all things Salt in Baking here.
  • Make sure your leavening agents are not expired. Leavener isn’t as imperative in brownies compared to most baked goods, as there’s just a tiny bit in my Chewy Brownies to help lift them slightly. However, baking powder and baking soda can lose their effectiveness before the expiration date on the container – learn how to test for freshness here.

Prediction: I believe these ingredients will have little effect on the outcomes of our brownie experiments.

Cheap vs Expensive Ingredients in Brownies Experiment

Both batches used in the experiment shown here were made using the same recipe, baked in the same USA Pan 8×8-inch pan, and baked for the same amount of time at the same temperature. In fact, we baked them in the same exact oven simultaneously to control for as many variables as possible. The only differences were the ingredients used, as outlined below.

Ingredients Used For the “Cheap” Brownies

IngredientCost for New ItemCost Per Batch of Brownies
Lucerne unsalted butter, 16oz$4.99$0.78
Signature (Safeway store brand) granulated sugar, 4lb$3.79$0.34
Lucerne large eggs, 12 count$4.99$1.24
Signature vanilla extract, 2oz$5.99$0.49
Signature canola oil, 24oz$3.99$0.02
Signature unsweetened cocoa powder, 8oz$3.99$1.32
Signature all-purpose flour, 5lb$3.99$0.10
Arm & Hammer baking soda, 1lb$1.99$0.01
Signature sea salt, 12.4oz$3.99$0.05
Argo cornstarch, 16oz$2.49$0.04
Signature semisweet chocolate chips, 12oz$3.49$1.31
TOTAL COST$39.70$4.84

Ingredients Used For the “Expensive” Brownies

IngredientCost for New ItemCost Per Batch of Brownies
Kerrygold unsalted butter, 8oz$5.49$1.72
C&H Sugar pure cane granulated sugar, 4lb$6.49$0.89
Vital Farms large organic pasture-raised eggs, 12 count$9.99$2.50
Nielsen-Massey Madagascar bourbon vanilla extract, 4oz$22.99$0.95
O Organics canola oil, 16.9oz$6.49$0.06
Guittard Dutch-process cocoa powder, 8oz$8.99$2.97
Bob’s Red Mill organic unbleached white all-purpose flour, 5lb$10.49$0.28
Arm & Hammer baking soda, 1 lb$1.99$0.01
Signature sea salt, 12.4 oz$3.99$0.05
Argo cornstarch, 16 oz$2.49$0.04
Guittard semisweet super cookie chips, 12oz$5.99$2.25
TOTAL COST$85.39$11.72

Brownie Experiment Appearance Results

Cheap: The batter was lighter in color with a more ‘gritty’ appearance. The crust on top was dull. These brownies were taller and more even.
Expensive: The batter was darker in color and significantly more smooth in appearance. The crust on top was insanely shiny. These brownies were shorter with a slightly sunken center, almost as if there was too much richness to hold onto the structure!

Brownie Experiment Taste Results

Cheap: More muted chocolate flavor, similar to box mix brownies.
Expensive: Richer and smoother chocolate flavor that made the brownies taste less sweet, even though they had the same amount of sugar!

Brownie Experiment Texture Results

Cheap: Drier, more crumbly, a little more starchy, with crispier edges.
Expensive: More moist, fudgy, and rich texture.

Final Verdict: Brownie Ingredients

Out of over seven taste testers (two being kids!), most of us preferred the more expensive brownies. However, BOTH were delicious. Yet both Joe and I found ourselves wanting seconds of the more expensive brownies.

The higher-quality chocolate chips were immediately noticeable and enjoyed by all. The texture of these brownies was fudgier and chewier, with a richer flavor – all of which I attribute to the high-quality, high-fat cocoa powder.

Where you should splurge vs. where you can save will depend on the recipe, but when making brownies:

  • Splurge on the cocoa powder and chocolate, where it matters most
  • Save with the rest

I hope you enjoyed my Cheap vs Expensive Ingredients in Brownies experiment here, and if you haven’t tried them before, give my Chewy Brownie Recipe a try – they’re super quick and easy! They’re my most popular brownie recipe for a reason.

Other Science of Baking Articles:

Brownie Recipes You’ll Love:

Photos by Joanie Simon.

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Tessa Arias
Author: Tessa Arias

I share trusted baking recipes your friends will LOVE alongside insights into the science of sweets. I'm a professionally trained chef, cookbook author, and cookie queen. I love to write about all things sweet, carb-y, and homemade. I live in Phoenix, Arizona (hence the blog name!)

Tessa Arias

About Tessa...

I share trusted baking recipes your friends will LOVE alongside insights into the science of sweets. I'm a professionally trained chef, cookbook author, and cookie queen. I love to write about all things sweet, carb-y, and homemade. I live in Phoenix, Arizona (hence the blog name!)

Find Tessa on  

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  1. #
    David — September 15, 2023 at 2:17 pm

    It would be interesting to know what a third brownie would have compared in tastes with the cheap ingredients except substitute the cheap coco powder and chocolate with the expensive ones .At a blended cost of $7.38 per batch So you would have a expensive, cheap and blended categories. But amazing article as is for sure. Thanks for doing the hard work so I didn’t have to.

  2. #
    Susan — September 15, 2023 at 7:21 am

    Just curious if using the cheaper cocoa, you could increase the amount of butter to compensate?

    • #
      Kiersten @ Handle the Heat — September 15, 2023 at 8:27 am

      Hi Susan! Glad you enjoyed this article! Unfortunately, that adjustment won’t quite work. Butter contains water as well as butterfat, whereas cocoa powder is a very drying ingredient – so you wouldn’t be simply swapping fat for different fat. If you’re interested, Tessa has a fantastic online course you can take to learn more about the deep-dive differences ingredients like this make in baking. Check out The Magic of Baking Course here! Happy baking 🙂

  3. #
    Laurel — June 28, 2023 at 1:12 pm

    Thank you!

  4. #
    Shelly — June 23, 2023 at 12:38 pm

    I noticed you used regular unsweetened cocoa powder in the cheap brownies, yet used Dutch processed in the expensive. Won’t the Dutch processed produce darker brownies

    • #
      Kiersten @ Handle the Heat — June 26, 2023 at 9:05 am

      Hi Shelly! In this case, yes, the ‘expensive’ brownies’ darker appearance is most likely thanks to the cocoa powder we used. We simply chose the very cheapest and the most expensive cocoa powders we could find for this experiment. Since we’re only dealing with a tiny bit of leavening agent in brownies, the cocoa won’t have much impact on the texture – just the flavor and appearance. Learn more about Dutched vs. natural cocoas in Tessa’s article here. As Tessa notes, though, the ‘expensive’ brownies had a very fudgy, chocolatey flavor that is thanks to the cocoa and the chocolate used. The fat content is what really sets the quality of cocoas apart – read more about that here!

  5. #
    sharyn — June 23, 2023 at 11:03 am

    That’s a whole lot of money for a batch of brownies. It’s a good thing I am not too fond of brownies

  6. #
    Jessica — June 21, 2023 at 12:12 pm

    Love these comparisons! I also appreciate that you give us the difference that the higher quality makes in the recipe to know whether or not it is “worth it.”

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