I make brownies for a living. I have done this now for more than 15
years. I have very good control over the quality. But one problem I
am having is that sometimes the CRUST on the top of the brownie
cakes, which are 8x10 in wide and about 2 in high (much higher than
typically for brownies) is both thick and hard, even though
inside they are soft, chewy and moist. So when a customer goes to
stick his fork into the brownie and is met by a hard crust he assumes
the brownie is hard and dry. Just today I tried putting 1/2 of one percent
of glycerine in the batter and just now checked the results and they
are zilch -- it makes no difference at all. I also make vanilla and
carob brownies with which I do not have this problem. It is only with
chocolate. I use cocoa powder, not chocolate. This problem with the
crust seems to
vary. Some times it is much worse than others. There should be a
fairly simply way to control the crust, which is what I need to know.
We bake these cakes for about 1.5 hours, first at a lower temp and
then higher to avoid fissures in the top of the cake. I am not a
professional baker, though I make a living from making brownies. But
I do consider myself something of an expert when it comes to brownies.
But with regard to this matter of the crust, I know very little. An
experienced baker, not necessarily with brownies, might well know the
answer. It shouldn't really require research which is why I have
offered only $30. If someone thinks it is worth more than that and
can give me a workable solution, I don't mind paying more.
Request for Question Clarification by
08 Mar 2006 12:50 PST
How?s the weather?
Seriously - My guess is that you are having problems on days when the
humidity is higher than average or when humidity in your kitchen his
above normal. Using hot water in the room, utensils that are not
ABSOLUTELY dry, pans that are not ABSOLUTELY dry, damp dishtowels or
potholders are all contributing factors to local humidity. As you?re
probably aware, chocolate is ?extremely? sensitive to humidity where
other ingredients are not. This could very well account for your good
batches and your occasional bad batches and the fact that you cannot
control the chocolate when the other ingredients pose no challenge.
Steam, condensation, or water droplets in any amount ? however slight
- may cause chocolate in the room to become lumpy or grainy. This
phenomenon is known as ?seizing? and is almost always related to too
much humidity. For a hundred years chocolate bakers have known that a
humid or rainy day is a day filled with problems and the same might be
true on days when a weather front is moving in, pushing humidity into
While the weather outside can indeed be a factor, the ?weather? in
your kitchen is probably your biggest factor. For best results dry air
is a MUST where mixing, baking and storing chocolate goods are
concerned. My guess is that you can invest in a good dehumidifier and
use caution not to introduce moisture into the area where your mixture
takes place and you?ll probably solve many of your problems.
CHOCOLATE TEMPERING TIPS
Let me know if this works for you as an answer.
Clarification of Question by
10 Mar 2006 03:26 PST
Thanks for your answer. Sorry it's taken two days to reply, but I
thought I was going to get some email message saying that there was a
response, but today I simply logged on and there was your response.
I'm sure that you're basically right in saying that humidity is the
overall cause of my current problem with thick, hard crusts. I live
in Johannesburg, S Africa (though I'm an American). Johannesburg is
generally a very dry, in fact semi-desert, climate, something like
southern California, though as a matter of fact, the last three months
or so -- including, I think, the period during which I've had these
problems -- has been unusually wet and humid. (And as I write, it is
starting to rain again!)
This pehnomenon of thick crusts, varying over time, has existed for
some time. The reason it is a 'problem' right now is that three
people at my biggest customer, a chain of more than 40 pizzarias
(about half of my business -- I know, it's definitely too many eggs in
one basket, but BCBC [Beggars Can't Be Choosers]), at three different
restaurants, reported the same complaints (through the central
warehouse where I deliver weekly). The complaints, as relayed to me,
were that the brownies were 'dry' and, I was assured, this was prior
to their being put into the microwave -- something I advise them not
to do but over which I have no control once they've left my bakery. I
was just about certain that they could not have been dry and that the
problem was, rather, that there was a thick and hard crust -- which
indeed, on further inquiry, turned out to be the case.
Now, assuming that you are basically correct as to the cause of these
thick crusts -- moisture and humidity -- what to do exactly? First of
all, I don't know just how this fits in, but in fact we do -- and have
from the very beginning, 16 years ago in Feb '90, when I began -- add
about 1 litre of water (about a quart] to every batch, which makes six
cakes weighing more than 3 lbs each when they come out of the oven.
Without this water the batter would be unmanageably thick. We use
very warm water, though I'm not sure I could tell you why we use warm
rather than cold.
So as far as I can tell, that's not something we could alter. However
-- and this is something we could easily control -- the cocoa powder,
which we buy in 25 kg bags (about 44 lbs) and which comes in heavy
paper bags, once opened is not really closed well, and no doubt, esp.
in this rainy weather, is getting moisture into it. I will
immediately transfer the contents of these opened bags into airtight
The point about adding water to the batter: I can't really see how
moisture on the baking pans (e.g.) can be too important when we are
adding a litre of water to the batter. But moisture in the cocoa
powder could be a different matter altogether.
I just went and put my hand into a bag of opened cocoa powder. It had
formed 'clumps' of sorts, but they were not hard, broke up with a very
slight pressure, and the powder did not stick to my hand very much at
all. Though I haven't baked now myself for several years (I have two
local women working for me who do that), I believe that this has
always been the case with the cocoa powder, and we have always,
because of this, sifted the cocoa powder before mixing it into the
batter. But it must have some moisture in it and it will certainly
help to keep the cocoa powder in an airtight container, which I will
do immediately. I might even try putting the cocoa powder in the oven
overnight, at a very minimal temp, just to 'dry it out'.
Someone else -- cynthia-ga -- suggests turning the cakes upside down
immediately on removing from the oven so that the moisture, which
could thinken the upper crust, will instead rise to the bottom of the
cake. This makes sense, but in fact, we've always done this (for other
reasons), though we can't do it immediately out of the over as there
is another procedure that requires the cakes be rightside up.
I will only be able to tell you in a couple of weeks whether dealing
with moisture helps, at least during this period when it is raining
almost every day. I will certainly now pay attention to what happens
when the weather eventually becomes dry again. Please let me know of
any other ways you can think of by which I might control moisture and
thereby the crusts.
Btw, we bake in a two-car garage attached to my house, not in a
kitchen. We make about 80 of these 8x10x2 in, 3.3 lb (1.5kg) cakes
per week, most of which are cut into portions and sealed into polyprop
packets, and put into a freezer as soon as they're cooled off.
Because they are so dense (the essence of a good brownie), they keep
frozen almost indefinitely and in a fridge for upwards of two months.
They can be defrosted and refrozen endlessly. The recipe is
completely my own, developed between '88 and '90 by baking in a small
gas oven hundreds and hundreds of time, trial and error. Since '90,
when I first began selling them, it is only in the last two years that
I have been able to maintain a very high degree of quality over an
extended period of time.
While you're 'on the line', I have two other queries which I recently
tried to post on Google but wasn't able to because of a problem with
my credit card number (which had to do with having an overseas address
and which I have now sorted out). I'll be happy to pay you additional
funds for these if you can be of any help.
(1) Since the late 90s there has been a problem with the quality of
cocoa powder, due (as I understand it) to a variety of factors --
partly scarcity of the powder as a result of unrest in Ivory Coast
(largest producer in the world), as well as the use of palm oil to
replace cocoa butter becaue it obviates the 'whiting' problem with
(hard) chocolate which occurs when you use cocoa butter. This, in
addition to the problems in Ivory Coast, has resulted in less cocoa
butter being produced, from which cocoa powder is made. Consequently
(from what I know) cocoa powder producers have been adulterating it
with various additives etc.
I have coped with this problem by adding things like coffee and
cinammon and anything else that might work. The flavour (as opposed
to texture) of my choc brownies is good to very good, but not fabulous
(as the texture is). I recently had the owner of a group of three
very successful restaurants who was unhappy with the very mediocre
brownies they were making and wanted to taste mine. He said, quite
correctly, that the texture was superb, but thought that the taste
could be improved.
Someone told me about chocolate essence and after doing a thorough
search on google I found a place in N Carolina, La Cuisine, that sold
a chocolate essence made in France. I bought a litre for the hefty
price of $125 (inc $40 for shipping). It was a complete dud; I added
two tablespons to one cake and could not taste the slightest
So if you know any place where I might get another such choc essence
to try, I'd like to know about it -- or anything else. What the
flavour is lacking is what I call 'bite'; a really good chocolate
flavour should 'excite' your palate, something 'tangy' that makes you
go 'wow'! If you know what I mean. This is true for many foods. I
remember having a pizza (at this same large customer) and telling them
that while it was otherwise pretty good, it lacked 'bite'. I couldn't
tell them what to add to give it bite, but I could tell them that this
is what it lacked. It was, to use the right term, the opposite of
having 'bite', bland.
(2) Secondly, we use caramel essence in our vanilla and carob
brownies. This essense is both quite expensive (it is only packaged
in tiny little jars for some reason) and is not all that good. I've
tried caramelizing sugar, reading about it on the Internet. They
always make it sound so easy, but it is (in my experience) anything
but. Once you start to boil sugar it is a very messy -- and dangerous
-- situation. The last time I tried it, I dipped my middle fingure
into this gooey mixture, only to get a nasty burn on the tip of the
finger, because boiled sugar sticks to your skin like napalm! On
cooling, the boiled sugar was hard as a rock and useless.
If I were able to caramelize sugar successfully, it might be much
better than the caramel essence we use now and probably much cheaper
As I say, if you can help me with either of these latter questions --
improving the chocolate flavour with a choc essense or anything else
and caramelizing sugar to add to the vanilla and carob brownies and,
come to think of it, maybe the chocoate as well -- I'd be happy to pay
you some more money.
Thanks for your help.
Request for Question Clarification by
10 Mar 2006 06:52 PST
Unfortunately, what you've asked in your follow-up question is beyond
my level of expertise. While I may have some viable suggestions about
the crusting phenomenon, I'm probably not the best source for
information about alternative ingredients. If my suggestion about the
humidity problem proves valuable I'd be delighted to claim the reward
for that answer but your other questions are most likley best suited
for a culinary expert.
Request for Question Clarification by
10 Mar 2006 18:31 PST
I had a serious feeling of deja vu when I read this question, so I
poked around and found your original inquiry from 2003. It was nice
to know that at least some parts of my brain are functioning after the
week I've had...
I am a working cook in Canada, and have some professional baking
experience. Brownies are not my forte (don't care for 'em myself),
but I do have an extensive online acquaintance in the cooking/baking
community, so I'm going to put out a few feelers and see what I can
come up with.
I can provide you with a few initial comments, however. To begin
with, although the information provided by Tutuzdad regarding
chocolate and moisture is accurate, it is accurate only for
chocolate...not cocoa. It is the cocoa butter which reacts with water
and makes the chocolate seize; and cocoa of course is what's left when
you remove the cocoa butter from chocolate. Whatever the problem may
be, it isn't seizing.
You've mentioned that your brownies are thicker than is common, which
may be one factor in giving them a thick crust. Lacking details of
your recipe and methodology, this is entirely speculative, but the
longer a cake or bar is baked (and the thicker, the longer the baking
time), the greater the likelihood of a hard crust forming. A baking
time of 1.5 hours could certainly be a factor, though one would expect
a consistent problem (rather than a sporadic one) if this was the main
A further prospect, and a more likely one, is mixing time. As you are
doubtless aware, wheat flour contains two proteins, glutenin and
gliadin, which when in the presence of water combine to form chains of
protein called gluten. The wetter the batter (up to a point) the
greater the opportunity to develop gluten. Brownies are by their
nature a wet batter, with a higher percentage of eggs and liquid than
many standard cakes. This means that if the batter is mixed for more
than the minimum time, the resulting cake may be less than optimal.
One leading characteristic of a cake with excess gluten development is
a tough crust.
There are a few things that can be done to address this. One, of
course, is simply to scrutinize mixing time. This is a training
issue; one I've had to harp on over and over again with the bakers
under my supervision. A second is to use a "softer" or lower-gluten
flower (pastry or cake flour, in North American terminology) for part
of the total weight. You may also want to compare the recipe you use
with others from the 'web, and see how the proportions of ingredients
in your recipe compare to those of other published recipes. A tool I
have used for that purpose is this online spreadsheet (requires Java):
"Baker's percentage" is how professional bakers calculate their
formulas (recipes). The primary ingredient (usually flour) is listed
as 100%, with all other ingredients expressed as a percentage of the
primary ingredient. While it sounds complicated, it is actually very
simple once you've got the hang of it. The standard baguette dough,
for example, is referred to as "60-2-2" bread dough; 60% water, 2%
salt, 2% yeast (the flour is assumed). Expressing your recipes as
percentages allows you to scale them up or down infinitely, with
relatively little effort.
As regards the flavour of your brownies, the obvious answer to giving
them more chocolate "kick" is to add some good quality dark chocolate.
This, unfortunately, adds a considerable degree of cost (not good,
when you're under contract at a specific price point). You may want
to increase the quantity of cocoa you use, which should give a
stronger chocolate flavour without changing the overall flavour too
dramatically. I have also used concentrated espresso or good-quality
instant coffee to intensify the chocolate flavour in my own baking.
Further, I have noted that using brown sugar instead of white (or in
place of a portion of the white) tends to make for a moister, chewier
browny. This may be what you're reaching for with the use of
glycerine or caramel.
Invert sugars such as honey, glucose, or corn syrup are "hygroscopic"
sweeteners, ie they attract moisture from the atmosphere.
Incorporating a quantity of one of these sweeteners may help.
As for the caramel making, it is not overly difficult...but there is
some technique involved. As you've already discovered, you do *not*
want to dip a spoon in it and taste it! (Relax, we've all done
it...once...I was discussing that very thing with my co-workers
earlier this week). If you add a small quantity of acid to your
caramel (lemon juice, tartaric acid, vinegar) or a small quantity of
an invert sugar (glucose, corn syrup) it is less likely to crystallize
as you work. Adding water once your caramel has reached an
appropriate darkness helps you arrive at a thick, pourable syrup
rather than rock-hard lumps. A good ratio is 400ml of water to every
kilo of sugar used in the caramel.
This past Christmas I made a batch of caramel for a rum sauce, using
27kg of sugar and about 10 litres of water and rum. It worked out
well. The caramel will splatter, however, when the water is added, so
try to do it at arms' length (and with long sleeves and gloves on).
A thought, concerning Cynthia-ga's suggestion of inverting the pans.
Would it be possible to cover the pans with parchment paper and cover
them with a second pan for a few minutes, once they've come from the
oven? Just a few minutes should be adequate for the steam to
penetrate and soften the crust, and then you might carry on with the
other procedure you'd mentioned.
Good luck, and I'll be in touch again within the week.
Clarification of Question by
12 Mar 2006 09:16 PST
Thanks for your suggestions. CRUST. Mixing time: I doubt that's a
problem but I can double-check. Since I've been making brownies I
have always operated on the principle of minimal mixing (like minimal
tillage in farming); but I will double-check. Soft flour: I don't
think that's the problem, but in any case, I don't know how and where
to get softer flour. I know that softness of the flour has a lot to do
with texture with which, at the moment, I do not have a problem. Btw,
is there a general difference, in softness, between cake and bread
flour? Originally (when I was baking myself, between '90-'95) I felt
that bread was better, but then subsequently I have used only cake --
plus about 10% whole meal flour. Recently though I've begun using
about 50% bread because I felt the texture was a bit too 'smooth' and
wanted to make it a little 'rougher'.
FLAVOUR. I have in fact been using some instant coffee in the
brownies; it make help a bit but not dramatically. I will get some
strong espresso and will try it next Tues. (We only bake on Tues and
Wed.) I already use about 20% of the darkest cocoa powder there is --
the very same powder that Nabisco uses in Oreo cookies. Again, it may
help, but nothing dramatic. I do not think that using more cocoa
powder would make any difference, and might in fact alter the texture.
I may not have mentioned that I bought, at considerable expense, a
litre of chocolate essence (origininating in France) from a business
called La Cuisine in the States, and it made no difference as far as I
can tell. If anyone knows of some other chocolate essence I will try
CRUST (again). I gather that the basic problem is that the top of the
brownies are getting too dry and that it needs more moisture. I will
try AMBER00's suggestions: putting a tray of water in the oven, and
covering the cakes with a damp cloth when they come out of the oven.
Both of these have the advantage of being immediately do-able and I
suspect (hope?) that they will have some effect.
FLAVOUR (again). I hope to bake on Tues with some ground espresso.
Any suggestions as to how much? I don't want to risk six cases (which
is what we bake at one time), so will probably try it in just one and
use about 10% of the amount of cocoa powder -- which will mean about
40 gr. I will let you know the results, both crust and taste-wise.
Thanks again, one and all.
Request for Question Clarification by
12 Mar 2006 09:41 PST
Just to respond to what you've added:
"Softer" flour is what cake flour is. If you're already using that,
it's not likely to be a gluten issue; even with bread flour at 50/50.
The all-purpose flour you remember from America is softer than bread
flour, but harder than cake flour; mixing the two puts you pretty
close to the all-purpose flour mostly used by Americans for
The "black" cocoa used in Oreos is largely a colouring agent. It has
less chocolatey flavour than regular cocoa, so if you're adding it to
increase the chocolate "punch" of your brownies you're going in the
wrong direction (I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but...).
As regards cocoa, are you using dutch-processed cocoa (alkalized), or
natural? The natural cocoa (somewhat acidic) is generally regarded as
having a truer and more insistent chocolate flavour.
When I spoke of using espresso in your baking, I was referring to the
actual brewed espresso coffee (liquid). If you go that route,
remember that the espresso needs to be reduced to about 1/4 its
original volume to give the sort of kick you need in baking; ie reduce
a litre down to about 250ml (a quart to a cup). I have not used the
actual ground espresso beans in my baking personally, but I know
others who have. Consensus has been largely favourable, but look for
the finest grind you can get. The best is the ultra-fine grind used
for turkish coffee, so if you have an independent coffee
roaster/grinder in your area that would be an ideal place to try.
As for the suggestion of adding moisture during baking, I'm dubious as
to whether that would help you out. I've never heard of it being done
with a cake, but in bread-baking moisture is introduced to the oven to
*generate* crustiness. It's worth the experiment, I guess, but do use
a small batch for test purposes.
Anything baked for a longer time will develop a crust (suckling pig,
anyone?); the damp towel suggestion or the invert-the-cake suggestion
would re-soften the crust retroactively.
Do you pour a glaze or icing over the brownies when they are done?
This may sound silly, but last night while pondering your problem I
wondered about simply cutting off the crust. There are wide,
straight, two-handled knives made for cheese cutting and similar
activities which would be broad enough for the purpose. Using the
sides of the pan as a guide, the knife could simply be drawn along the
pan's top to lop off the crusty dome from the brownies. If, as I say,
you already apply a glaze, you could then apply it to the shaved
It would mean a slight increase in your food cost (you'd be losing
some weight of usable product for the same cost of ingredients) but it
might be a pragmatic, if inelegant, short-term solution. A bit out of
left field, I know, but that's what brainstorming is all about.
Clarification of Question by
13 Mar 2006 11:31 PST
Chromodome: I tried contacting my cocoa powder supplier today without
success, but will query her tomorrow about natural vs alkalanized cp.
If this natural cp is more acidic and if that gives the results more
'kick', then would it work to ADD some (say) citric acid, from lemons
or limes? I might give that a try.
Cutting off the crust could not really be done without making a mess
of the cake. If I had some kind of 'grinder' that I could run over
the top of the cake, that might work.
I am getting some finely ground espresso coffee tomorrow and will try
it on one cake. Also tomorrow, I will try putting some slightly damp
clothes over the brownies when they come out of the oven. We only do
one size batch -- and that's six of these 1.5 kg cakes. If you're
right about putting a pan of water in the oven that might mean risking
six cakes. I'll try the damp cloth first.
Once again I ask: if anyone knows where I can get some COFFEE ESSENCE
that they have reason to believe works, please give me some info. I
will go just about to the ends of the earth to make the best brownies
possible. I will worry about the costs later.
Will give results tomorrow.
Gene - gedaliah
Clarification of Question by
19 Mar 2006 14:01 PST
Sunday 19 Nar 06: I have tried just about all of the suggestions made.
TASTE: I put quite a bit of espresso coffee in one cake; could taste
the coffee taste (we have made coffee brownies in the past and when
made right they are quite delicious), but it did not seem to improve
the CHOCOLATE flavour in any way that I could detect. I recently got
a sample of what is alleged to be a very superior cocoa powder from
Madagascar (www.chocrobert.co.za). It is about six times the current
price of 'ordinary' cocoa powder. It would have to be incredibly good
to spend anything like that, though they assure me one would need to
use less of this than the ordinary. They gave me a sample of their
(hard) chocolate and it didn't strike me as anything to rave about. I
will try mixing some of this with the regular when we bake next
Tuesday. I will also try adding some lemon juice since, it is said,
that the problem with this run-of-the-mill cocoa powder is that it is
alkanized; so many some cirtus acid will make it less so!
CRUST: I am still not certain about the results. I have used both
suggestions -- of putting some water in the oven when we bake, as well
as putting a moist cloth over the cakes when they come out of the
oven. It is not such a simple matter to say whether the crusts are
softer than previously; it will take longer to tell. I guess that
means that if they are softer, they are not dramatically so. Though I
can say that the crusts are no THINNER than before. In any case, it
doesn't seem to be such a big problem, since my biggest customer, from
which the three complaints about the hard crust originally came, have
not complained since and last week ordered double what they ordered
the week before.