The Gracious Vegan Test Kitchen Tackles ... Egg- and Dairy-free Brownies

When I was a kid (an omnivore), my mom let me make brownies for the family. That meant adding eggs, oil, water, and walnuts to a boxed mix, stirring with the wooden spoon, and putting the pan into the oven. They were actually pretty good, which for me meant, and still means, chewy and chocolaty. In my teens I began making brownies from scratch, using the Betty Crocker Cookbook I got for Christmas one year. As I got older, as a vegetarian adult, I experimented with gourmet variations like rum-currant, triple-chocolate, and cream-cheese-swirl brownies.

As a vegan for the last five years, I’ve struggled to find a go-to brownie recipe. The most elusive quality is the texture. Most recipes I’ve tried produce bars that crumble in the pan and in your hand—they’re not dry, exactly, but they’re not dense, moist, and coherent. It reminds me of a similar challenge I faced with egg-less fruitcake recipes. Preventing egg-less fruitcake from crumbling took me five years to tackle. Granted, I only make fruitcake once a year, but it still qualifies for delayed gratification. (Fruitcake story and recipe will be posted in the future.)

Brownie Recipes We Tested

So it was time to be more systematic about the brownie problem and test out some recipes from the hundreds of egg- and dairy-free brownie recipes available on the internet and in my cookbooks. I read through dozens and dozens of recipes. It was difficult to narrow it down to six, but these six covered the major approaches.  

  • 1970’s recipe veganized with Ener-G egg substitute (Betty Crocker)
  • Recipe without any binder ingredients (Vegan Divas)
  • Recipe with applesauce as “oil” and flaxseeds as binder (The Joy of Vegan Baking)
  • Recipe with fruit preserves as binder (Veganomicon)
  • Gluten-free recipe (Vegan Richa)
  • Gluten-free, raw recipe (The Minimalist Baker)

All recipes were made with vegan ingredients (including the sugar).

The Gracious Vegan Test Kitchen Approach

I prepared the brownies, cut and labeled the squares (no names or recipe sources were showing), and took them to a July 4th gathering of the Hamilton, NJ, Vegan Meetup group. A number of the picnickers tasted the brownies and filled out the rating forms. I asked the participants to focus on taste and texture, using a 5-point scale. I also asked them to name their one or two favorites. Sometimes their favorite was obvious—they gobbled up the whole sample instead of daintily taking only half.

Taste Testers’ Responses

The responses to the brownies were relatively consistent among the testers. It was fascinating how the testers’ comments came back again and again to how a brownie "should" and "shouldn’t" taste. “I remember brownies that were just like this”; “This is more like a store-bought brownie”; “I wouldn’t call this a brownie”; “This is more like a fig or power bar.” Any tastes or textures that were not standard to traditional brownies were disliked and described in negative terms: “Gritty”; “Way too crumbly”; “Not chocolaty enough”; “Different – not cakey or moist.” It was clear that the brownie paradigm—a bar cookie with a hint of cake-ness but also a melt-in-your-mouth chocolate textures —was the standard against which all the samples were judged.

Post Taste-Test Work to Find the Winning Recipe: The First Six Weren't Good Enough

The 1970’s traditional recipe earned the highest ratings on taste, hands-down, but its texture was too tough and chewy. So I did more research, tested more recipes, and found a deserving recipe that conquers the texture challenge while preserving the direct chocolate punch that Betty C. delivered. The winning recipe is by Mattie Hagedorn at www.veganbaking.net. (See recipe link below.) This brownie evokes memories of decadent snacking (which, in my day, was taking the pan and a knife to the TV room and cutting square after square while watching the Thursday night line-up). It’s not too gooey, too crumbly, or too oily. It’s a perfect merging of chocolate bar, chocolate cookie, and chocolate cake. It’s not healthy; did we ever say we were talking about healthy? But, dang, it’s delicious. The notes preceding the recipe say that it took seven years to perfect. Well-done, Mattie! 

Vegan Brownies for Different Occasions

This taste test turned into a quest for the best egg- and dairy-free version of the traditional brownie—a worthy mission indeed. The brownie paradigm was too strong not to dominate the judgments of all the testers, including mine. The winner is the best recipe when you want “a real brownie” or you want to show omnivores that your new style of eating doesn’t mean giving up childhood favorites. There’s no compromise or sacrifice here.

However, the other recipes are excellent and would be the right brownie in the right circumstances. For example, some are healthier than the winner and should be considered for times when you need to eat healthy. Others are great for those who eat gluten-free and/or raw. Still others could play major roles in composite desserts like brownie sundaes.  I’ve recorded my ideas in the notes under each recipe’s results.

The Winning Recipe – The Best Egg- and Dairy-free Brownie Recipe

Mattie's winning recipe, "Ultimate Vegan Brownies," can be found here on his site—www.veganbaking.net—an awesome site for baking recipes.  

The GVTK (Gracious Vegan Test Kitchen) Scores for All the Tested Recipes

The GVTK categories and ratings (1 to 4 V’s) are explained here

The Winner:  Veganbaking.net's Ultimate Vegan Brownies, recipe here.  

Taste V V V V
Texture V V V V
Ease V V V
Affordability V V V V
Health V
Gluten-free N

Vegan Divas' Chocolate Brownies, recipe here

Taste V V
Texture V V
Ease V V V
Affordability V V
Health V
Gluten-free N

Note: The brownies resulting from this recipe did not taste like the brownie I bought recently at the Vegan Divas bakery in New York City. The bakery brownie was a darker color, with a more chocolaty taste, and the cakelike texture was excellent.

Colleen Patrick-Goudreau’s Chocolate Brownies, recipe here.

Taste V V V
Texture V V V
Ease V V V
Affordability V V V V
Health V
Gluten-free N

Note: I would consider these a solid “everyday” brownie recipe, because they are healthier than most of the others (applesauce instead of oil or margarine). Most of the testers found these brownies tasty and pleasant. They lack the density and chewiness of the winning recipe, but they are very good.

Veganomicon’s Fudgy Wudgy Blueberry Brownies, recipe here.

Taste V V V V
Texture V V
Ease V V V
Affordability V V V V
Health V
Gluten-free N

Note: These brownies would be awesome in a blueberry sundae: brownie topped with vegan vanilla or chocolate ice cream, topped with a blueberry (or other berry) sauce and, if you have it, vegan whipped cream.

Vegan Richa’s Coconut Flour Brownies Vegan Gluten-Free, recipe here.

Taste V V
Texture V V
Ease V V V
Affordability V V
Health V V
Gluten-free Y

Note: These brownies are a great choice for those who eat gluten-free. A number of the testers liked the light chocolate flavor, and several were enamored with the coconut overtones. The texture is a bit crumbly. 

The Minimalist Baker’s No Bake Vegan [Gluten-free] Brownies With Chocolate Ganache, recipe here.

Taste V V V
Texture V V V
Ease V V V
Affordability V V
Health V V V
Gluten-free Y

Note: I did not make the ganache frosting, given that it would have been an unfair advantage. Most of the testers did not realize these were raw, although some thought the texture was too much like a fig bar or power bar. I would consider these an excellent brownie recipe for transporting (picnic, lunches, etc.), because they stick together and are relatively healthy.

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