KANSAS CITY - Using the most basic of ingredients and some simple addition or subtraction, bakers can create brownies that are light and cake-like, dense and fudgy, or enhanced with inclusions and toppings. A reoccurring crowd-pleaser, particularly among households with children 6 to 17, brownies accommodate even those who don’t like or can’t eat chocolate.  

The brownie’s delicious yet satisfyingly blank canvas offers delicious ways to explore new flavors, textures and levels of sweetness while meeting a growing range of trends, tastes and expectations in scratch, mix and commercial baking. To enable bakers to quickly take advantage of the newest trends, Corbion, Lenexa, Kan., offers mixes and bases like its Gourmet Brownie Mix 2.0 to eliminate variations in scaling and production and a Brownie Concentrate for the creation of miniature brownie bites. 

Cue the variety 

While there’s plenty to enjoy about the chocolate-free blondie, the addition of chocolate is where brownies really shine. Barry Callebaut’s Chocolate Trends Report, Outlook for 2020 and Beyond, discovered 70% of consumers want new and exciting chocolate experiences. That means those looking to raise the chocolate bar will need to attract and retain younger consumers who are in search of clean label chocolate with an origin story, a quality deemed as more trustworthy by 61% in the trends report with chocolate origin and cacao percentage being influential to purchase decisions. 

A flourishing foodie culture and 24/7 social media also fuel the desire for the experiential through the purchase of plantation-specific chocolate, vintage varietals and naturally derived flavors, allowing consumers the ability to choose chocolate much like they might a bottle of wine, a block of cheese or craft beer. Unprecedented variety over the last five years produced an 83% growth in chocolate launches, according to Mintel, including Ruby chocolate, blonde or caramelized white chocolate and Barry Callebaut’s WholeFruit chocolate that upcycles the 70% of the fruit that’s normally discarded – all perfect ways to elevate the brownie. 

Upscaling the basics 

The growing ability to meet diverse consumer expectations means there’s a chocolate to suit almost everyone. For those seeking less intensity and a sweeter bite, there’s dark milk chocolate with 40%-50% cocoa. Middle Eastern, tropical and Asian flavors include hot spices and dates, and the use of turmeric, saffron and hibiscus provide unique color options. Savory chocolate launches feature smoked and flavored salt and pepper, umami flavors and unexpected additions of browned butter, bread/sourdough and olive oil. The use of 100% plant-based ingredients, including fruits, nuts, seeds, roots, flowers, cacao nibs, plant-based sweeteners, hemp and cannabis introduce a more earthy element to chocolate offerings. 

Noting premiumization and indulgence as two of the biggest trends in the brownie space, Cargill, Minneapolis, is working with brands to be a one-stop shop for ingredients including decadent inclusions and products with premium high cacao content, according to Allison Leibovich, senior technical services specialist, bakery, Cargill. For bakers looking to enhance the chocolate experience with a real chocolate claim, the company offers its Wilbur Duet product that functions like cocoa powder but also contains chocolate liquor. 

Beyond chocolate, inclusions take brownies to the next level with rising interest in the use of macadamia nuts, frozen cheesecake batter and peanut butter chunks, according to Stratas Foods, Memphis, Tenn. The company is also seeing brownie introductions including spice, salted caramel, cookies and cream, chocolate chunk, s’mores, coconut, pumpkin and red velvet flavors and additions of fresh berries to add color. Shades of cocoa powder offer another point of differentiation with a spectrum of colors available from the red-brown of Cargill’s Gerkens Duchess cocoa powder to black cocoas from Blommer Chocolate Company, Chicago, perfect for creating trendy “charcoal” chocolate offerings.  

Brand partnerships with well-known confectionary and cookie brands are yet another way to add novelty and boost bakery sales. Corbion noted increasing brand callouts in brownies made with Nutella, Swiss Sweet chocolate or Ghirardelli chocolate.  

Marvelous mashups 

“Mashup Mania,” as coined by Dawn Foods, Jackson, Mich., is the combination of foods and flavors and the inspiration behind its brownie waffle sandwich and dessert lasagna. Combining the traditional with the new or unfamiliar is driving breakfast traffic and sales with recipes for brownie waffles and brownie pancakes. To boost interest and creativity, Mitch Riavez, senior national accounts manager, Stratas Foods, suggested layering brownies in cakes and cheesecakes with alternating layers of mousse.  

“Brownies offer endless unique crossover possibilities,” said Eric Richard, industry relations coordinator, IDDBA, Madison, Wis. “It all comes down to how the instore can showcase the product(s) from a freshness perspective. Creative options go a long way with consumers and it’s worth exploring how the product can mash-up with other bakery items.” 

Richard recommended cross-merchandising individual or smaller-count prepackaged brownies throughout the perimeter. This could include an online or instore meal kit, tubs of ready-to-bake brownie batter in the cold case or pairing parbaked or prebaked brownies with decorating kits.

Brownie “popsicles,” a concept from Bakemark, Pico Rivera, Calif., offers instant portion control and decadence with chocolate coating, icing drizzle, multicolor sprinkles, Twinkle Pearls, confetti, fruit, nuts or chocolate chunks or chips. For those looking for brownies with a dose of color, there’s rainbow unicorn brownies, a creation of Duff Goldman, founder of Charm City Cakes. Goldman uses white chocolate, gel food colors and edible glitter to create multi-colored unicorn brownie magic. At the other end of the spectrum, unexpected healthy ingredients like tahini check multiple boxes as a healthier inclusion that produces a savory flavor profile offering unexpected depth to traditional chocolate. 

Permissible indulgence 

While premiumization can encourage purchase at a higher price-point for some, there remains a segment of consumers who seek products with better-for-you ingredients. This includes label-conscious younger consumers who lead the charge for foods that support “free from” claims and specific diet and lifestyle choices.  

Such options include the use of plant-based proteins and ancient and whole-grain flours. The specific formulations designed to accommodate vegan, keto and gluten-free diets each come with unique formulation challenges around the removal of eggs, sugar and wheat flour. Successful reformulations using plant-based proteins and chicory root fiber boost the nutritional profile and provide tasty, better-for-you profiles.  

Dawn Foods offers a cleaner label brownie mix, gluten-free brownie mix and a new vegan brownie mix. A new addition to its other clean label offerings, the vegan brownie mix is anticipated to become a growing segment within the category, according to Anne Marie Halfmann, senior manager of category for North America Marketing, Dawn Foods. 

Continuing innovation around formulation challenges means consumers benefit from an ever-widening range of healthier options, but complications arise when consumer expectations don’t line up with actual purchases. Such was the case for Nestlé UK. Less than two years after introducing a ground-breaking 30% lower-sugar chocolate confectionery, the company discontinued the product because of “underwhelming” consumer response. As a result, companies walk a fine line of balancing calls for health and wellness, government initiatives to reduce obesity and corporate responsibility with unwavering expectations around taste and indulgence.  

Instead, some companies choose to meet expectations of permissible indulgence through smaller portions – minis, thins and brownie bites – to minimize guilt and maximize indulgence opportunities. IDDBA cites mini desserts as a growing category for those who desire indulgence but also want health and wellness. Pre-packaged items in a variety of portion sizes are another way to grab the attention of consumers who are looking to spend less time in the supermarket. A proprietary consumer study conducted by Corbion found Gen X consumers are more likely to consider pre-packaged items than their generational counterparts.  

“We know that in the grocery store or bakery, consumers experience food via their senses of vision, smell and touch,” said JoAnn Rupp, global market insights manager, Corbion. “That’s why it’s important for instore bakery products to use packaging that’s clear and easy to see through, so consumers can see product details and make their own determinations about freshness before purchasing.”  

The company’s panel survey of instore bakery shoppers, conducted in March, found 41% of respondents stated they would feel more confident in the safety of cakes and brownies in sealed containers such as clamshells along with packaging featuring safety labels and tamper seals to signal if food is compromised. Halfmann anticipates single-serve/individual packaging and sizing requests will return to “normal” in a post-COVID environment but that consumer preferences will take some time to return to comfort levels seen pre-pandemic. 

“The brownie category will continue to grow as consumers prepare for celebrations where indulgent baked goods are typical at these types of gatherings,” Rupp concluded. “Consumers will seek out the comfort in these items and moving forward, there will be opportunity for bakers to offer a variety of convenient and portable brownie options that meet the needs of consumers, no matter the occasion.”