17 Add-Ins That Will Elevate Your Brownies

Whether you're making them from scratch or throwing together a quick chocolate fix from a boxed mix, brownies are the O.G. of traybakes. They're a staple at school bake sales and they're easy to put together as a satisfying dessert for a backyard barbeque or casual dinner party. But the humble brownie doesn't have to remain basic, and giving this classic treat a glow-up is easier than you think. 

Most upgrades are simple enough that they can be added to premade mixes and don't require you to bake the whole shebang from scratch while still giving you wow-worthy end results. Adding more dimension to this classic dessert will make your brownies truly stand out on the dessert table. Variations in flavors and textures are an easy trick to elevate a simple recipe into an exercise in decadence. You don't have to be an expert baker to make mind-blowing brownies, but it's okay to let your guests think you might have some Top Chef talent hidden up your sleeve.

1. Espresso powder

One of the easiest upgrades requires zero additional labor. All you need is some instant espresso powder to make amazing mocha brownies. Calling to mind your favorite comforting Starbucks order, throwing in a pinch of espresso adds an amazing dimension to your chocolatey treat. Even if you're not a coffee drinker, you can still appreciate the boost that the espresso gives your brownies.

Coffee and chocolate are natural companions, both of them being the product of tropical seeds. They're both similarly harvested and roasted to bring out their natural flavors. Their similar processing method means that they often have similar flavor profiles depending on their place of origin and roasting style. They're a harmonious flavor combination created by Mother Nature, herself!

If you don't have espresso powder handy, you can replace a portion of liquid (usually water or milk depending on your recipes) with fresh brewed coffee. The flavor won't be as intense, it will add a subtle coffee note to your brownies that will carry through when they're baked, complimenting the chocolate in a gentle way.

2. Cream cheese

It's hard to think of a recipe that cream cheese doesn't improve. The tangy, smooth, and soft cheese has seemingly endless applications, from adding a velvety quality to creamy pasta sauce to marrying lox and bagels. And while it is a stand-out in savory dishes, you can't ignore its contributions to the dessert world. It's the main element in a traditional cheesecake and it brings that same zingy sweetness to brownies. Cream cheese brownies are a common variation on the traditional traybake.

Swirling some cream cheese or spreading a thick layer between the brownie batter brings a new element of tang and zip to your regular brownies. It's like combining a decadent New York-style cheesecake into your brownies with half the effort that a cheesecake normally requires. No water bath, no need to worry about the top cracking. Plus, the creamy white of the cheese is a gorgeous contrast to the dark chocolate, making your brownies all the more visually appealing.

3. Butterscotch

Butterscotch is one of those vintage flavors that evokes immediate nostalgia. Smooth and creamy, with notes of caramel and brown sugar, butterscotch brings an almost toasted, sweet flavor to baked goods. There are a few different ways that you can add butterscotch to your brownies depending on how much you love the caramelly flavor.

If you want to keep the flavor subtle, just an undernote to the chocolatey goodness of your brownies, you can fold some butterscotch baking morsels into your brownie batter before you bake it. If you want a full layer of chewy, gooey butterscotch, you can melt some butterscotch candies in a double boiler until they soften and sandwich the resulting caramel between two layers of chocolate batter before sticking the whole thing in the oven. If you really can't get enough retro deliciousness, go all the way and make butterscotch brownies, using all butterscotch instead of chocolate. The brown sugar base of the butterscotch still makes for a rich, dark blondie. You won't even miss the chocolate.

4. Dulce de leche

Speaking of caramel, dulce de leche is the baking ingredient you didn't know that you were leaving out of your recipes. Popular in Latin America, dulce de leche is often used as a topping or a filling for confections. It's easy enough to eat this delicacy by the spoonful, but when you marry it to brownies? It becomes dangerously delicious.

Despite the fancy-sounding name, making dulce de leche is as easy as boiling water. You can make homemade dulce de leche using a can of sweetened condensed milk and a deep pot of water. The unopened can of sweet milk just needs to be submerged in boiling water for about two hours which allows the sugars in the milk to caramelize. Once you pull out the can and allow it to cool, you'll find yourself in possession of sweet, golden sauce. You can either top your baked brownies with the caramel or you can swirl it into the batter before you pop the pan into the oven.

5. Bananas

Bananas can be added to almost any baked good: cookies, muffins, bread, and cakes, just to name a few. The starchy texture of bananas makes them a great addition to batters without contributing too much liquid to the overall product. They bring a delightful sweetness that is all their own, and there's no wrong way to add bananas to brownies.

If you find yourself with some overripe bananas but no hankering for banana bread, you can mash them up and use them to make banana brownies. By incorporating the mashed bananas directly into the batter, you are going to be baking up some seriously dense, fudgy brownies. They'd be the perfect base for a scoop of ice cream.

Another great idea is to marry two popular desserts together with banana pudding brownies. These brownies are marbled with creamy banana pudding, making them both delicious and eye-catching. By folding banana pudding into cream cheese, you give your brownies a decadent cheesecake twist.

If you want something a little more upscale, toss sliced bananas into brown sugar and lay them on top of the brownie batter before it goes in the oven. The brown sugar will caramelize and crisp, creating a delightful topping that is reminiscent of bananas foster.

6. Mascarpone cheese

A familiar ingredient in Italian cuisine, mascarpone cheese brings richness to any recipe. Most often found in tiramisu or poking out the ends of cannolis, mascarpone is often compared to cream cheese. The real difference between the two products is their fat content. Mascarpone clocks in at 60-75% milk fat, while traditional cream cheese trends towards about 33% milk fat. This difference is what sets desserts made with mascarpone cheese on a pedestal of their own.

When you're looking for a truly fudgy experience, you'll want to make your brownies with mascarpone. Brownies already tend to have a decently high-fat content just thanks to the butter and eggs in them. When you fold mascarpone into the chocolate batter, the additional creamy texture will give you that under-baked mouthfeel without having to pull your brownies out of the oven too soon. Plus the tangy flavor of the mascarpone will be a perfect underlying note to the chocolate.

7. Peanut butter

Sometimes what you really need is a little salty with your sweet. Chocolate and peanut butter are truly a match made in heaven. The creamy saltiness of the peanut butter is the perfect companion to the dark depth of chocolate's sweetness. Swirling in a few dollops of peanut butter to your tray of brownies gives you a marbling of contrasting flavor.

If you want to kick your chocolate and peanut butter mixture up a notch, you might want to take a page from Ben & Jerry's playbook and throw some pretzels into the mix. Chubby Hubby is one of Ben & Jerry's most popular flavors and combines chocolate, peanut butter, and pretzels. The crunchy and salty contrast of the pretzels with the chewy texture of the brownies will give your brownies dimension and make the treats even more fun.

8. Marshmallows and graham crackers

S'mores signal summer. The crackle of a campfire, the gooey strands of melted marshmallows, the crunch of graham crackers — it's pure nostalgia. But you don't have to go camping to enjoy s'mores. You can incorporate them into your next batch of brownies.

A bag of mini marshmallows and a few crumbled graham crackers are all you need to dress up brownies. Once you spread the brownie batter into the pan, pour the marshmallows on top, then sprinkle the graham cracker crumbs on top. As the brownies bake, the marshmallows will toast and melt and get nice and gooey. The crackers will give you a pleasing and contrasting crunch. No tent is required for these summery treats.

If you want to go all in on that s'mores flavor, you can make s'mores bars, which take your brownies to another level by combining graham crackers, chocolate chips, peanut butter, and marshmallow fluff into a decadent layered bar that will have you enthralled all year long.

9. Berry jams

Jams and fruit preserves are commonly found on breakfast tables. They're often spread on toast or scones, but they're also great additions to brownies. Dolloping berry jams or preserves onto the top of the brownie batter and giving it a swirl with a knife before baking will infuse a tangy fruit flavor throughout your brownies.

Strawberry jam is a great choice, but so too is raspberry or even marmalade. Each fruit brings its own unique profile to the dessert. You want to make sure that you're using fruit preserves or jam, both of which use either whole or mashed fruit and have fruit solids that will withstand cooking. Jelly, which is often used in sandwiches, is made from strained fruit juice and will melt away during the baking process. The sweet tang of berries is the perfect compliment to fudgy brownies.

10. Candied orange peels

Most people toss their orange peels without a second thought. The rough rind doesn't immediately seem to be an appealing snack, especially considering how sweet and delicious the fruit of an orange is. But candied orange peel is one of those surprising delicacies that come from letting no part of a given food go to waste. You can make your own candied orange peels yourself with ingredients you already have in your pantry.

By boiling sliced orange peels in sugar water under they are tender, then tossing them in sugar and allowing them to dry, you remove all the bitterness that you expect from the orange rind. The sugar water infuses itself into the skin, making the slices sweet and tender. They almost have the texture of gummy candies when you're done with them. Once you've made the candied orange peels, lay them on top of your unbaked brownie batter, then cook your brownies as normal, infusing your whole dessert (and whole house) with the smell and flavor of a chocolate-covered orange.

11. Pralines

Pralines, depending on your geographic location, can refer to different, but similar confections. European pralines are candied nuts, usually hazelnuts or pecans. American pralines are most often pecans cooked with sugar and cream into a sort of toffee or caramel candy. No matter which definition you use, what it really comes down to is delicious, sweet, crunchy nuts. If you want to upgrade your brownies, don't just toss in boring old walnuts. Bring your A-game and top your treats with pralines.

Bourbon pecan pralines are easy candies that you can make in a matter of minutes. With the rich flavors of brown sugar, heavy cream, and bourbon whiskey, these fancy caramelized nuts are superstars just on their own. However, once you've made these simple candies, you can then break them up and sprinkle them on top of your brownie batter to give your dessert a serious glow-up.

12. Oreo cookies

Cookies 'n' cream is a classic flavor for a reason. Oreo cookies have been at the top of the cookie game since their creation back in 1912. Crunchy and creamy, they're imminently dunkable in milk and the perfect addition to ice cream. They're also supremely decadent when crumbled up and mixed into brownies. Immediately recognizable, these famous sandwich cookies will make your brownies really stand out in the crowd when they peek out of the brownie batter.

Oreo cookies stand up well to the baking process. This means that when you bite into a brownie with Oreo pieces, you'll get that full cookies 'n' cream experience. These double-duty brownies make an excellent base for a brownie sundae, so don't be shy about scooping the cookies 'n' cream onto your cookies 'n' cream.

13. Candied ginger

Throughout history, ginger has been used medicinally. To this day, there are many health benefits to eating ginger, ranging from aiding digestion to helping lessen menstrual cramps, per BMC Complementary Medicine and Therapies. Its potent flavor also makes it a stand-out ingredient in baking and cooking. Most people can't imagine chewing on fresh, raw ginger, as the flavor would be too intense. Candied ginger, on the other hand, is a delightful treat that's easy to make and can be incorporated into your baked goods to give them a great zing.

All that's required to make homemade candied ginger is sugar, water, and fresh ginger root. Once your ginger root is peeled, all you need to do is chop it into bite-sized pieces and drop it into boiling water to soften it up. Once it's tender, drain the cooked ginger out of the water, then cook it in a simple syrup of water and sugar for about an hour. This will infuse your ginger with sweetness. You can then toss the candied ginger in sugar and allow it to dry before sprinkling these tangy candies into your brownie batter. 

14. Freeze dried fruit

Remember when astronaut ice cream was all the rage? Freeze-dried and light as a feather, the novelty is crunchy and sweet, it has all the flavor of ice cream and none of the moisture. While you might not have any pressing desire to revisit that old childhood gem, you might actually want to stock up on freeze-dried fruit.

Unlike fresh fruit, when you add freeze-dried fruit to your baking recipes, it doesn't alter the moisture content. Juicy fruits like strawberries and blueberries can impact how long it takes your brownies to bake because their juices add so much water to the batter. If you still want that fruity tang of berries, but don't want to weigh your brownie down, use freeze-dried berries instead. The same goes for using freeze-dried banana chips if you're looking for that banana flavor without the weight of using mashed fruit.

15. Booze

Sometimes you want to give your desserts that extra adult edge. There's something extra fun about splashing some booze into your favorite childhood treat and bringing it right into adulthood with you. So why not give your brownies the bartender treatment as well?

There are plenty of liquors that would play nicely in your brownie batter. Bailey's would give them that Irish cream flavor, while Kahlua would bring that grown-up coffee kick. Fragellico is a hazelnut liquor that would definitely be at home with the chocolate dessert, and port wine is a sweet, earthy flavor that would compliment the chocolate. Try a splash of Chambord to infuse some raspberry flavor. Take a look through your liquor cabinet and experiment with the different flavors of liquors you might have left over from the holidays.

16. Peppermint patties

Chocolate and mint are a classic combination. So if you really want to step up your brownie game, you might want to pull out all the stops and add the real deal York peppermint patties to the mix. There are a few different methods that you could use for adding these minty treats to your brownies. 

You could chop the candies up into small pieces and scatter them on top of the batter before baking, or you could sandwich whole patties between layers of batter. The sandwich method means that the entire center of your brownies would be one gooey layer of chocolate and mint, which sounds as bold as it does delightful. Whichever way you play it, you can't go wrong with bringing that shiveringly-fresh mint flavor to your dessert table.

17. Cherries

Early summer is the start of the cherry season in most of the United States. Whether you like them dark and sweet or bright and tart, cherries are one of those fruits that can stand on their own, but always is better with some chocolate. So take advantage of the upcoming season by picking up some fresh cherries at the store and mixing them into your next batch of brownies. (Just be sure to remove the pits first!)

If you want to go a step beyond just mixing chopped cherries into your brownies, you can make a homemade cherry pie filling and sandwich a layer of the fruit between the batter of your brownies. The tangy, sweet cherries will be an amazing contrast in flavor to the chocolate, and the gooey texture of the cherry pie syrup will make these sticky treats all the more irresistible.