Crafting baked goods from scratch requires a significant level of skill, precision and know-how ― and for some people, those talents just aren’t quite there. So when the non-bakers of the world feel a sudden craving for fresh-out-of-the-oven treats, we can either queue up at a nearby bakery or we can head to the baking aisle of our local supermarket and grab a box of cake mix.
Amateurs like me consider boxed baking mixes a wonderful and convenient gift, but what do professional pastry chefs think of our good buddies Duncan Hines, Betty Crocker and Trader Joe? We decided to find out by asking a group of oven maestros to name their favorite boxed baking mixes. According to the experts, these are the grocery-store options most worth your while.
Betty Crocker Super Moist Cake Mixes
Betty Crocker’s been killing the boxed-cake-mix game for decades, and the Super Moist version, widely available in grocery stores throughout the U.S., received enthusiastic accolades from several of the pastry chefs we interviewed.
Executive pastry chef Amanda Rose of Desserts First in Castro Valley, California, explains why the brand’s Super Moist mix deserves attention: “This particular type of Betty Crocker cake mix has pudding in the mix, which helps retain the liquid on the cake and makes for a more moist end product.”
Executive pastry chef Emily Bailey of the Red South Beach Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida, gives a special shout-out to the Carrot Cake flavor of Super Moist mix, telling HuffPost, “This is my favorite because even by itself without any enhancements, it’s great. To make this cake feel like it’s actually homemade, I add a few special ingredients. I add 2 cups of peeled, grated carrots, 1/2 cup chopped, strained fresh pineapple, 1/4 cup of coconut flakes, and a tablespoon of cinnamon. All of these additions make the cake really feel like you just spent hours baking it, but in reality, it only took half an hour. To make it even greater, make your own cream cheese icing instead of using store-bought!”
Another can’t-miss Super Moist flavor? Classic Devil’s Food, according to baker and blogger Luisa Ruocco of The Hungry Traveller. “It’s so simple, yet [it’s] a classic that just can’t go wrong. More importantly, it goes well with any kind of frosting you can think of. Chocolate, buttercream, cream cheese ― you name it! [When making this cake,] I personally like to replace the water with strong black coffee; you won’t be able to taste the coffee itself, but it will really help bring out that smooth chocolate taste,” Ruocco told HuffPost.
Duncan Hines Cake Mix
The Duncan Hines brand boasts a venerable history in the boxed baking mix arena, and it’s a classic for a reason. Lisa Mansour, co-owner of NY Cake in New York City, insists that with Duncan Hines classic mixes, “you get a really nice thick batter. The cake bakes so well and gets a nice rise. The final result is a fluffy, moist and delicious [dessert].”
To enhance the flavor of the Duncan Hines mix, Mansour has a few helpful suggestions. She agrees with Ruocco’s use of coffee in place of water to boost the chocolate cake mix’s richness, and when making a Duncan Hines vanilla cake, she adds “a high-quality pure vanilla extract like Nielsen-Massey – my personal favorite – to intensify the flavor.” She also recommends adding fat to make the cake taste richer. And rather than using water, as the instructions call for, she suggests adding milk.
Jiffy Cornbread Mix
Southern chefs take their cornbread very seriously, so when a New Orleans-based pastry chef tells us that Jiffy cornbread mix results in a quality version, we’re definitely going to give it a try.
“My favorite baking mix, hands down, is Jiffy cornbread. If you have ever come to my house and I served you cornbread, it was without a doubt from a box of Jiffy. [It’s cheap], light, golden and delicious,” pastry chef James Kubie of Coquette in New Orleans enthuses.
For an even tastier pan of cornbread, try these pro tips from Kubie: “I always add an entire stick of butter (melt it in your baking pan to grease it, then pour the rest into your batter) and a handful of sugar. You can add anything to the base, like bacon, canned corn or jalapeños, and it will come out a winner. Also, if you’re short on time and have a party to get to, bake your cornbread, then pour a mixture of sweetened condensed milk and coconut milk over it. Top the whole thing with whipped cream, a sprinkle of cinnamon and a couple handfuls of store-bought caramel corn. Now you have a killer tres leches that you can travel with and serve in the baking pan. Trust me, you’ll thank me.”
Jiffy Blueberry Muffin Mix
Jiffy’s repertoire of excellent baking mixes doesn’t end with cornbread ― the company also produces a blueberry muffin mix ripe with nostalgic value, according to executive pastry chef Leah Morrow of The Williamsburg Hotel and Brooklyn Bread Lab in Brooklyn, New York.
“I’ve always loved Jiffy’s Blueberry Muffin Mix! My dad always made [those muffins] for my sister and me. I grew up eating them, and they’re really nostalgic for me. My dad used to toast day-old muffins and smear butter on them for me. I think what I love most about this mix is the dehydrated blueberries... so delicious,” Morrow said.
Pillsbury “Funfetti” Cake Mix
A long-time staple of kids’ birthday parties, a Funfetti cake combines sweet vanilla flavor with rainbow sprinkles, making it a super-fun dessert for any occasion. Pastry chef Kursten Restivo of the Palm Beach Marriott Singer Island Beach Resort & Spa in Riviera Beach, Florida, claims Funfetti as a personal favorite because “I am like a little kid and love anything with sprinkles. This cake mix is right up my alley ― fun, colorful and delicious.”
Want a more indulgent spin on Funfetti cake? Take Restivo’s advice and “substitute melted butter for the oil in the recipe. It gives the cake a richer flavor.”
Cafe Du Monde Beignet Mix
Beignets, the fried-dough pastries considered a key element of New Orleans cuisine, don’t seem like a product that’s easy to replicate with a grocery-store mix. But according to executive pastry and bread chef Perry Ledesma of The Butcher’s Daughter in Los Angeles, the version made from Cafe Du Monde’s boxed beignet mix ― widely available at supermarkets and Target stores ― is a worthy facsimile of the NOLA originals.
“These beignets take me back to when I was in New Orleans for my good friend’s wedding,” Ledesma said. “We had a blast with all of our friends, and [we] followed our noses to the sweet smell of beignets [while] enjoying brass bands and amazing culture, I will always remember this feeling of happiness when I eat these.”
Ledesma likes to make a small addition to the boxed beignet mix to bring extra flavor dimension: “I will once in a while add a 1/4 teaspoon of almond extract to the batter [to add] a delicate touch and aroma to the finished product.”
Ghirardelli Brownie Mix
San Francisco chocolatier turned major sweets juggernaut Ghirardelli sells its cult-favorite brownie mix at grocery stores all over the U.S., and even pro bakers like Eleni Gianopulos of Eleni’s in New York think highly of this brand’s products (especially the Dark Chocolate variety).
“My family and I have been loyal fans of Ghirardelli’s chocolate brownie mix for years,” she said. “Maybe it’s because I grew up across the bay from San Francisco. Maybe it’s because I visited the Ghirardelli store in the Embarcadero so much as a kid. Or maybe it’s just because when it comes to brownies, I don’t mess around.
“This brownie mix lets me whip up deliciously rich chocolate brownies with ease. We’ll often jazz things up with walnuts, marshmallows, dark chocolate chips and pretzels – whatever my brownie lovers are into at the moment. My parents loved their brownies with lots of toasted walnuts, while today, my daughter favors a S’Mores Delight or Kitchen Sink. However we choose to customize our brownies, the Ghirardelli mix is our favorite place to start.”
Trader Joe’s Vanilla Cake Mix
While (rightfully) most famous for its impeccable frozen dinners and delicious snack items, Trader Joe’s also offers baking mixes worthy of pastry-chef approval. Case in point? TJ’s Vanilla Cake Mix, a favorite of corporate pastry chef Jimmy MacMillan of Dineamic Hospitality in Chicago.
“When I’m short on time, my go-to is Trader Joe’s Vanilla Cake & Baking Mix,” he said. “When I use this store-bought mix, the cakes come out with a nice rise, a clean flavor and an enticing color. Plus, you won’t get an unpleasant aftertaste you might find with some other baking mixes. In addition, I suggest adding a couple of tablespoons of Nielsen Massey Madagascar vanilla extract and sometimes a 1/2 cup of yogurt or sour cream. This mix also takes flavor well, so you can add cocoa powder or strawberry purée for chocolate or strawberry layers.”