Grill-Baked Smoked Ancho Chile Skillet Brownie

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Overhead view of brownie
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

I love a simple brownie. But brownies can also be so much more. This skillet brownie baked on the grill is one of my favorite examples of how to put an undeniably delicious twist on the classic, taking on hints of smoke and char that pair beautifully with earthy and bittersweet dark chocolate and, in this case, a subtle addition of ancho chile. To really play up that smoky note, I add smoldering wood to the grill during baking, which generates enough smoke to permeate every bite.

As much as the gill itself does incredible things to a brownie, I’m just as taken by the magic of using a cast iron skillet in this recipe, which is my cookware of choice when baking on the grill. A cast-iron skillet on a hot outdoor grill can work wonders on a brownie batter: It creates a brownie with the best of all worlds, crispy, lightly chewy edges, and a rich, fudgy center. Plus, the indirect heat of the grill adds the unexpected element of some light charring to the brownie. When sliced into wedges, every piece offers a lightly charred outer edge and gooey middle.

Overhead view of brownie
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Baking on Your Grill

I’ve written a more detailed explanation of how to use a grill as an oven in my article that reviews the key techniques, which I recommend reading before baking on a grill for the first time. Below I’ll quickly review the main points as they relate to this recipe.

The key to success with baking brownies on a grill is to set up a two-zone fire so that you can cook on the cooler side of the grill, away from the direct source of heat, whether that’s a pile of lit charcoal or the primary burner of a gas grill. By cooking with indirect heat, you’re able to minimize the risk of scorching from being too close to the direct heat. With a charcoal grill this is achieved by building a steeply banked fire on just one side of the grill. With a gas grill, an indirect cooking zone is created by first preheating the grill with all burners on, then leaving the primary burner on and adjusting as needed to regulate the grill temperature, while the secondary burners are turned off. I prefer using a charcoal grill for the flavor it creates and the higher level of char achieved on the brownie’s edges in comparison to a gas grill, but both styles of grills will work well with this recipe.

It’s true of almost any recipe that it’s best to prep all of your ingredients first before you start cooking, but it’s especially true of baking on a grill. I recommend getting all of the ingredients measured and the chocolate chopped before bringing it outside. When I bake on my grill at home, I make best use of my time by preparing and carrying my mise en place and equipment outside on sheet trays while my grill is preheating.

Overhead view of grill prep station
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

I’ll also have an outdoor prep table adjacent to the grill to work on. Once prepped, though, you can do the whole recipe on the grill, including melting the butter with a portion of the chocolate, water, and instant espresso powder on the cooler side of the grill to make the batter, eliminating any need to run in and out of the kitchen.

How and Why to Smoke Your Brownies

While not listed with the ingredients, or stirred directly into the batter, smoke is arguably one of the most important ingredients in this recipe. With a charcoal grill, you can simply nestle one three-inch piece of wood into the hot coals before setting the cooking grate in place. For a gas grill, you’ll need to soak a cup of wood chips, drain them, and then put them in an aluminum foil packet; the packet is set directly over the gas grill’s propane burner, where it sits and allows smoke to waft out through a series of small slits. I prefer to use a fruit wood for smoking in this recipe, such as apple or cherry wood, which has a slightly more mild smoke flavor compared to something like mesquite wood.

Final Flavorful Additions

To complement the brownie’s smoky and rich chocolate flavor, I added ground ancho chile to the brownie batter, a classic combination that showcases subtle similarities between dried chiles and chocolate that may otherwise go unnoticed. Ancho chile was my pick here for its moderate flavor, which I think works well with the rich bittersweet chocolate brownie. I found that other ground chiles such as aleppo, chipotle, and guajillo competed with the chocolate, instead of complementing them. 

For a final chocolate-enhancing touch, I fold bittersweet chocolate chunks into the batter for gooey pockets of lush melted chocolate throughout the grill-baked brownie. 

Overhead view of brownie batter
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

I think the brownie is best enjoyed warm and topped with a scoop or two of your favorite ice cream. If you want to really guild the lily, go all out like I do when I eat these brownies at home: Use the residual heat of the grill’s fire to roast marshmallows to top the brownie just before serving, for a warm and gooey bite. The burnt edges of the marshmallows and the smoky undertones of the brownies balance all that sweetness. Thank me later.

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa powder, ancho chile powder, baking powder, salt, and cayenne pepper.

Two image collage of mixing brownie ingredients together
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

For Heating a Charcoal Grill: Open bottom vent completely. Light chimney starter filled with charcoal briquettes (6 quarts). Once top coals are partially covered with ash, pour into a steeply banked pile against 1 side of the grill. Nestle one 3-inch wood chunk into hot coals. Set cooking grate in place, cover, and open lid vent. Heat until grill is hot  (500°F; 260°C) and filled with smoke, about 5 minutes.

Four image collage of preparing charcoal gril
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

For Heating a Gas Grill: Soak 1 cup wood chips in water for 15 minutes. Drain well. Use a large piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil to wrap chips into foil packet and cut several vent holes in the top. Place wood chip packet directly on primary burner. Turn all burners to high, cover, and heat grill until hot (500°F; 260°C), about 15 minutes. Leave primary burner on high and turn off other burner(s). (see notes)

In a 10-inch cast iron skillet, add butter, half the bittersweet chocolate, water, and espresso powder, if using, and place on cooler side of the grill. Cook, swirling skillet and stirring occasionally, until butter is melted and beginning to bubble (some chocolate may not be fully melted). Using grill gloves, remove the skillet from the grill.

Two image collage of melting on skillet on grill
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

 Using a rubber spatula, scrape butter mixture into a large heatproof bowl and set now-empty skillet aside. Add sugar and oil to bowl with butter mixture and whisk until well combined. Whisk in eggs and vanilla until smooth.

Two image collage of dumping melted chocolate and adding sugar
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Add flour mixture to butter mixture and use rubber spatula to stir until just combined and no dry flour is visible. Add remaining 3 ounces bittersweet chocolate and stir until evenly distributed. Scrape batter into now-empty ­skillet and spread into even layer.

Four image collage of finishing brownie mix
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Transfer the skillet to the cooler side of the grill, cover grill, and bake, rotating skillet halfway through baking, until toothpick inserted in center comes out with a few moist crumbs attached (be careful not to overbake; brownie will continue to bake as it cools), 50 minutes to 65 minutes.  (For a gas grill, adjust primary burner as needed to maintain grill temperature around 425 degrees; if using 3-or-more-burner grill, adjust primary burner and second burner, leaving other burners off.) Transfer skillet to a wire rack and let cool for at least 30 minutes before cutting and serving.

Four image collage of brownie cooking on the grill

Special Equipment

Charcoal or gas grill, large chimney for charcoal grill, grill gloves, 10-inch cast-iron skillet

Notes

I highly recommend using Dutch-processed cocoa powder in this recipe. If you use natural cocoa powder, the brownie will be lighter in color and drier in texture. 

I prefer to use a fruit wood such as apple or cherry wood in this recipe.

While I prefer to use one wood chunk with the charcoal grill in this recipe for the ease of just throwing on the lit coals, if using a gas grill, I strongly recommend using the soaked and wrapped wood chips as written in to the recipe to avoid the risk of unwanted flair ups and mess with the gas grill.

The primary burner on a gas grill is the burner that is connected closest to the gas source. It is the burner that you ignite first on the grill.

Serve with ice cream or whipped cream, if desired.

While I  recommend baking these brownies on the grill, this skillet brownie can be baked on the middle rack of an indoor oven at 350 degrees for 25 to 35 minutes, follow the same visual cue for doneness as described in step 7.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Cut brownies can be stored in an airtight container, with a sheet of wax paper between the layers, for up to 1 week at room temperature.


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