The Quest for the Perfect Cookie

Love my cookies, and love me –

I love to bake cookies. I love even more to host people and share these delicious cookies. Back home in California I had perfected my recipe. Fluffy, yet moist. First thing I did when I began unpacking my life in Wyoming was to find all my baking goodies. I carefully labeled the kitchen box Baking Items on all 4 sides, and placed all the items I would need together. I eagerly wanted to make this new house feel and smell like home.

Round one of baking simple chocolate chip cookies yielded flat and crispy critters. They all stuck to the baking sheet and I had a crumbly mess after I freed them. I thought maybe my butter was too warm after using the standing mixer in a warm kitchen (I was also making dinner at the time). Round two yielded slightly thicker cookies, and I watched them bake very closely to pull them out before the regular 12 minute time it takes. I also used cold butter and was not cooking in the kitchen at the time. Round three I switched it up to oatmeal cookies because I just wanted something different to cry over later when they came out horribly. They were a bit more dense, and didn’t spread out as much. Still, not perfection even if they tasted okay.

After that third round I started doing some research. Three main articles helped. I returned to the original article that helped me define my perfect California cookie. The Food Lab: The Science of the Best Chocolate Chip Cookies, by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is summarized below (read the full article for more science). The author ran this experiment like a true scientist, changing just one ingredient at a time to see how it affected the overall results. You too will probably need to experiment a few times with each item that you decide to change. In the end your recipe is totally subjective because you can love flat crispy cookies and have one recipe, or love fluffy cake like cookies and have an entirely different recipe.

The Main ingredients –

Ingredient: What it does for the overall cookie. What altering it does to the results.

Butter: Keeps cookies tender, how (creamed vs melted) and when (with all sugar, with some sugar, before or after eggs) it is mixed changes the texture, alters cookie width/spread, gives the moist flavor from its fat, adds some water. Warmer/melted = dense/chewier/wider; cooler = cakier; creamed = light/firmer/taller (as in more rise).

Eggs: Provide most of the water and protein, traps air to give rise and fluff, and another source of fat for tender fudginess. Extra egg whites = taller; extra egg yolks = fudgier.

Sugar: White has a neutral pH and does not react with baking soda, while brown has a slightly acid pH, which does react with baking soda to release air (think of the infamous homemade volcano science project). More white = more spread and crisp; more brown = more rise and moister. A note about sugar and butter: less creaming adds texture, complete uniform creaming less cracking and more smoothness. Interesting – sugar cookie recipes will call for baking powder, and now you know why!

Leavening:  Air in your recipe that gives rise to the dough, introduced by egg proteins capturing air, creamed butter, and most importantly baking soda and baking powder. Baking soda = needs liquid and an acid to create air bubbles. Baking powder = baking soda and the acid combined (often a double acting acid, one that reacts immediately with liquid and one that reacts later with heat, check label). Soda = cookies are craggier and denser textured; powder = cookies are cakier, taller, and have smoother tops.

Flour: Basically comes down to how much protein is in the flour because more protein makes more gluten, and more/less gluten alters the chewy effect by changing the structure (think of a house made of sticks or bricks). In order of high to low protein – bread flour = dense and chewy cookies; all-purpose flour = most uniform cookies; pastry = soft cookies; cake flour = light and airy cookies. However, most people don’t have anything other than all purpose on hand unless they are into baking to a crazier degree, so regular all-purpose flour will do just fine with defined ratios of the other ingredients. A note about flour to butter ratio: less flour = more spread; more flour = little spread with dense dough like cookies.

Other Ingredients and the Process –

Salt: Balances caramelized sugar and vanilla flavors. However, most recipes can do without and you can use non salted butter (if you need to cut salt out of your diet). Otherwise, the more the better per taste tests.

Vanilla: Apparently imitation and expensive brands are indistinguishable! Yay, for your wallet.

The Mix: This has to do with creating gluten, in case you care, which adds structure thus more tough cookies. More mixing = tougher; less mixing = softer. If you want to go nuts over this, add your chocolate in before your dough is fully mixed to prevent over mixing.

Chocolate chips, chunk, and chopped: Chips = more uniform; chunks = offers layered texture and flavors; chopped = gives the most intensity of flavor and interesting texture (you can even get fancy swirls).

Oven Temperature: Cooler = wider; warmer = compact. This goes the same for the dough. Cooler straight from the fridge = more compact; warmer dough = spreads more.

Fridge Time: An over night to 24 hour rest is optimal. At least 2-4 hours if you want the beginnings of delicious results.

The final recipe that is the author’s favorite per his cookie palate tastes and textures: The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies Recipe. He browns the butter, which I did not include in my summary because I am not interested in that step. That’s just crazy talk! What a mess that can easily go wrong!

The Elephant in the Kitchen –

SO… even after deciding which ingredients to alter, I realized one HUGE key factor would be affecting my baking no matter what I did to my recipe. Altitude! I previous lived just shy of 2,000 feet, and now I live very close to 5,000 feet. A second article helped me realize that baking is affected at 3,000 and further more at 5 and 7,000 feet. I chose High Altitude Cake Baking, by Allrecipes Staff because I also like to bake cakes and brownies. The article helps with all three. After carefully crafting my recipe I altered it just slightly to account for the altitude. What’s up with altitude anyway? It’s a science thing. Elevation means lower air pressure and trapped air bubbles rise faster. Cookies rise faster and then fall before fully baking, making denser, flat, and drier cookies in the end (basically my first three rounds of baking!).

Basic Alterations (at 5,000 feet)-

Baking Powder and Soda: Per 1 tsp (less 1/8 to 1/4)

Sugars: Per 1 cup (0-2 tsp white, brown, dark brown)

Eggs: Beat less or don’t beat at all. Beating incorporates more air.

Oven Temperature: Add 25 degrees, dough will cook faster so that the trapped air will rise and fall in a timely manner.

Other: Add a very small amount of liquid. Experiment with a teaspoon or less. Use parchment paper.

A Few Last Notes –

To really cover all my basis I also searched for “why are my cookies flat”. This third article gave me a few last tips, 8 Reasons Your Cookies Spread Too Much, by Boston Girl Bakes.

  1. Ingredients should be at room temperature, the eggs and butter mainly.
  2. Measure ingredients, by weight if possible. Scoop dry ingredients and use a butter knife to level the top.
  3. Properly pre-heat the oven, wait until it is fully ready.
  4. Old baking soda and powder. Test them for inactivity. Soda by adding vinegar and powder by adding water (both in equal amounts, they should bubble).
  5. Chill the dough, let it rest for 24 hours if possible.
  6. Prepare your cookie sheets, and make sure they are quality. Use parchment paper.
  7. Bake on the middle rack of the oven, right in the middle.
  8. Cool on the baking sheet 3-5 minutes then remove. Too soon and the cookies may fall or fall apart, and too much time the cookies will actually bake on the sheet.

EXPERIMENT A: The first recipe!

Ok, here I go. My first real attempt at baking the best Wyoming cookies! The kind that will bring guests and future grandkids running for the kitchen!

Butter and eggs should sit out for 30 minutes to get to room temperature.

One bowl – 3 cups flour  | 1 tsp baking soda (-1/8 tsp). Mix well.

Second larger bowl – 1 cup butter (cut into cubes, let sit for 30 min for room temp) | 3/4 cup brown and white sugar (-2 tsp each). Cream all 3 together just until combined.

Add to second bowl – 1 large egg at a time, scrape bowl sides with spatula after each egg | 1 tbs vanilla extract. Cream mixture again, just until combined.

Add again to second bowl – 1/4 of dry mix at a time from bowl one. Cream together one last time, just until combined. Add 2 cups of chocolate chips. Combine lightly.

Rest – 24 hours.

Baking – preheated oven 375, pulled dough straight from the fridge, to sheet with parchment paper, and to the oven. Spooned onto sheet ragged, do not roll. 13 minutes in oven, middle rack. Cooled on sheet 3 minutes, and 5 minutes.

Results – Fluffy, moist, preferred 3 minute cookies over 5. A great start!!! No more flat cookies!

Next round alternations: Combine brown and white sugars, add half to combine with eggs, one at a time, then vanilla. Add rest of sugar and the butter to cream lightly. Add 3/4 of dry, 1/4 at a time. Add last 1/4 and chocolate chips at same time. Rest for 24 hours. Bake 13 minutes, 3 minutes on sheet.

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One thought on “The Quest for the Perfect Cookie

  1. Great article Val! I love baking cookies and almost never do it the same way twice! I also get annoyed when Joe makes cookies and they taste better than mine haha. The science of baking is so interesting! I’m going to try it a little differently next time I make cookies. I like mine fudgy.

    Like

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