Baking Cookies 101

I love baking, especially cookies.  I’m known for making dozens of different cookies at Christmas time.  I’ve learned so much over the years, especially on my recent quest to find the Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie (which I feel I did).  If you are only interested in the recipe then check it out.  If you are interested cookie techniques then continue on.  All this research and practice means I have a lot to say about baking cookies, and specifically chocolate chip cookies.

Have you ever made cookies that came out greasy, thin, or hard as a brick?  I’ve been there…many, many times and it’s super frustrating.  I turned to the internet to determine what I was doing wrong.  I am not a professional baker, but here are some things that I’ve learned.  For good measure I’ll also be including several tidbits my husband has discovered.  A fair cookie guru in his own right.

There isn’t one secret set of ingredients or one magical technique that produces a perfect cookie.  These are my opinions and I don’t claim that they were arrived at scientifically, but they definitely seemed to work.  If you do something that is contrary to what I say and it works well anyway, then awesome.  For example, my husband made chocolate chip cookies that were contrary to several tidbits below and he felt they turned out perfectly, and my dad agreed.  If you learned something or want to try something new then that makes me happy.  (Tell me about it in the comments below!)     🙂

Also, much of what I have to say below can be applied to many other kinds of cookies and in fact to baking in general.  However, since it’s hard to generalize a Baking Cookies 101, most of this article is about the most popular cookie out there, chocolate chip cookies.

Butter and shortening.  Butter adds flavor which is a good thing.  However, over the years the fat content in butter has decreased, meaning that it contains more water.  You can actually still find the old fashioned butter in most grocery stores but it is very expensive and often called AA Grade Butter or European Style Butter.  If there is excess water in a cookie then it may spread when it bakes.  While shortening does not add flavor, it does bring some fat to the party and very little water.  It melts slower than butter and may help prevent a cookie from spreading and turning it into a greasy disk, which means you may actually get the thick cookie you wanted in the first place.

Cold, room temperature, or melted butter.  I’ve seen success from many bakers using each of these methods.  I’ve never tried using cold butter in chocolate chip cookies so I can’t speak to whether it is a good technique or not.  (Though I imagine it makes mixing things very difficult for cookies.)  Most people use room temperature butter, but lately I’ve been hearing a lot of people say melted butter is better because it helps to reduce the amount of water content.  Remember from above, more water can mean that a cookie may spread when it bakes.

Melting the butter requires an additional step, and is prone to error by over cooking the butter in the effort to get some water out.  I simply go with the room temperature technique with 99% of my cookies, including this recipe.  A trick to bringing cold butter to room temperature quickly is to pop it in the microwave for 15-30 seconds, just enough to take the chill out.  Avoid producing any liquid butter because the process of creaming it with the sugar can be affected by that.

White sugar or brown sugar.  White sugar makes a crispier cookie than brown sugar.  Brown sugar, whether it be dark or light, is a mixture of white sugar and  molasses and creates a softer and chewier cookie.  Dark brown sugar has more molasses than light brown sugar, so for most cookies it will result in more chewiness.  You can use them interchangeably depending on your preference.  Most people use a combination of white and brown sugar to get the best of both worlds in the texture department.  The ratio is all about what you like.

Creaming.  Creaming means that you beat together fat and sugar until smooth and/or fluffy (depending on the ratio).  If done correctly, this step will take a couple of minutes.  Be patient, it’s important.

01Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie

Eggs.  Of course the number of eggs used in a recipe will depend on how big a batch of cookies you are making.  Some people, like Alton Brown, likes to use one egg and one egg yolk.  Egg whites have the power to dry out baked goods.  They are powerful like that.  Getting rid of the one egg white helps to prevent that effect for one egg white worth.  This is an approach to getting chewier cookies.

Vanilla extract.  Vanilla extract adds great flavor so there is no doubt that it’s a must-have ingredient for most cookie recipes, especially a chocolate chip cookie recipe.  Try to use the good quality stuff by using pure extract instead of imitation because it has better flavor. Sure it costs a little more, but in this instance, it’s totally worth it.  Besides, it’s not really that much more.  I’m not even suggesting you special order super fancy vanilla from some well known vanilla producing country with top shelf rum as the base.  Just use the real stuff.

Cake, bread, or all-purpose flour.  Some people, like Jacques Torres, use some combination of cake and bread flour instead of all-purpose flour.  Each kind of flour contains different gluten levels.

The gluten in flour makes things chewy, so it is very easy to remember which flours have which amounts of gluten.  Cake is not chewy, or at least really shouldn’t be, and that means cake flour has the least amount of gluten.  Bread is supposed to be deliciously chewy and that means bread flour has the most gluten of the flours.  Wedged neatly in the middle of those two extremes is all purpose flour.  This “half way in between” level of gluten is enough to make chewy bread, but also not too much that you end up with weird cake.

I use all-purpose flour for cookies.  If you get all of the other components of a cookie correct then you don’t need to buy special flour.

Cornstarch.  Cornstarch is a finely ground corn flour, usually used as a thickener.  It makes a cookie chewy and thick.  Some bakers swear by using it.

My husband swears cornstarch doesn’t do anything the right amount of flour didn’t already do for you.  He says he prefers using fewer ingredients where possible.

Baking soda.  Baking soda is a leavening agent, meaning this is what helps make the cookies rise.  Getting the amount correct is important.  Get it wrong and you can end up with funny tasting cookies.

Salt.  Salt brings out the flavors in baked goods whether they are sweet or not.  There is actually a lot of science behind salt, but I’m not a scientist.  King Arthur Flour does a great job of explaining salt in baked goodies, if you’re interested in reading more about it.

Mixing the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients.  For a lot of baked goods, over mixing the batter can result in really weird textures.  For example a rubbery cake.  With cookies, this isn’t as critical since a lot of the time you are actually going for chewy.  Gradually stirring in the dry ingredients helps to mix all of the ingredients more evenly.  Most importantly this prevents the dry ingredients from ending up all over you and the counter.

Measuring flour correctly.  This point is the most important one to me.  The correct method to measuring flour is by using a spoon to loosely pile the flour into the measuring cup and then leveling it off with a butter knife.  If you dunk the measuring cup right directly into the flour container you will end up compressing the flour into the cup.  More flour smashed into the cup means more flour than a recipe is actually calling for and that could lead to dried out goodies.  Some people use the (incorrect) dunking method when they write up their recipe, which means that if you are like me and use the spoon and level method then you can easily find you don’t have enough flour in the dough (and your cookies will spread when they bake because they just don’t have enough to hold them together).  The cookie dough should seem relatively dry and stiff and barely sticky at all.  If the recipe you are following does not give you this texture then add more flour a little at a time until you see and feel this texture.  Be careful not to have too much flour.  The dough should NOT look crumbly.

03Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie

Miniature versus regular sized chocolate chips.  This only applies if you are using chocolate chips of course.  Let’s be honest here, it’s chocolate, people, you simply can’t go wrong with whatever you wish to use.  If you want to use miniature chips, regular chips, chocolate wafers, pre-packaged chunks, or broken up chocolate bars, the goal is the same.  To put chocolate into more parts of your life.  Although the miniature chocolate chips distribute the chocolate more evenly throughout the cookie, sometimes that’s not the goal.  Use chocolate that you love to eat by itself.  Old or bad quality chocolate will definitely not make the perfect cookie.  You don’t have to buy top shelf stuff.  Whatever kind, size, and amount of chocolate that makes you happy will give you your perfect cookie.

Room temperature, refrigerate, or freeze the cookie dough.  This one is a tough one because  lots of people have lots of opposing opinions.  Worse than that, it’s not clear that there is one approach that works 100% of the time for me.  In theory, time spent in the refrigerator or freezer allows for the ingredients in the cookie dough to combine and settle all together.  The fat content will solidify and the moisture will evenly distribute throughout the batter which means that the cookies should not spread as much when they bake.  I’ve tried each approach and have had successes and failures with each one, but that’s also because the amount of each ingredient differed with each batch.  (My husband would say there are too many variables to know what went wrong.)  If you don’t have enough fat and/or too little flour then you could chill the dough for 3 days and the cookies will likely still spread when they bake so take this tip with a grain of salt (so to speak).

I’ve had the most success with refrigerating cookie dough so that’s what I’m sticking to now. Also, if you happen to be making a recipe that calls for slicing cookies off a pre-shaped roll, definitely don’t skip this step.  Without the cold to make them firm you will find that cutting them is a messy disaster.

Shape.  Use a cookie scooper, like the Oxo Good Grips Cookie Scoop, or in the case of my monster sized Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies, a 1/4 cup measuring cup.  Using a tool like a scooper or a 1/4 cup will help you get all of the cookie dough balls to be the same size so that they will all bake evenly.  Keep in mind that if you adjust the size of the cookie from the original recipe, you will need to adjust the baking time, so watch them carefully.  The smaller the cookie, the shorter time in the oven.

Also, don’t forget that if you are making big cookies that puff up nicely while baking, the appearance of the cookies is not always enough to know when they are done.  You can easily have perfect looking cookies that are completely raw inside.  I’ve had good success using a cake tester on big cookies.

04Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie

I form all of my cookies in the shape of a ball and then very slightly flatten the top.  I find that shaping the dough using this method makes the cookies come out looking prettier than the direct scoop onto the pan approach.

05Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie

Don’t place the chilled cookie dough balls on a hot baking pan because it will form a nice little puddle under it.  In other words, the cookie will start to spread before it has even reached the oven and that’s not good.

When you are baking the cookies, keep the cookie dough chilled in between baking batches in order to keep the dough the same temperature.  The temperature of the dough will change if it’s on the counter even for a few minutes.  That means if you do not adjust the baking time you may end up guessing how much time to keep them in the oven and that is no fun.  Especially after having made perfect batches up to that point and then watching a batch come out like charcoal.

Grease the baking pan or not.   Adding grease to the baking pan makes the pan slippery so it could cause the cookies to spread.  I avoid greasing a baking pan unless I trust the recipe source and it has a very good reason for it.  It should also be noted that most cookies are very high in fat and generally don’t need a greased pan anyway.  By using a silicon pad or parchment paper, the cookies won’t stick to the pan, it makes for an easy clean up, and the cookies just seem to come out better.

I generally use a silicon mat instead of parchment paper.  Parchment paper has the disadvantage that you have to buy it over and over again.  That’s expensive over time and pretty bad for the planet.  You can also find yourself ready to make cookies and that you are out of it.  A silicon mat is nearly indestructible and should last forever without being replaced.  It’s more expensive up front, but when you are making the 1000th cookie on it, you’ll see what I mean.

Resting time.  A baking pan and the cookies on it contain a lot of heat after you’ve removed them from the oven.  (Really anything sitting in 350 to 450 degrees F for a while certainly better, right?)  Because of this, the cookies will continue to bake a bit while they rest on the pan before you’ve put them on a cooling rack.  Also thanks to this, you need to make sure you don’t over bake them in the oven since they aren’t quite done just because you’ve taken them out.  Super hot cookies can be incredibly soft right out of the oven and need a little time to cool and firm up so you can move them without them falling apart.  I’m guilty of this, time and time again, and I have fed my husband mangled cookies as proof.

 

I hope this information helps you in your quest for making cookies.  Happy cookie baking!

 

Comments

  1. Lynda says:

    I have never read such awesome information! Thanks for the effort of writing this for us!. Same goes for your info on muffins. As I read your info, I just nod to myself, finally knowing why things haven’t turned out in the past.

    Thanks again,
    Lynda

  2. Sharon Gadson says:

    I made biscuits that called for 12 cups of flour but without noticing until the biscuits were in the oven I realized that the the measuring cup was actually a 2/3 measuring cup will that alter the taste and texture of my biscuits?

    1. Tina says:

      Been there… I hate when I misread the measurements! Some recipes are more finicky than others so I’m not sure if it will affect the outcome of the biscuits. Since they are already in the oven, I’m sure when you taste them you’ll know if it’s tasty or not. If they don’t seem right then definitely give the recipe another shot. Good luck and thanks for stopping by!

  3. Justin says:

    I was making sugar cookies for cutouts and completely forgot to add the third stick of butter. The dough still seemed to be the right consistency and the taste was good. Will it affect the results after baking? Thank you!

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