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The Science of Baking Cookies: Have It Your Way On National Homemade Cookies Day

Soft-baked snickerdoodles are perfect for those who love a tender cookie.
Soft-baked snickerdoodles are perfect for those who love a tender cookie.
Photo by Molly Dunn

There really isn't anything better than a homemade cookie, and today is the perfect day to celebrate, because it is National Homemade Cookies Day. It does seem odd to have this food holiday now rather than around Thanksgiving and Christmas, but you don't see us complaining.

While we could provide you with a list of homemade cookie recipes, we decided to tell you how to customize your cookies to your liking. Some of us want soft, fluffy cookies, while others love a crispy, crunchy one; with the simple addition or substitution of certain ingredients in a recipe, you can bake cookies with the exact flavor, texture and appearance you want. Baking is a science, after all.

To make things easy, let's use the Original Nestlé® Toll House® Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe; it's a classic and a wonderful base-cookie recipe.

Ingredients:

  • 2 1/4 cups All-Purpose Flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 cups (12-oz. package) Nestlé® Toll House® Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels
For thicker cookies, simply add an extra egg to the dough.
For thicker cookies, simply add an extra egg to the dough.
Photo by Molly Dunn

Thick Cookies

If you want a thick, dense cookie, you need to add ingredients that bind the cookie together as it bakes. Eggs are the perfect binding ingredient. Harold McGee, a food-science authority, writes in his book "Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes" that eggs contribute to the overall structure of cookies because of the yolks, which add moisture to hold the entire cookie together. Add an extra egg to the cookie dough to keep the cookies from spreading on the pan while they bake.

Recipe variation: Use 3 eggs.

Crunchy Cookies

The best way to get that crunchy cookie is to increase the amount of granulated sugar and lower the amount of moisture. The coarse crystals in granulated sugar need moisture to dissolve, so if you add more granulated sugar, the cookie dough will have proportionally less moisture and the sugar will not dissolve completely, resulting in a crispy cookie.

 

Recipe variation: Use 1 1/4 cups of granulated sugar.

Use a cup of shortening instead of butter to bake cookies with a puffy texture.
Use a cup of shortening instead of butter to bake cookies with a puffy texture.
Photo by Molly Dunn

Puffy Cookies

To make sure cookies have a puffy texture, use shortening as the fat instead of butter. McGee writes, "shortening [it] can be creamed over a wider temperature range than butter, and it contains emulsifiers and tiny gas bubbles that aid in leavening." While butter most certainly makes cookies taste best, shortening will give your cookies a puffy texture; you'll just have a slightly artificial flavor.

You can also use baking powder instead of baking soda to guarantee a pale, puffy cookie.

Recipe variation: Use 1 cup of shortening; 1 teaspoon of baking powder.

Thin, Crispy Cookies

Add more liquid to cookies so that they spread more while they bake; the result will be a flat, thin cookie. You can do one of three things: add a tablespoon or two of water, milk or cream; use butter instead of shortening; or replace the granulated sugar with superfine sugar.

Recipe variation: Use 2 or 2 1/2 sticks of butter; use 1 1/4 cups of granulated sugar (superfine sugar); add 1 or 2 tablespoons of water, milk or cream.

Add brown sugar to cookies to increase the amount of moisture.
Add brown sugar to cookies to increase the amount of moisture.
Photo by Molly Dunn

Moist Cookies

Replace part of the granulated sugar with sweeteners that retain moisture, such as corn syrup, brown sugar, honey or molasses.

Recipe variation: Use 1 cup brown sugar, honey, corn syrup or molasses and 1/2 cup of granulated sugar.

Soft Cookies

For a softer cookie with a cake-like texture, you can also reduce the amount of brown sugar. Brown sugar contains molasses, which is moisture, so if you reduce the amount of brown sugar, you're increasing the amount of flour overall, which reduces the amount of moisture from the sugar.

Recipe variation: Use 1/2 cup of brown sugar.

 

Adding extra baking soda causes cookies to brown as they cook.
Adding extra baking soda causes cookies to brown as they cook.
Photo by ilovemypit

Browned Cookies

Obviously, adding more brown sugar to a cookie recipe will ensure browning, or caramelizing; however, adding baking soda to the recipe will also have the same effect. Either add more brown sugar and reduce the amount of granulated sugar, or just add an extra dash of baking soda to give your cookies a caramel-like flavor and browned exterior.

Recipe variation: Add a pinch of baking soda, or use 1 cup brown sugar and 1/2 cup granulated sugar.

Tender Cookies

For those of you who like the cookie to crumble, McGee suggests replacing a quarter of the All-Purpose flour with cornstarch. All-Purpose flour develops gluten, which binds cookies together, but cornstarch does not. Just as cornbread has a fine crumb texture, so will cookies when you add cornstarch to the flour mixture.

If you don't want grainy cornstarch in your cookies, opt for adding either more butter or an extra egg yolk, and reduce the amount of white sugar.

Recipe variation: Use 1 3/4 cups of All-Purpose flour and 1/2 cup of cornstarch.


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