Sunday, July 17, 2011

Cookie Perfection

Last November, I posted about the magical properties of brining a Thanksgiving turkey. The post began like this:
If there were one culinary lesson I could teach the world, it would be "how to bake a cookie". Most people have made cookies before, but very few have done it correctly. But if there were a SECOND culinary lesson I could teach the world, it would be "how to brine a Thanksgiving turkey".
Well, grab your's the day I teach the world to bake a superior chocolate chip cookie. One thing you've got to realize about me though, is that I love cooking, physics, and I'm a complete nerd. Nathan Myrvold's new book would be in my collection if I had the funds. So, this may be more in-depth than your average cookie recipe. In fact, I won't even be giving you a recipe in this post. The techniques of cookie baking are universal.

When I think of a well-made cookie, I think of structure.  But not just any structure, a cookie is kind of like this:
Nobody sneeze.

You see, baking a cookie is a complex exercise of creating and preserving structure in a volatile substance. For a cookie, those substances are air and butter.

I am happiness.

Creaming butter, sugar, and one egg together to make a house of cards isn't easy unless you've been taught how, so various cookie recipes try to compensate for this lack of knowledge by incorporating the cardinal sin of cookie baking: shortening. Every time a cookie is made with shortening, a kitty dies. Think of the kitties.

I don't have a problem with shortening - it is fantastic in shortening gluten strands for things like biscuits. But cookies are about structure; you don't want to reduce structure by shortening gluten strands in the flour! Plus, cookies made with shortening taste terrible. I won't eat them.

The other cardinal sin of baking a cookie is leaving the mixer on too long. If your mixer is on for more than 5 minutes total, you're breaking down structure. A related note, scraper beaters won't work on cookies because they don't allow the butter and sugar to cream properly.

So, how is the house of cards made?

Step 1 - Make sure your butter is COLD. Cut it into pieces and cream it on high for about 2 minutes in your mixer. The butter will turn a pale yellow when complete.

It is imperative that the butter be cold (maybe even the beater and the bowl) or the butter will never withstand the friction caused by the mixer. Remember, all structure is based in the butter; melted butter doesn't hold air.

Creaming the butter is, by far, the scariest process of making a cookie. You want to cream the butter really well but not melt it. Most people are afraid of that trade-off, so they only cream the butter about 1 minute and the butter looks like the above picture. Sorry, that's not enough time. The butter isn't smooth enough yet. Try creaming until the butter looks pale yellow like this:
Now that's gonna be good. And I promise this is the same butter, same mixer, same camera.

Step 2 - Scrape the sides. Add sugars, vanilla, salt. Cream on medium for 2 minutes (or until lump free). Scrape sides again.

Well, we've all been here and know what to do. The sugar crystals are pushed through the fat, adding air and softening the butter. The lumps are beaten out, and the mixture becomes light and more absorbent.

Step 3 - Mix (low speed) an egg that is at ROOM TEMPERATURE into the batter for 15 seconds. Scrape sides.

An egg lightens the batter, leavens a little bit, and adds (what else...) structure. Why room temperature? Because a cold egg causes the batter to lump, which gives cookies a broken appearance. When I make cookies, the first thing I do to prep is put a cold egg in a cup of hot water; it's sufficiently warm by the time I need the egg.

Step 4 - Add a blend of flour and baking soda. Mix (low speed) until just incorporated, about 30 seconds. Scrape sides.

Hopefully, your batter looks something like this:

Fluffy and light, but with a noticeable structure. Sorry for the blurry image. (I was in a hurry to preserve structure)

Step 5 - Add chocolate chunks. Notice that I didn't say chocolate chips. Mix (low speed) until just incorporated, about 15 seconds.

Here are the chocolate chunks I use. I still think they're a little small. When the batter is baking and melting the house of cards that you so carefully created, the thing that will save it is the chocolate chunks. The bigger they are, the more structure you will have in the cookie.

Step 6 - Place parchment paper on cookie tray. Drop the dough, bake at 350 for about 12 minutes or golden brown.

Parchment paper is really important here. It slows the melting process on the bottom of the cookie so it doesn't turn into a thin pool of crispness. Not only that, it's really easy to remove the cookies from the tray!

So that's it. A few tricks, and you too will have perfect looking, perfect tasting cookies. No Crisco aftertaste, crisp on the outside, gooey on the inside, fluffy, golden brown, and above all...a beautiful structure.


  1. You never cease to amaze me. Thanks for the tips. I'm telling Mike about your cookie post and he is laughing. Not at you, but because you are so awesome.

    - Hayley

  2. Cool--thanks!! I always wondered about butter temperature and how long to cream the butter/sugar. I have a recipe that tells me to do it for 10 minutes. And then 3 minutes after you add the egg. I'm buying choc chunks tomorrow and giving this a try!

  3. I've never been much of a cook, and don't do cookies very often. After reading all that, maybe I'll just wait until the next time we happen to be passing through Oregon to sample some of yours. :) Hope things are going well with 3. Miss you guys!

  4. Structure? Why do cookies need structure? I just thought they were a flat, gooey mess of fat and sugar. If they fall, how far do they have to go?

  5. Just decided to pop in and see what the Hedgecocks are up to and saw this fascinating post about cookies from a physics point of view. I've often wondered exactly what certain ingredients do to a recipe. What would an extra egg do? What about baking powder vs. soda? Hmmm... well with a maiden name like Bakewell, maybe I should know these things. I totally agree with you on shortening - yuck... but there are certain cookies that you want a smidge of crunch and that's what shortening will do for you (that much I know). Well anyhow, I must admit I am a member of the "butter being at room temperature" school and creaming it for 3-4 minutes with the sugar. Should I admit it in the face of such superior structure knowledge??? Ha ha! For my version of the perfect chocolate chip cookie see my blog at
    In the meantime, I hope you are all doing well and know that you are missed in the Lake Michigan Ward!