Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Chocolate Chip Cookies

When I was in my beginning bakeshop class in school, one of the first things we did was bake chocolate chip cookies. Now that I go back and think about it, that was a really good move. It seems that just about every time I bake chocolate chip cookies, I learn something new about them. If I don't learn from mixing or baking the cookies themselves, then it's something that I learned beforehand that I get to apply to that batch. It's such a simple recipe, and yet it has so many subtle nuances that can be used to experiment with and learn so many principles.

The original chocolate chip cookie recipe was developed, partly by accident, by a certain Ruth Wakefield. She broke up pieces of chocolate and mixed them into a sugar cookie dough, thinking that the chocolate would spread into the rest of the cookie and turn it into a chocolate cookie. Why she didn't opt for cocoa powder (which was available at the time), I don't know. But I do know that she hated the outcome. Fortunately for us, the rest of the cooks at her Tollhouse Inn loved it, and continued to make it. When Nestle noticed that the majority of their sales in that region were coming from one location, they investigated.

Two things came out of this, that I think are very interesting. First of all, Nestle obtained the rights to this recipe in exchange for a lifetime supply of chocolate. I hope it was good for. But Nestle's proliferation of this recipe inspired the release of a new form of chocolate: the chocolate morsel, AKA the chocolate chip. Just think, without Mrs. Wakefield's mistake, would we ever have discovered such a beautiful package?

I won't give you the original recipe. You can just pick up a bag of Nestle chocolate chips and get the recipe off the bag. I will, however, give you a variation of the recipe that I worked with tonight.

2 1/2 cups bread flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup + 1 tablespoon packed dark brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 large chicken eggs
2 cups chocolate chips

It's not much of a change from the original. But let's talk about a few things. First of all, I'm a big fan of butter. More specifically, I'm not a big fan of margarine. I don't even keep it around in my kitchen. I don't want it getting into the food. But there are important things to remember about butter vs margarine. Butter melts differently. Butter has different ratios of fats. Butter is a different fat altogether than margarine. Don't think you can go swapping it out willy-nilly; you will not have the same results. I'm not saying you won't like the results. But I am saying that I probably won't.

I used bread flour. You see, I like chewy cookies. I don't like thin and crispy. I don't like light and fluffy. I like chewy. Bread flour has a higher protein content, and the possibility to develop more gluten. It's important to remember that it doesn't actually contain gluten, but it does contain more of the proteins that create gluten. In order for gluten to form, it needs moisture and it has to be worked. Note: fat is not the same thing as moisture. In fact, fat shortens the gluten strands, whereas actual moisture helps them develop. I also upped the ante on baking soda. This was to help the cookies spread more slowly. This is not a concept that I fully understand, nor think worked. I also used dark brown sugar, because I like the deeper flavor that it offers.

These cookies are brought together using what's called the "creaming method". This is a pretty common mixing method that, once understood, is easy to use. In fact, when I write down recipes for my own use, I often just write "creaming method" and leave it at that. The process is simple:

  1. Beat together any fats and sugars
  2. Slowly add any wet ingredients
  3. Slowly add any dry ingredients
  4. Fold in any garnishes

In our case, the fats and the sugars are the butter and the white and brown sugar. The wet ingredients include eggs and vanilla extract. The flour, baking soda and salt are the dry ingredients. Generally speaking, these will be whisked together before being added. As for garnishes, that's the chocolate chips. The original recipe included nuts, which would also count as garnish. But as far as I'm concerned, chocolate chip cookies don't have nuts. Period. But hey, it's up to you.

Unfortunately, the creaming method isn't quite that simple. But it's close. First of all, your butter needs to be softened. That means leaving it out on the counter for a couple of hours or so before using it. Don't worry, it'll be fine. I've known some bakers to leave butter out at room tempurature for days, even a couple of weeks at a time. You'll be fine at just a couple of hours. And keep the butter wrappers, you'll need them in a moment.

Also, when creaming your fats and sugars, make sure to scrape the bowl. I can still hear my old boss Steve in the back of my head, telling me to scrape often. Scrape the bowl and scrape the beaters. You'll want to do this at least once or twice just when creaming the fats and sugars.

When you add the wet stuff, you really don't want to do it all at once. I added one egg and the vanilla, mixed, scraped, added the second egg, mixed and scraped. Speaking of eggs, this is why I told you to hang onto the butter wrappers. I like to set them next to the mixing bowl and crack the eggs on them instead of the counter, the side of the bowl, etc. It keeps you from having to drive pieces of shell into the egg, or having to clean up egg from the counter. Speaking of cracking eggs, let me teach you a trick. If you hold the egg with two fingers, spaced apart, on one side and your thumb on the other side, you can use that finger position to open the egg just a little easier and faster. With practice, you can crack eggs with both hands at once. If you ever work in a bakery and have to crack 40 eggs at once for a single batch of cookies, you'll get really good at this.

Then I added the flour, which took a couple of installments, and I scraped between each installment. Why all the emphasis on scraping? Because you don't want the batter to have little chunks of fat, or chunks of fat and sugar. When you bake the cookies, if there are any chunks, you will notice... and you will be sad. What we're looking for is a homogenous dough. Scraping often is one way to get that. Whisking your dry stuff (to evenly distribute it all) is another way. And yes, slowly adding the wet stuff is yet another way. The more careless you get, the more of a gamble you're taking with your cookies.

This recipe calls for two cups of chocolate chips. When you add them, it might look initially like you have way too many chips. As much as I'd like to tell you that there's no such thing as too much chocolate, I can't; it's simply not true. But in this case, you'll be fine. When you mix it all in, I think you'll find that it's about perfect. Then again, I've baked variants of this before that really call for about half the amount of chocolate chips. It still yields a good recipe.

At this point, I'm really going to deviate from the recipe. Rather than setting my oven to a blistering 375F, I'm actually only going with a balmy 300F. Why? Well, think of the cookie like a custard. And why not? It has egg yolks and fat in it, right? But it also has flour, which provides additional structure. Okay, so maybe it's a bit of a stretch. But consider this: do you want your cookie to be crispy and hard right out of the oven? If you're watching carefully, then this won't happen. But you have to be watching very carefully, and you may have to open the oven door a lot to do so. Opening the door releases heat, which throws the cooking time. And if you let it go just a little too long, then your cookies may get overbrowned.

So we're going to go for another strategy. Rather than quick and hot, I like to let my cookies go low and slow. This means that my baking time has now gone from 9 to 11 minutes to 18 to 22 minutes. When the clock hits 18 minutes, then I know it's time to check for doneness. Depending on the oven, depending on the day, depending on the batter, your cookies may take as long as 22 minutes. If they take much longer than that, then there's probably something wrong somewhere. My cookies usually take about 21 minutes.

Chocolate chip cookies are what are known as a "drop cookies". In many households, such as the one in my childhood, this means dropped from a spoon. This is all well and good, if you don't mind running the risk of having different sized cookies, with varying levels of doneness. I like to use what's called a "disher", available at restaurant supply shops everywhere. This is the ice cream scoop-looking thing that the lunch lady used to use to serve your mashed potatos. It's not a bad thing. It keeps your cookies the same size, and if you keep several different sizes around, then you can adjust depending on the situation. I've seen anywhere from a #6 (1/6 of a quart) to a #100 (1/100 of a quart). I only had a #40 and a #100 available, so I went with the #40. That's not bad for home use. In a perfect world (or a restaurant setting), I might have used a #24.

I'm explaining this to you now, not because you're going to bake them all now, but because you're going to bake just one now. This is what we used to call a "tester". Back in my bakery days, we would always take the first cookie scooped and toss it in the oven by itself. We wouldn't even use a full cookie sheet, we would just spray the bottom from a springform pan and put the cookie on that. This really wasn't a waste of energy for us, since our ovens were on all day anyway. In your case, you may just want to bake it in a preheated toaster oven. Just bake it the same way you would a full batch (300F for 18 to 22 minutes) and see how it turns out. While it's baking, you can go ahead and scoop your other cookies.

This is another restaurant trick. Make a big old batch of cookie dough, scoop it all at once, and then chill until needed. By the time your tester is finished baking, you should be done scooping. Then you can take a look at the tester and see if it turned out okay. In most cases, it will be fine. My tester turned out a little thinner than I expected:

The additional spread usually means too much fat. If I was in a professional bakery and my cookies came out wrong, I would have to perform emergency operations on them. You see, consistency is essential in a commercial setting. You can't be selling thin and crispy cookies one day, and soft and fluffy the next. If my cookies were too thin and spread out, then I would take the cookies that I had scooped and toss them all back in the bowl, and mix in more flour. If they weren't spread out enough, I would mix in more softened butter. It wouldn't be the same as a cookie that was properly mixed the first time, but it will be a lot closer. I decided to stick with my thin cookies, which were now scooped out into nice little rows.

I moved the pan to the fridge for maybe 10 or 20 minutes to let them firm up. At this point, I needed to consider storage options. If I kept them on the sheet pan, then I would cover the pan with plastic wrap to keep the cookies from drying out. But that pan takes up a lot of space in my cooler, plus I want it to be available for other things, like baking. So once my cookies were firmed up, I moved them to a bucket left over from last year, when my wife bought a bucket full of frozen cookie dough from a fund-raiser. This bucket was moved to the refrigerator for short-term storage (up to a week). If you think you can handle the wait, I would say you're safe freezing for up to a month. If you decide to freeze, then make sure you move your cookies to the fridge the night before baking so that they can properly thaw.

I started you out on your way to happy cookiedom with basics that you probably already knew, and then took off into unfamiliar territory for a lot of people. Maybe you don't need to know all the commercial tips and tricks. Maybe you're okay just baking from the recipe on the bag, and that's just fine. But let me present a scenario: let's say that you have plenty of time on Saturdays, but you need your cookies on a weekday. Maybe you have a bakesale on Wednesday, or maybe your kid has you in as a guest parent in Kindergarten on Thursday. You'll be home, but won't have the time or resources to do any mixing. Or maybe you have one free Saturday in the month and no other really free days. Just make one huge batch on that day and stick the cookies in the chill chest. Suddenly you have the convenience of those store-bought tubes and trays of dough, without all the cost or preservatives, and with any extracts that you just love.

Next up: tips for baking, once you have your pre-scooped cookies.


  1. i wanted to thank you for your cookie advice. very informative


  2. Thank you! I have been baking chocolate chip cookies - with my own variations and love them, but I gave my special recipe to my sister - she demolished them. Now I know why. And now I know why they do what they do with the simple variations like method and fat ratio. That you again!

  3. This post is very helpful, especially the concept of having a tester. I didn't know its okay not to cook the cookies immediately so I popped them into the oven as soon as I scooped them into the cookie sheet. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with us. :)


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