C Is for Cookie, That’s Good Enough for MeBy Rose Grabowski
“Rose! I actually made cookies! Real baked scratch fresh chocolate chip cookies!”
Although it didn’t seem as though she fully understood her words, it appeared my friend was excited to tell me about her weekend. For months, we had been joking that I was going to domesticate her by teaching her how to be a “real woman” -- learn how to cook, clean, and bake cookies and cakes. So for the holidays I naturally had to buy her the book “How to be a Domestic Goddess.” This weekend, she finally managed to tie on an apron, pull out a wooden spoon and bowl, and crack the text to explore her baker within.
What came next, however, concerned me: “The book didn’t work! I took the cookies out of the oven, they were gray and hard.” She had followed the recipe as best she could, but still fell into the trap that most cookie-virgins confront -- lack of reverence for the subtle wonder of chemistry that is baking.
When making baked goods, you cannot just dump all the ingredients together, mix, and heat. It’s not quite that simple. So I present to you a very basic cookie recipe:
Start with butter or a similar substance like shortening, margarine, or lard. The butter is beaten into a creamy texture, incorporating air into the fat. Sugar is then added and creamed into the butter. The harsh edges of the sugar crystals break through the solid fat and create many more air pockets throughout. These pockets will later allow the cookie to have a light, crumbly texture.
A common mistake, and the one I immediately knew my friend had made in her attempt at domesticity, is to assume that butter is butter is butter, melted, hard, or frozen. You may be tempted to melt it completely and then mix it into the sugar, instead of letting it “soften” before creaming. Beaten melted butter will hold no more air than beaten water, so cookies made with melted butter will be dense and flat.
The importance of the step of creaming the butter must not be underestimated. By incorporating air into the batter early, less mixing has to occur later on in the process, and by mixing the batter less when the flour has been added, there is less opportunity for gluten development.
Gluten is the gelatinous material formed when water is mixed with flour and makes bread dough stretch -- which you probably don’t want in your chocolate chip cookies.
Even using different types of fat can vastly change the quality of your cookie. Shortening is a modern fat that is usually precreamed, with about 10 percent of its volume consisting of air. Cookies made with that as opposed to butter will generally be less flat and more tender.
Next, eggs are mixed in, the egg white helps to increase the air pocket volume further. The egg yolk proteins add flavor and will act as a structural support in the batter. Vanilla or some other flavoring is added followed by the dry ingredients, including salt, leavening, and flour.
The salt serves two purposes, one of enhancing the taste and the other of inhibiting protein-digesting enzymes in the flour and therefore preventing gluten from weakening the structure and releasing air bubbles. My mother used to always exclude salt from her cookies because she figured salt is bad for you. But salt actually heightens the flavor of the ingredients surrounding it, so by adding salt you really are increasing propensity for experiencing flavor.
The leavening agent is usually baking soda or baking powder, a mixture of baking soda and acidic salts. The sodium bicarbonate in these ingredients reacts with alkaline components in the batter to form carbon dioxide air bubbles, furthering the airy texture of the cookie.
Another common mistake is for wannabe bakers to mix in the leavening early in the process, while mixing the eggs for example, and leave the dough sitting for a while in the open air. This allows the chemical reaction to take place early, release the air bubbles, and deflate the dough.
Finally, the flour adds structure and support for the final product. At this point the dough should be structurally sound enough to add other tidbits like chocolate, nuts, whole candy bars, little children, etc.
So as long as you follow these concepts along with your recipe and remember things like “mix on medium speed for two minutes” really means two minutes, not 20 seconds (remember -- air pockets!), you should be ok. And if not, maybe you’ll like hard, gray cookies. They’re better than that Ragu Express you have on the shelf, right?