Anatomy of a Chocolate Chip Cookie

I get a lot of questions about how to properly make chocolate chip cookies – so that they are thick and chewy, crispy-edged, still soft once cool – it seems that although the world’s favorite cookie (arguably) is easy to make, they often don’t turn out according to the baker’s specifications.

Although virtually all chocolate chip cookies contain essentially the same ingredients butter, white sugar, brown sugar, eggs, vanilla, flour, baking soda, salt and chocolate chips, maybe nuts they aren’t all created equal. The proportions of each, and how you treat and bake the dough, has plenty to do with the end result.

Let’s walk through the ingredients, shall we?

Butter: butter is always the best choice for chocolate chip cookies, flavour and texture-wise. It has a low melting point and better flavor than margarine, without the trans fats of stick margarine. Salted butter is fine, even if the recipe calls for unsalted – you need to add some salt anyway, or your cookies will taste flat. Make sure it’s at room temperature, or it will be impossible to beat. Please don’t use tub margarine or low fat spreads, which have other ingredients (yogurt, water, air) whipped in – they tend to make a wet dough and tough cookies. Shortening will work, but the buttery flavour will be missing, and you don’t want that. Ditto oil, which is healthier but has no flavour – it’s also a liquid, and so can thin your batter and cookies.

White (granulated) sugar: doughs high in white (granulated) sugar make crisper cookies as the cookies cool, the sugar crystallizes and the cookies harden.

Brown sugar: is moister and makes for a more chewy cookie it’s more hygroscopic (absorbs moisture from the atmosphere) so cookies made with brown sugar are chewier and often become softer as they cool, rather than crisper. Brown sugar also contributes the caramel flavor that is so important to chocolate chip cookies. The darker the sugar, the more molasses it contains, so darker sugar will have more moisture and a deeper flavor. The two are often combined to maximize flavour and crispness.

Eggs: recipes assume you will use large eggs. They help bind the dough together, but also add a cakey texture – any wet ingredients, in fact, will produce a more cakey cookie. Eggs also act as a leavening agent, so add another if you want yours poufier.

Vanilla: artificial extract is fine, depending on who you’re making them for. Real vanilla extract is divine, but most people (especially kids) won’t notice the difference – so this part is up to you and your pocketbook. I like to add 2 tsp rather than the 1 that is traditionally called for in a recipe, just to boost flavour.

Flour: all purpose is fine – there’s no need for cake & pastry flour, which is lower in gluten. Feel free to use half whole wheat to boost fiber and add a slightly nutty flavour. The important part is the measuring – use dry measuring cups (the stackable ones) rather than liquid (glass or plastic with the measure marked on the side), which requires you to settle the flour down in order to read the measure. Flour can become packed down (just like brown sugar), making it easy to add too much flour to a recipe. (This is why folks in the UK go by weight, which is far more accurate.) Many recipes tell you to sift or stir your flour – sifting is no longer necessary, but aerating it will ensure it isn’t packed down – the idea is to fill your cup using as little flour as possible. Too much can dry out your dough.

Baking soda: helps with spread, also browning – baking powder gives more lift – add a bit, if you like.

Salt: Important. Just a pinch, or your cookies will taste flat.

Chocolate Chips: semi-sweet are best – feel free to chop up dark chocolate bars – milk chocolate tends to get lost in a chocolate chip cookie, but they do work fine as well. Try chocolate covered peanuts or raisins, or chopped up leftover chocolate bars (peanut butter cups work especially well) – use your imagination.

Other additions: if you add dried fruit, make sure it’s plump (soak in hot water and drain well) or it will plump itself up by sucking the moisture out of your dough. If you add nuts, toasting them first will boost flavour. To make a chocolate dough, swap 1/4 cup of the flour for dark cocoa powder.

The dough: some people swear by chilling the dough for a day or three before baking it, which allows the dough to fully absorb any moisture, making it drier and firmer, with a better consistency in the end. It’s worth a try, but most often I don’t plan my cookies 3 days in advance. It can be frozen in a roll (wrap in parchment or plastic wrap and slice) or in individual scoops to bake from frozen.

Baking: this is where most people run into trouble. It’s important, first and foremost, that you always preheat your oven. If your cookies spread into little pancakes the oven is likely too cool, and the dough is melting before it has a chance to set. If they aren’t spreading enough it’s likely too hot, baking them on the outside before they have a chance to spread. But the biggest problem people run into is overbaking. Everyone wants their chocolate chip cookies to look golden all over, at which point they’re actually overbaked and won’t be soft once they cool. Remember that cookies firm up as they cool, so they need to be set around the edges but still soft in the middle if you want them to stay chewy.

Troubleshooting

My cookies are too thin: A cookie’s spread is largely determined by the type and texture of the fat in it. Creaming will incorporate air into the mixture and give it lift. Melting the butter (as in browned butter cookies) makes for a softer dough and because it won’t accommodate air cells, the moisture from the other ingredients has nowhere to go. You’ll wind up with a denser cookie. More often though, it’s because the oven is too cool, and the dough is melting before it has a chance to set. Crank up the heat, or chill the dough first, which will slow its spread in the oven.

My cookies are too thick: I don’t hear this one very often. Generally it’s due to too much flour in the dough (read up on measuring it, above) or the oven is too hot, baking the dough on the outside before it has a chance to spread.

My cookies aren’t chewy: everyone wants their chocolate chip cookies to look golden all over, at which point they’re actually overbaked and won’t be soft once they cool. Remember that cookies firm up as they cool, so they need to be set around the edges but still soft in the middle if you want them to stay chewy. Transfer them to a wire rack as soon as they come out of the oven to stop them from cooking on the hot pan.

Thick and Soft Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 cup butter, at room temperature
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs
2 tsp. vanilla
2 3/4 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1-2 cups chocolate chips

In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugars with an electric mixer for a few minutes, until pale and light. Beat in the eggs and vanilla.

In a smaller bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda and salt. Add to the butter mixture and beat on low or stir by hand until almost combined; add the chocolate chips and stir just until blended.

Drop rounded spoonfuls of dough on a cookie sheet that has been sprayed with non-stick spray and bake for 12-14 minutes, until golden around the edges but still soft in the middle. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Makes about 2 dozen cookies (depending on how big you make them).

Thin and Crisp Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 cup butter, at room temperature
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 tsp. vanilla
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1-2 cups chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375°F. In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugars with an electric mixer until light. Beat in the eggs and vanilla. In a smaller bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda and salt. Add to the butter mixture and beat on low until blended. Stir in the chocolate chips.

Drop large rounded spoonfuls of dough 2-3 inches apart on baking sheets that have been sprayed with non-stick spray or lined with parchment and bake 10 minutes, until golden. Makes 2 1/2 dozen cookies.

Low Fat Chocolate Chip Cookies

1/4 cup butter, softened
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 large egg
2 Tbsp. golden or corn syrup, honey or maple syrup
1 tsp. vanilla
1 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
3/4 cup chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350°F.

In a large bowl, beat butter and brown sugar until well blended the mixture will have the consistency of wet sand. Add egg, corn syrup and vanilla and beat until smooth.

In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking soda and salt. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and stir until the dough starts to come together. Add the chocolate chips and stir just until combined.

Drop spoonfuls of dough about 2″ apart on a cookie sheet that has been sprayed with non-stick spray. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until barely golden and set around the edges but still soft in the middle. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Makes 20 cookies.

Per cookie: 137 calories, 4.5 g fat (1.6 g saturated fat, 2.3 g monounsaturated fat, 0.4g polyunsaturated fat), 23.5 g carbohydrates, 11.9 mg cholesterol, 0.7 g fiber. 29% calories from fat.

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