I sometimes forget that I know quite a bit about cookie baking. You get to know about Cookie Baking Basics if you write a book about it. My friends even give me a call when they are having difficulties with a recipe. This Christmas I decided to have a cookie baking party with some friends. Those who finish early are often “punished” by having to do the decorating on the cutouts that I do. Cathy won the prize for the best decorated-cookie. Can you pick it out? We all liked the little rocking horse. Which is your favorite?
Baking can be a little tricky at high altitude, but there are also many other factors that can determine success or failure. For example, dark pans will darken your cookies faster, as will using honey instead of sugar. Electric vs natural gas ovens can create different results, as can using glass vs metal pans for bar recipes. The age of your flour, eggs and leavening agents (baking soda or powder) can have an impact on your results. It is a wonder that our cookies ever come out well. But don’t be discouraged. Even flat or puffy cookies can still taste great.
So here is what I call some Cookie Baking Basics taken from my cookie book. If you know these few concepts, they will help you tackle most problems that you run into with a more knowing approach.
Most cookie recipes are made up of two parts-the wet ingredients and the dry ones. Select two bowls. All ingredients will end up in the larger, wet ingredients bowl. These wet items include butter, oil, sugar (sugar liquifies when baked), eggs, milk, sour cream, extracts and syrups like honey or molasses. Butter and sugar are the tenderizers of most cookie recipes. They are creamed together to pump air into them. The longer you mix them, the more air is pumped in and the more tender the cookie. Cream at 2-3 minutes to “pump up” the dough.
Eggs bind all the ingredients together. If you have ever wondered why instructions suggest room temperature eggs, it is because cold eggs will burst the air bubbles you just spent the last three minutes pumping into the butter and sugar. You can hurry this warming process along by letting the eggs sit in warm water for 15 minutes, while preparing the rest of the ingredients and getting your cookie sheets and other tools out. It is always best to beat an egg first, before adding it to the creamed mixture. Again, it is a matter of pumping in more air. Extracts are usually added to the wet ingredients after creaming and after adding the eggs.
The dominant dry ingredient is flour, which is the toughener or building material of the cookie. Think of a honeycomb. The pockets of it are the air-filled creamed butter and sugar of a cookie. The combs themselves are the flour or building structure of the cookie. The egg is the glue that holds them all together.
Flour is usually the single largest ingredient in a cookie recipe. Unlike the wet ingredients, over handling or over beating flour can toughen a cookie, especially if you use a butter substitute with a lower fat content. No need to sift the flour. But if it has been sitting in a container for quite a while, fluff it up (stir it) with a whisk before measuring it. When measuring ingredients, always level off the top of the measuring cup with a knife.
Other dry ingredients are insignificant in their size, but powerful in determining not only texture, but taste. If baking a bar type cookie that falls in the center, it usually means you have added too much of a leavening agent (baking powder or baking soda). If your batter puffs up, you need to increase your leavening agent. Spices, on the other hand, have little effect on the texture of the cookie or bar, but have everything to do with flavor. Salt acts as a flavor enhancer. If you are using a salted butter or spread, you need not add more salt to the recipe unless you want to cut through a too-sweet recipe. (It’s better to just use less sugar and you won’t need the salt.) To ensure a good blending always whisk leavening agents and spices into the flour.
Add the dry ingredients to the wet ones, remembering not to over stir (over toughen) the dough. Fruits and nuts are usually stirred or folded in by hand as the final step. Chilling a cookie dough is usually a good idea. It makes it easier to handle for scooping and it allows the spices and flavorings that you added to saturate the dough–more saturation means more flavor.
These are the cookie baking basics. There is a delicate balance between wet and dry ingredients. Sometimes ignorance is bliss, and you do not have to understand chemistry to bake a cookie. It all appears simple when you see that cookies are made up primarily of butter, sugar and flour. But when you start experimenting with a recipe on your own and tip the dry and wet balance, it is then that you appreciate the fine balance and chemistry that makes each seemingly simple recipe work.
Copyright 2010 by Linda K. Murdock.