Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Basics of Cookies- It's All Here!

Over the last few years of writing this blog, I have received tons of very specific baking questions; about cookies being flat, or why butter needs to be room temperature, or whatever else it is that befuddles you about baking.  So today I'm going to give you the Cliffs Notes of baking cookies.  It's ALL in here.  You must have caught me in a good mood!  (Or maybe it's the margarita.  Oh, summertime...)

On your ingredients:

Unless you have a recipe that specifically calls for you to keep your ingredients cold, It will always  help if you have your ingredients at room temperature.  This is especially important for eggs and butter.  (See my blog on Why Eggs and Butter are the Axl Rose and Slash of Baking for the science of it)  Eggs and butter don't like to mix together because they're both made mainly of fat, but if you have them at room temperature, they get along better.  Its kind of like those mean girls in sororities who hate each other, but after a few beers they're best friends and crying about how much they love each other.  Heat is the beer in this situation.  It makes everyone a LOT friendlier.

Baking soda, baking powder, and salt are all the same thing- they're forms of sodium.  And under a microscope, sodium and sugar look very similar.  Sodium looks like little glass boxes with perfect corners and sugar looks like a little glass box with a lot of jagged edges.  Both of them help incorporate air into cookies.  We'll get to how much of that you want in a minute.  But cookies recipes that have you cream your butter and sugar together should tell you to cream your sugar, salt, baking soda, and/or baking powder together.  Go ahead and mix sugar, salt, and your baking soda/powder at the beginning and let them join the butter party.  Everyone's invited!

Extra stuff like chocolate chips, oatmeal, raisins, whatever should always be added last.  That means DEAD last.  Wait until you've added your flour and what's in your bowl is the perfect example of cookie dough.  Then you can add your extra stuff.  Why?  Because I said so.  And because it keeps the chocolate chips, fruit, etc in tact so that you get whole bits of delicious surprises as you bite into the cookie.  Oh, and because that extra stuff tears up gluten, which makes your cookie more crumbly.  It's not the end of the world or anything, but if you want to know a brief overview about what the &%!@ gluten is, read this blog.

Baking soda and baking powder are NOT the same!  Read this ancient blog I wrote to find out why.   Make sure you use what your recipe calls for. 

On mixing:

If a recipe tells you to "cream the butter and sugar together," that does not mean that you should beat the shit out of those two ingredients.  With most cookie recipes, you want to just combine the sugar and butter until they're blended.  (Room temperature sugar and butter, remember?  Don't make me repeat myself.)  If you incorporate too much air into the cookie, it spreads out and gets flat and crunchy.  And judging by the emails I get in my in box (which is, for all of your fan mail/ questions/ Whole Foods gift card donating needs) you all prefer soft, chewy cookies like we all grew up with out of the Soft Bake package.   Try to hold back.  Just blend the butter and sugar (and salt and baking soda/baking powder) until they're combined.   Then move on to the next step. 

Eggs are usually the next step.  We've already gone over that you've let them get to room temperature.  So now that you've mastered the art of letting an egg sit out on the counter for half an hour or so, make sure you don't add it too fast.  If you have 2 eggs to add to a recipe, add them one at a time.  Add Egg #1, and let the mixer blend it in.  At first the eggs look like they're separated- you'll actually see little fat bubbles that don't want to mix.  But if you're patient, and if your butter and eggs were room temperature, it will eventually blend together.  Then you want to turn the mixer off, take a rubber spatula and scrap all the way down to the bottom of the bowl to make sure you mix in any butter/eggs that have been left alone at the bottom, untouched.  Like little orphans.  Please.  Don't ignore the orphans.  Then, and only then, can you add the next egg.  If you happened to be making the most giant batch of cookies ever and you needed to add 100 eggs, you obviously wouldn't add them 1 at a time.  You'd add them like 1/4 at a time.  Use your common sense here, people. 

On Baking:

Let's talk preheating.  You preheat your oven for a reason, people!  If I can quote myself here from yet another ancient blog, "While a hot oven will force a cake into its submission and make it rise like no one's business, an oven that's not pre-heated will basically just sip a cocktail, nudge your cake and ask, "Do you want to bake or what? Yeah, I didn't think so."  Put your cookies in the oven to BAKE.  If your oven isn't hot, what's the point?  A slow, painful death to the chocolate chips?  There's so much happening: high heat makes water turn into steam which helps things rise, which helps baking soda finish its very important job, which makes sugar caramelize into golden pieces of heaven... Just preheat the damn oven until it beeps at you, ok?  And then give it another 10 minutes or so for good measure. 

Chill the dough before you scoop it out and lay it on a pan.  Even better, scoop it out, lay it on the pan, and then chill it.  Freeze it, even.  This gives you a chewier, softer cookie every time.

Your recipe doesn't always know how long to bake your cookies for.  12-15 minutes doesn't always mean 12-15 minutes.  I remember working a pastry externship at a lovely restaurant in San Francisco with a very lovely chef who went on to star on many a Bravo and Food Network TV shows, and if there's one thing I learned there, its that you don't bake things for a certain amount of time, you bake them until they're done.  Every oven is different.  How cold or hot the weather is affects baking.   Humidity affects baking.  So if your recipe says 12-15 minutes and after 15 minutes you look at your cookies and they're still doughy and undercooked, then leave them in there longer.  WE ALL KNOW WHAT A COOKIE LOOKS LIKE.  Trust yourself to make that decision to say "Yes.  This cookie is finished and I will now remove it from the oven because the time has come."  The same goes for cookies baking much faster than you think.  If those suckers look done at 9 minutes, then you better take them out before their prescribed time of 12-15 minutes.  And if you don't and you burn them, it's your fault.  You saw they were done, didn't you?

If you bake a lot, I recommend investing in a couple of good sheet pans.  Home bakers call them cookie sheets, but we in the industry (or we who used to be in the industry and have since escaped, thank the universe) call them sheet pans.   They're usually made of aluminum, they have durable sides, they're uber sturdy and will last you a gazillion years if you treat them right, and if you line them with parchment paper instead of coating them with butter and flour, they're super easy to clean.  Do yourself a favor and purchase a couple from a restaurant supply store, not Williams Sonoma or Sur la Table.  As much as I love those two stores' cookbook selections, they'll charge you triple for a shopping experience with better lighting.  Not worth it.

On what to do when you've messed up:

Cookies a little over done?  Too much baking soda and the texture is all funky?  No problem.  Freeze it and save it to blend it into a milkshake when you want to eat your feelings.  Crumble it into a bowl and pour milk over it and pretend like you're 8 years old watching Saturday morning cartoons eating a Cookie Crisp.  (God, how I MISS Cookie Crisp.  Damn you, diets!)  Puree it up and use it instead of graham cracker crumbs for a cheesecake crust.  Homemade chocolate chip cookie crust?  You just made like 14 new friends.  Puree it up, freeze it, and rim a martini glass in it for some kind of decadent signature holiday drink.   You can do that with almost anything!  I once drank a martini in a glass rimmed with pretzels.  I don't remember much after that, but I'm pretty sure I enjoyed it.


Erin McGuire said...

Huh, my mom always chilled cookie dough before she'd bake the cookies and I never knew why. Now I know she was secretly being awesome.

John said...

I know a lot of folks who don’t eat eggs (they’re allergic, for health reasons, or concerns about animal cruelty). Here’s an awesome site that gives tips on cooking and baking without eggs:

Anonymous said...

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Tricia Lewis, author said...

Thanks for the feedback, everyone! Now go tell the world and together we'll take over...

rebecca said...

there is a reason yours is one of two blogs i actually subscribe to.. because you're the only person who could successfully compare eggs, butter and heat to drunken sorority girls. hilarious and informative once again!