Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Chocolate Chip Cookies 101

Note: If you would like a more printer friendly version of the recipe, click here.

When my children were little, every Christmas Eve I would bake a batch of chocolate chip cookies. We would set out a few of them for Santa along with a glass of milk. Without realizing it, this became a tradition. Honestly I didn't even notice until their dad was asked to write down a tradition that our family did for Christmas. It struck him that this was something that I just began doing. Funny how that works sometimes.

Anyway, I've been making these cookies since I was a newlywed to my ex. He LOVED chocolate chip cookies and being a young new wife, I wanted to please him. This particular recipe is probably the first that I perfected. Through trial and error, I learned out to make the perfect cookie.

There are a few tips that you don't normally find in a cookbook and you have to first consider how you like your cookie. Before I go on, I have to say something about cookie 'doneness.' Safety nazis will tell you that the internal temperature needs to be 160°F, and to protect myself I suppose I'd better say the same thing. Still though, I have never checked the temperature of a cookie and I never, EVER will.

I like my cookies slightly crispy on the outside, and a bit chewy on the inside. I like them light brown, not brown; there is a difference. It's also not beige in color either, just light brown.

Size is another element. I don't like huge looking cookies, but I don't like small either. I don't like thin and I don't like thick. I know I sound like Goldilocks, but for me all of this is important. A typical Chips Ahoy (if you want to call it a cookie) is a bit larger than the ones I make. It's also a bit thinner. Size it down just a bit and puff it up just a bit and you have the cookie I adore. Just don't use the Chips Ahoy recipe, although for cheap store bought chocolate chip cookies, they're okay.

Now if you compare recipes throughout the web, you'll find that their ingredients vary as well as instructions on how to make them. Some call for salt, some do not; some call for butter, some for margarine and some for both; some call for baking powder and some don't. The key is to decide what kind of cookie you want and then go from there.

Baking soda is in just about every single chocolate chip cookie recipe. While it is a leavening, it works by spreading out the cookie. The more soda you add, the more the cookie will spread out.

Baking powder is sometimes called for. It makes cookies a bit cake like and will puff them up. I don't like puffy cookies so I don't use any baking powder at all.

Butter and shortening is an ongoing debate. Most people agree it is best to use 1/2 butter and 1/2 shortening. This is because like the baking soda, the more butter there is the more the cookie will spread out. Shortening doesn't tend to do this. All shortening leaves cookies tasteless, so butter really is needed. This is why most use half and half.

Temperature is makes a difference as well. The lower the temperature, the more the cookie will melt and spread. A higher temperature will help make the cookie rise a bit.

If the cookie sheet is warm (say from previous use) the dough will begin to melt before you finish putting the dough onto the pan. If the dough itself is room temperature, it too will make the dough melt and any melting causes spreading.

I once read a review for a cookie recipe online. The recipe was getting an uncanny amount of rave reviews, like over one thousand, but interestingly enough nearly every review wrote how they improved the recipe a bit. That sounded to me like it wasn't so great to begin with. In any case the one review which made me gape in disbelief was the suggestion that everyone melt their butter to create a great texture. WRONG! Whatever you do, don't EVER do that. That is the most ridiculous notion and possibly the worst thing you can do to a chocolate chip cookie recipe. It's important that you get air into the dough so that it will rise a small bit, and you must not ever melt any sugar either. That too will push air out and will make your cookie dough turn into a liquid mess and when they're baked they'll be like... something indescribable. Don't even consider that suggestion. I can't understand why the 'know-it-all' even posted that suggestion. 

Finally, there is also how you actually place the dough onto the cookie sheet. If you do them in what I call high balls, or like an egg shape standing on end they will rise a bit more, but if you shape it out any it will spread.

As you can see, there are a lot of things to consider when baking cookies. What looks like an easy thing to do can become a daunting task if you don't know about it.

I must say though, that I'm not a professional by any means. I guess you can call me an amateur cook, but I have cooked my family meals for about 23 years now. Experience is better than an education sometimes.

So! If you want a cookie like mine, or just want to experiment, then read on for the step-by-step process and recipe. If you decide to experiment a little, you can decrease the soda, add baking powder, use a little more flour and so forth. Play around until you get the perfect cookie for you. The only perfect cookie is the one that you absolutely love.

Chocolate Chip Cookies (makes about 4 dozen cookies)

  • 2 1/2 c. all purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda 
  • 1/2 c. shortening
  • 1/2 c. butter
  • 1/2 c. brown sugar
  • 1 c. granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 (12 oz. pkg) OR 2 c. semi-sweet OR dark chocolate chips  (NOT milk chocolate)
Preheat oven to 375°F.

In a medium or small bowl, stir flour and baking soda together, then set aside. I use a typical butter knife to stir it around. Stir it well too because the idea is to distribute the soda evenly throughout the flour.

In a large bowl beat butter, shortening, sugars and vanilla until light and fluffy looking. This part is very important because your goal is to get some air into it; the air makes cookie dough rise properly. You may need to scrape the sides of the bowl occasionally as you beat. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. The eggs provide moisture and helps to bind the dough together. Also the whites help to dry it out. Yes it sounds like a contradiction, so let's just say they provide moisture but also evens it out.

Gradually add flour mixture, beating well after each addition, until all is added. This part is easier than it looks to begin with. As you add flour, it will look very dry and you may think that you'll never get all of that in there, but you will. No worries, you will.

Fold in the chocolate chips, making sure that they're evenly distributed.

Now comes a subjective part. You don't want your dough soft, nor hard. Instead you want it stiff. If it's been sitting out for awhile, which it probably has because you've been busy making the dough, put it in the freezer for about ten minutes and no longer than that.

Use an ungreased 15x10" cookie sheet. I recommend using parchment paper in lieu of putting the dough directly onto the sheet, but honestly if you have a non-stick surface on the cookie sheet or non-stick foil, that works fine enough. I've just noticed that the bottoms of the cookies cook faster against the metal, and parchment helps make the bottoms more even with the rest of the cookie. Also parchment paper provides a serious benefit when you're removing the cookies. More on that later.

Once you remove the dough from the freezer work as quickly as you can without making a mess of things of course.

I use a plain 'ol typical teaspoon that we use at the table. I scoop out the dough making a heaping and rounded teaspoon. I try to make a pile that resembles an egg on it's wider end. I once tried rolling them into balls and I found that it worked okay, but took longer to bake and the center was rather flat. That's because by doing that I removed the air in the dough, which in my opinion is essential. What works best for me is to just scrape it off the spoon, making it kind of stiffly stand up on the pan. 

Keep the dough chilled, pop it in the freezer for about five more minutes if it becomes soft. When you're working with it, and while the cookies are baking before you get ready to drop more cookies, keep it in the refrigerator. The point is, keep the dough cold.

A 15x10" pan allows enough room to make exactly one dozen cookies, so evenly space three rows of four dropped cookies onto the pan and it will fit nicely.

As a reminder, the pan needs to remain cool between baking. I don't mean cold, like refrigerator cold, but room temperature.

Now one trick I've done in the past, and many recommend against it, is to rinse the pan with cool water after it comes out of the oven if I'm going to be baking another dozen. The reason it is often not recommended is because the pan may warp. However that part never bothered me because the warp was so small that it never affected my cookies. Now if I was going to use the pan for a cake batter like substance, then the warp would be a problem because one end would be thinner than the other end. So if you're only going to use the pans for cookies, then rinse with cool water at your discretion. All that said, I've noticed that lately the pans are not warping. Perhaps they're made differently than they were years ago. I just want you to be warned because I don't want anyone angrily complaining about it.

It's time to pop it into the oven. Slide the pan onto a center rack in the oven. The cookies are usually done in about 8-10 minutes. If you like chewy cookies, look for the edges to be light brown. If you like crunchy cookies, look for the whole cookie to be golden brown. One important thing to know is that the cookies will darken as they cool, once they're out of the oven. Because they'll look lighter while baking, the doneness may fool you. You'll learn though and honestly there is no exact time because of variances such as how big or small your cookies are, how thick you made them, and if your oven is actually accurate. I normally check my cookies after about 7 minutes and then every additional minute thereafter. That's actually overkill but the thermostat in my oven is wonky so I have to keep a close eye on things when I bake.

When you feel that they're done enough for you, take them out of the oven. It is important that you somewhat immediately remove them from the pan to a cooling rack, but this is tricky. Many don't recommend removing them from the pan at all. What makes it tricky is that the cookies are soft when they first come out of the oven. You risk tearing, or fully destroying, each cookie as you remove it.

This is another added bonus for using parchment paper. If you use parchment paper you can fold the sides up and using the side, just slide it off the pan and onto a cooling rack. They didn't have that stuff available when I began baking and what a pain it used to be. I now absolutely LOVE parchment paper and the simplicity behind its use. I also don't have to wash the pan either! Another added plus.

If you don't have parchment then allow them to cool slightly then using a thin metal spatula, very carefully slide the cookies off onto the rack. Be careful for two reasons. One, you don't want to scratch the non-stick surface of your pan. Two, you don't want to tear the cookies.

Allow them to cool for about ten minutes before eating, and cooled completely before storage.

Store them in a hard air-tight container. I don't recommend ziploc bags because the flimsy plastic makes the cookies crumble.



Possible Solution

The bottoms of the cookies are too brown, or worse, burned.

Raise the rack in the oven one notch. The lower the rack is, the closer to the oven burner it is.

Try using parchment paper as a lining on your baking sheet.

The cookies are overdone on the outside and not done enough on the inside.

Check to be sure you have the oven set for 375°F. If so check the actual oven temperature using an oven thermometer. It may be hotter than the temperature you've set it to.

The cookies are dry or hard.

Decrease your baking time.

The cookies are spread out and flat.

Chill the dough.

Use a cool baking pan.

Check to be sure you have the oven set for 375°F. If so check the actual oven temperature using an oven thermometer. It may be cooler than the temperature you've set it to.

Decrease baking soda.

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