Overloading on sugar and spending too much time hovering near the oven in the name of sweet research to find the perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe
This past Friday night, I did something I have always wanted to do - I held a tasting. No, not a lively wine tasting full of knowledgeable connoisseurs, but a chocolate chip cookie tasting with my mom, younger brothers, and best friend. Yes, these are the kinds of things I get up to on a wild and crazy Friday night.
Baking has become a hobby of mine over the past few months ever since I baked these excellent cake batter chocolate chip cookies for a couple of friends for their birthdays and realized I actually had a knack for bringing a delicious dessert together. Call it a stress reliever, therapeutic, or just plain having an insatiable sweet tooth, there's something about following a recipe and making something with your hands in anticipation of the end result.
Since then, I have tried out so many different recipes for cupcakes, breads, cookies, and brownies from blogs like Sally's Baking Addiction and Averie Cooks. But I always come back to making cookies. There's so many possibilities for cookie flavors and I find them a lot easier to make than a cake - there's no need for making a frosting in addition to batter or dreading turning the baked mass out of a tin. Plus if you're baking for a special occasion, cookies are easy to wrap up and gift or pack up and transport.
I jump at every opportunity to bake cookies for someone or some occasion. Getting the chance to bake something means I get to go back to that creative space of butter, sugar, flour, eggs, and whatever else and have an excuse to execute a new recipe I've been wanting to try. Being able to sample the results while also being able to make someone's day with a nice home-baked treat is a bonus.
So when I was informed that my mom's uncle was having a 70th birthday party, I asked the party planner (my mom's cousin) if I could contribute to the festivities by making a big batch of the guest of honor's favorite cookie. I was then tasked with making chocolate chip cookies with walnuts.
You can't get more classic than a chocolate chip cookie. It's simple and straight forward, so I wanted to use the best recipe possible for this baking assignment. And I saw it as an opportunity to put together a chocolate chip cookie tasting in order to get the full effect of tasting different recipes side by side. Plus, it's never a bad thing for a baker to have a few chocolate chip cookie recipes under her belt.
In choosing the recipes I would test, I pulled from various popular baking blogs and settled on four that used distinct ingredients and methods to produce a certain textured end cookie and had overall good reviews from both home bakers and bloggers. I spent most of Friday preparing the four different doughs, keeping all things equal like the brand of ingredients, the tools I used, and relative dough chilling times.
Get your sweet tooth ready for the tasting results:
This popular recipe by foodie science nerd (used endearingly; I loved his show Good Eats) Alton Brown is hailed by a lot of people as the be-all, end-all chocolate chip cookie recipe. It uses melted butter, bread flour (which has more gluten than regular flour and gluten = chewy), and an egg plus an egg yolk (egg whites are a drying agent) to create a chewy, moist texture in the end cookie that most people crave.
The method for making the dough uses an electric stand mixer, with a few ingredients mixed together outside the bowl. The bake time and oven temperature is considerably longer and higher than what I'm used to seeing in cookie recipes I've used before, but I went with it. This was also the first time I've seen instructions on where to place the racks in the oven and to rotate the pans halfway through baking time, but this ensures that some cookies don't brown more than others, as most ovens have hot spots. Fair enough. I did notice that the cookies browned fairly quickly when baking them, but I stuck with the full 15 minutes listed in the recipe. Don't let the baked cookies set on the hot baking sheet once they come out of the oven. Remove them to a cooling rack right away to stop the baking process.
It was a good cookie, but I found that the bread flour made it too, well, bread-y. This cookie does live up to the name and has a soft chew, but it's a little too dense for my liking. Maybe if I had used dark brown sugar rather than the light that was listed in the recipe, it would have improved the texture and taste of the end cookie. If someone requested I make chocolate chip cookies or I get a craving for the classic treat, this is not the recipe I'd jump for.
Chef Elizabeth Falkner is behind this recipe and has deemed it one of her favorite recipes for chocolate chip cookies; it's featured in both the "Sweet Endings" episode of Food Network's The Best Thing I Ever Made and Falkner's cookbook Demolition Desserts. It uses the standard method of creaming together softened butter and sugar (lovingly done by hand and thankfully not needing to dirty the big stand mixer) and other standard cookie ingredients. A big differentiation in this recipe is the use of both baking soda and baking powder.
The bake time is on the higher side again (13 to 17 minutes), but I stuck to the lower end of the range given to ensure my cookies didn't come out completely crispy. I also did not let the baked cookies set on the cookie sheet after taking them out of the oven to prevent them from browning more.
I came across this recipe while reading baking blogger Joy Wilson's (of Joy the Baker) four-part "The Chocolate Chip Cookie Debate" that does some delving into what ingredients and methods make the best chocolate chip cookie. After all this sugary and buttery research, Joy has cited that Alton Brown's "The Chewy" and this recipe of Falkner's, "The Buttery," to be her two favorite recipes for this variety of cookie.
However, I didn't find Falkner's chocolate chip cookie "straight up" to be buttery, but rather extremely chewy, as if the sugar used in the dough had caramelized during baking, and less dense and more aerated than the other cookies tested due to the use of baking soda and baking powder.
Overall, I really enjoyed the different textures this recipe created in the end cookie. The cookie's edges are crisp, giving you a good crunch, which may have to do with the fact that more white sugar is used than in most chocolate chip recipes that rely on dark brown sugar for the chewiness factor. As you work your way to the center of the cookie, it becomes more chewy, a harder chew rather than a soft one, that reminds me of eating some kind of cookie brittle or soft toffee studded with chocolate chips, which sounds awesome, right? This cookie was even requested to be made again a few days after the tasting because my mom started craving the crunchy/chewy combination.
The Sally's Baking Addiction blog is what got me into this whole baking thing in the first place, so it's one of the top sources I refer back to for recipes for all sorts of sweet stuff. Baking-addicted Sally of course has a recipe for chocolate chip cookies that is the result of much testing in the pursuit of the perfect recipe worthy enough to render all others obsolete.
Her version contains cornstarch, which apparently gives the cookies some "lift" and aids to keep them soft. More dark brown sugar is used to bring on the chewiness, compared to the small amount of white sugar to keep away the crispiness. The recipe uses the standard method of creaming together sugar and butter in a stand mixer, then adding the wet ingredients before the dry.
These cookies remind me a lot of Averie Cooks's "The Best Soft and Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies," which were not included in this tasting, but I have made before. Averie's recipe utilizes instant vanilla pudding mix in place of cornstarch for a similar effect. Although Averie's chocolate chip cookies are similarly moist, soft, and tender, they are baked up bigger and thicker than Sally's, making them seem heavy when you've made the mistake of eating a second one.
Sally's version takes the least amount of time to bake (8 to 9 minutes) out of the four and Sally instructs to allow the cookies to cool on the baking sheet for at least 5 minutes after being removed from the oven. This allows the cookies to "set" up. However, after doing this, the cookies were still super soft and undercooked to the point of not being able to be picked up without totally falling apart. So I increased the bake time to 10 minutes and allowed them to set up for another 10 minutes after on the cookie sheet before attempting to move them. This seemed to work.
Sally's chocolate chip cookie is on the more compact side, but it's moist, chewy, and definitely soft. It's also a kid/teen-friendly cookie because this was the favorite of my 10-year-old and 17-year-old brothers. Basically if you want a simple, good, soft, and chewy chocolate chip cookie, here's your recipe. Just stay away if you're a fan of team crispy.
Cook's Illustrated got this one pretty spot on, so I'm going to allow them to call these chocolate chip cookies "perfect." Although this recipe is the most technical out of the four, all the steps are well worth the results. It doesn't require a stand mixer and everything can be done by hand in a bowl with a whisk and spatula. Just be sure to follow all the detailed instructions on how to mix everything together.
This recipe was a last minute addition to the tasting line up, as I saw it referenced multiple times by baking bloggers around the Internet while I was doing some day-of cookie research.
This version calls for browned butter, which I was a bit scared to undertake since I had never browned butter before in my life and it seemed like one of those things only more advanced chefs could make happen. But I have read a lot about how browned butter is amazing and adds great flavor to whatever it goes in to, so I had to try it out. The recipe also uses dark brown sugar and a whole egg plus an egg yolk to keep chewiness and moistness levels in check. The recipe does not say to chill the dough before baking, as the three other recipes do, but I did chill this dough for about 45 minutes. Baking with warm dough makes cookies prone to spreading into disappointingly paper-thin things. Not so good. Baking with chilled dough allows the cookies to stay nicely puffy. Very good.
During my foray into butter browning, little dark bits began to appear, so I figured I had burned it and sadly poured it into my mixer's bowl and continued to make the cookies, not anticipating the end results to be great as the burnt butter would give the cookies a weird taste...quite the opposite.
It turns out, I had successfully browned butter on my first attempt and these cookies came out, not only as the best looking cookies of the spread, but the best overall, taste and texture wise. They're baked up relatively large, but the soft and chewy, yet sturdy texture of the cookies make them a treat to eat, so much so that you just want to reach for one after the other, no matter how large they are. The browned butter adds a deeper, richer flavor. The edges lend more of a chew than the center, with a slight crispiness, so you get a mild range of pleasurable textures throughout the whole cookie. To me, this cookie is the chocolate chip cookie you would expect to get at a top-notch bakery.
End result and lessons learned:
After all was tested and tasted and after I took my fellow tasters' opinions into consideration, I decided to got with Cook's Illustrated's "Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies" to bake for my mom's uncle and his birthday party. The range of textures and the medium level of chew and softness in these cookies make it a good choice for a crowd, appealing to both team chewy and team crispy, plus most people will enjoy the familiarity of a good soft chocolate chip cookie. Furthermore, this recipe makes a cookie with just enough sturdiness to accommodate both chocolate chips and walnuts, per the guest of honor's request.
What I learned from this little chocolate chip cookie taste test is that 1. tastings are a great way to spend any day/night and I would love to have another one (maybe next time with brownies...???) and 2. there really is no "perfect" chocolate chip cookie and ultimate recipe. Which recipe you use could all depend on what you're in the mood for or what the occasion calls for - soft and chewy or moist and crispy, big or small, easy or more technical. With so many recipes out there for the trying, you're sure to find one that fits your chocolate chip cookies needs...which are very important to satisfy.
Still recovering from a chocolate chip cookie coma,
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