Thursday, April 21, 2011

The GREAT Chocolate Chip Cookie Experiment

First, I want to warn you. This is an incredibly long post. Like, this could possibly be categorized as a novel.

Okay, so maybe it's not that long, but you get the idea. Proceed with caution... Or just scroll all the way down to the bottom where I conclude. I promise I won't be mad that you didn't read every precious word of this post, really. (:

It all started with a trip to a bakery.
You see, we have something called career day at my school where you can pick a career field you're interested in and check it out for a day. There's a lot of options, so there's usually only about 10 or less other students with you. It's a great hands-on experience, too.

So on April 5th I chose to go to a bakery called The Cake Plate. It was really fun checking it out and learning all about how the bakery works but I think the most amazing part was the smell! As soon as you walk in you're hit with the tantalizing aroma of sugar, butter, and baking cakes.

For fun, the owner let us make a batch of chocolate chip cookies. These were definitely not wimpy cookies. We used a #12 scoop which means 1/3 cup of dough per cookie! And since we made an industrial sized batch (19 cups of flour!), we got to take a couple cookies home as "souvenirs".
I took a bite and was surprised at just how good they can an ordinary cookie recipe yield such extraordinary results?!
Crisp outer crust, oozing with chocolate, an intense vanilla flavor, with little pops of salt throughout.
Unlike my usual cookies, which spread quite a bit, these ones had the perfect thickness.
Perfect everything!
As my cookie supply dwindled, I knew I had to recreate this cookie.

And that's how the great chocolate chip cookie experimented started.
I immediately wrote down everything I knew about the cookies we made.
I knew the amount of each ingredient except for eggs and kosher salt.
I knew he used imitation vanilla (more on that in a second)
I knew he used kosher salt.
I knew what mixing process we used.
I didn't know what temperature to set the oven or how long to cook them.

For the eggs, it was either 16 or 18, so I eventually went with 18. He eye-balled the kosher salt, so I just went with whatever felt right.

Oh, and obviously I scaled down the recipe! I divided everything by 9 and got to work. And since I didn't have a #12 scoop, I decided to make my cookies a quarter cup sized which is a little bit smaller than the bakery's, but still quite large.

Okay, so let me fill you in on imitation vanilla. Yes, it's made with wood pulp, but just hear me out!
As we were making the cookies, one girl asked Scott (the owner of The Cake Plate) why he was using imitation vanilla instead of real vanilla.  He said that, for cookies, he liked the flavor that imitation vanilla gives but that for other bakery confections, like cakes, he uses real vanilla extract or sometimes vanilla bean paste. He remarked that imitation has slight coconutty undertones that work really well in cookies.

 I did taste those undertones he talked about; perhaps the imitation vanilla is the key to why his cookies tasted so good? I debated if I could just substitute real vanilla extract and maybe a little coconut extract to get the same flavor, but I really wanted to make his cookie dough exactly how he made them, since his were magic.

After a little research I came across this article from Cook's Illustrated and it all started to make sense.

First off, real vanilla extract has over 250 flavor and aroma compounds that all work together together to enhance the flavor to whatever it is added to while imitation vanilla has only one flavor...vanillin.
One might wonder why anyone would ever choose imitation vanilla (besides cost reasons) and in fact, in a taste test, imitation vanilla was rather one-noted and almost medicinal in taste compared to the real stuff.

But get this; real vanilla tends to bake off at higher temperatures while fake vanilla can hold on a little bit longer. In cakes (and applications where no cooking is required) the temperature doesn't get hot enough for the vanilla flavor compounds to bake off. In this case, real vanilla is better. But, cookies become much hotter as they bake because they're smaller and have a much higher percentage of fat. In the case of cookies, imitation vanilla works much better. According to Cook's Illustrated, imitation rated much higher than the real stuff in a cookie comparison (in fact, real vanilla went to last place compared to the cookies made with imitation!).

I was convinced. I headed to the store A.S.A.P to get some imitation vanilla, which happened to only cost a dollar after a dollar off coupon (score!).

Friday, April 8th - Experiment #1
My first batch worked, but was no where close to the kind from the bakery. The taste was similar but they spread much more and didn't have the same textural differences (crisp outer crust, soft middle). I thought that maybe it had to do with the fact that I used dark brown sugar instead of light brown sugar and that perhaps it was supposed to be 16 eggs instead of 18. (sorry, no picture of my first batch!)

Sunday, April 10th - Experiment #2
I tried again. This time I scaled down the recipe using 16 eggs initially. I also subbed half of the dark brown sugar with granulated sugar (to make light brown sugar). I thought the slightly less amount of egg and less moisture from the dark brown sugar would create a cookie that wouldn't spread as much and perhaps have a crispier outer shell.
Although there was an agreement that the second batch tasted better, there was little visual differences between the two. It still didn't have that lovely "mounded" shape!
By this time, I was ardent on creating the perfect mock bakery cookie, and I wasn't going to stop till I got there!

Monday, April 11th - Experiment #3 (and finally, some pictures of my experiments!)
I concluded that my spreading problem must be because of lack of refrigeration, despite the fact that we didn't chill the cookie dough when we made the cookies at the bakery.
I used the same dough as experiment #2 but made the cookies a little smaller.
***Side note: Instead of chocolate chips, I used a mixture of crushed pretzels, mini peanut butter filled cups, and dark chocolate chips. I realize this ruins uniformity and adds a variable to the equation...sorry!
I made one cookie right away, made one cookie after 2 hours of being chilled at 350 degrees, and another cookie right after that one but at 375 degrees.
I was hoping chilling the dough would help keep its thickness but it actually looks thinner after being chilled 2 hours! Very odd.
Obviously, the difference between the one that went straight to the oven and the one that chilled for a couple hours is rather unremarkable. I knew we cooked in a convection oven at the bakery, so I thought that maybe cooking it at 375 would get me a higher rise.
Unfortunately, it just lead to an undercooked cookie that was only slightly less spread out than the cookie baked at 350.
Delicious? Heck yes.
Anywhere close to the ones from the bakery? Not one bit.

I wasn't going to stop there. I decided to search for other chocolate chip cookie recipes that were similar in the amount of flour to butter along with other ingredients. I figured the less butter the better because that leads to less spread as it bakes and better nutritionally! I calculated each recipe by ounces of flour divided by ounces of butter. The higher the number, the less butter there is in relation to flour. This particular recipe from the bakery was 1.79.

Wednesday, April 13th - Experiment #4
As I was looking on Cookie Madness, one particular chocolate chip cookie recipe caught my eye- "Harry's Roadhouse Chocolate Chunk Cookies". It's flour/butter ratio is 2.25, so it had less butter (which is good). It also had a slightly higher ratio of egg.

I was convinced this one was worth trying. I scaled down the recipe to use one egg and used Anna's recommended amount of chocolate (which was closer to the amount the bakery cookie had anyway). I used kosher salt and imitation extract (when subbing imitation for real vanilla, double the measurement).

Scott said he likes using kosher salt in cookies because it allows you to actually taste little bits of salt in your cookie. I completely agree with this statement and will be using kosher salt from now on in all of my cookies. It's so worth it!

This time I made the cookies 1/8 cup sized (instead of 1/4 cup) and baked one right away, and then two after 2 hours of chilling.
The one that didn't chill is much more noticeably flatter than the two I baked after 2 hours.
This recipe was also a little interesting because it called for taking the cookies out after they have set (but not completely done baking) and slamming the pan onto the counter to deflate them a little. Then, you put them back in for a couple more minutes till they're done. This was a really interesting concept and I think it helped the cookies be a little more chewy and dense.

I also tried two different methods on the chilled dough. For the first one, I took the ball of dough, ripped it apart, turned the ripped apart pieces upward and then smooshed them together. I got the idea from Brown Eyed Baker; she probably explains it better than me, though :P
For the second one, I just simply rolled it into a smooth ball and placed it on the cookie sheet.
The whole point of the pull apart method is to give the cookie a more crinkly "bakery-style" look. I can tell a slight difference between the two, and like it better. I used that method for the rest of my cookies I made in this experiment.

I was pretty satisfied with the Harry's cookies, but I wanted to try one more thing- baking a batch at 375 to see if that would stop it from spreading as much.
Just like the other cookies I baked at 375, these were no different. They didn't cook thoroughly in the middle and ended up sinking down. They spread pretty much the exact same amount, so obviously cooking them at 350 is the way to go.
I really liked this recipe, and even though its still no where close to the ones from the bakery, I could definitely see this as my standby chocolate chip cookie recipe. Crispy on the outside, a little chewy, nice and dense, gooey chocolate, perfect really is a winner!
Here's the (scaled down) recipe with a couple modifications-

Modified Harry's Roadhouse Chocolate Chip Cookies
1 cup all-purpose unbleached flour (4.5 oz)
1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 heaping teaspoon kosher salt
2 oz unsalted butter
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 large egg, room temperature
2 teaspoons imitation vanilla extract
4.5 oz chocolate chips (about 3/4 cup)

Mix together the flour, baking soda, and salt and set aside.
In bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter and sugars until light and creamy. Reduce speed to low and beat in the egg and vanilla. When incorporated, add the dry ingredients, beating on low speed with the paddle attachment.
When flour is incorporated, stir in the chocolate chips. Chill dough for 2 hours.
Place dough onto a parchment lined cookie sheet in 1/8 cup portions (two tablespoons).

Bake at 350 for 10 minutes or until the cookies start to looks set. Remove from oven and drop cookie sheet on the counter to deflate cookies a little. Return to oven and bake for another 2-3 minutes or until the cookies are brown around the edges and appear set. Let cool for 5 minutes on sheets, then transfer to wire rack to finish cooling.
Makes 12

The end?? Not even close...

Friday, April 15th - Experiment #5
I found a recipe for "Light Chocolate Chip Cookies" from Cook's Illustrated (published on that caught my eye because it only called for 1/4 cup of butter (flour/butter ratio of 2.68 - the highest yet). I also wanted to experiment using Brummel & Brown butter substitute (if you read this blog frequently you know I love the stuff). I figured that recipes calling for melted butter rather than room temperature butter (which would typically be creamed with the sugar) would fare better with a oil/yogurt based butter substitute.

Since I didn't have light brown sugar, I used the same sub that I have been doing which is just using half dark and half white sugar. This recipe was different than the other recipes I was looking at because of the usage of melted butter, all brown sugar, and half the amount of baking soda. I used double the measure of imitation vanilla extract and used kosher salt instead of table salt. Also, instead of chocolate chips, I used dark chocolate M&M's.

I love using dark chocolate M&M's in cookies! They're less sweet than normal M&M's but still have that crunchy sugar coating that works so well in a cookie. All the colors make them look prettier, too!

As soon as I mixed up the batter, there was obviously something wrong. It was extremely liquid (comparatively speaking) despite have the least amount of liquid ingredients. Since the recipe states in the directions to "roll dough into balls", I knew that wasn't the intended consistency of the dough.

Despite being pretty discouraged, I baked up one cookie to see what it would look like.
These cookies were 1/8 cup sized, but this one spread a lot. Though it looked big, it felt very airy.
As you can see from the cross-sectional, it didn't turn out too great. Very thin and weird texture.
Taste wise, it was pretty good. You really can go wrong with dark chocolate M&M's thrown into anything. My feeling is the extra water in the Brummel & Brown butter made the cookie expand a lot more and fill it with air. It was extremely chewy and was crispy around the edges but other than that the same texture throughout.

I really didn't know if I wanted to make more of these cookies, but I decided to wait it out and bake one more after a couple hours of chill time. The dough thickened up a little bit, but definitely not enough for me to shape into a ball.
After two hours of chilling, the cookie looks rather the same. In the picture, the edges seem slightly more rounded/thick, but in reality they looked nearly identical.
Obviously I should have taken into account that I was subbing something vital to the final product without having a "control" group as well. This recipe may be amazing, but since I didn't try half with real butter and half with Brummel, I only saw one side.

Anyway, with a bunch of batter left, and no desire to make more flat cookies, I went with the "cookie bar" route.
Another great use for my Perfect Brownie Pan!
 This way, the dough has no choice but to go up! I wasn't sure how long it would take but I just kept a close eye on them..
I like how they have glossy tops! It makes them look like they're loaded with butter when they're really not :P
Note to self: don't use M&M candies in anything you put in the brownie pan. The melted sugary coating will stick to the sides like no end and will force you to individually loosen every single one of those 18 squares to get the brownie insert out.

That was annoying.

Anyway, the bars turned out pretty good...
Really crispy on the outside and chewy. Oh, and airy just like the cookie was.
I'd say that was a pretty good save on my part! I liked these bars (I liked them, but wouldn't make them again on purpose) but after they had cooled they turned super crunchy...definitely needed a quick warm up in the microwave before consuming!
Saturday, April 16th - Experiment #6
This time I used the world famous Nestle Toll House chocolate chip cookie recipe.
Obviously, as written, its flour/butter is off the charts at a 1.21. I remember making the recipe a long time ago with half the butter after I read on this post that half the amount of butter actually makes the perfect cookie.

Of course, I did the usual exchange of double the measure of imitation vanilla extract and using kosher salt. This recipe actually called for double the amount of salt compared to all the other doughs I've made, so I scaled down the salt by half. Though its flour/butter ratio is 2.4, which is higher than my experiment #5 cookies, that's still a very low amount of butter to the amount of flour.

Obviously I failed big time the day before, so this time I decided I was going to do half a batch with butter and the other half with Brummel & Brown so I could determine the differences and if a Brummel sub could be possible.

I could notice the differences right away between the two.
These photos are actually after a couple hours of chilling (I didn't even attempt to bake one right away based on my previous experiments). The Brummel looks darker, but I think it's just the more contoured sides of the bowl and because the butter bowl was more in light.
Close ups:
 The Brummel was more glossy, and not as firm at the butter dough.
This confirms my suspicion in Experiment #5. Obviously, the Brummel & Brown butter creates a dough that is not as firm as it is supposed to be (and it wasn't the recipe to blame).

The recipe actually states to cook the cookies at 375 (instead of the usual 350), so for my first batch that's just what I did.
As you can see, the Brummel cookie seems darker. This could be because it cooks faster OR because it just becomes more brown ( IS called Brummel & Brown).
Okay, so I didn't love the look of it, but it looks much thicker than the other cookies I made with Brummel and just all-together better. It was cooked through and had nice browned edges.
Very pretty! It may be hard to tell, but you can see little fleck of kosher salt on the edges. It's nicely mounded and perfect color. Unfortunately, 375 proved (once again) to be too hot of a temperature because soon after the cookie had cooled the middle sunk in. (I'll show a picture in a moment)

Then I had an epiphany. At the bakery, we used a convection oven. I knew this. This is why I was trying things at 375.
However, I also knew that cooking things a little hotter is not the same thing.
And even though I knew this, I ignored the fact that without a convection oven I may never get the same results that I got at the bakery.

Just in case you don't know, convection ovens (as compared to conventional ovens) have fans inside that move hot air around whatever you're cooking so that it cooks faster even though it is at a lower temperature. The rapid circulation of air prevents hot spots and can be very beneficial in cookie baking. Through this special heating method, the cookie doesn't have the time to spread as much and it will develop an outer shell more efficiently.

Should I give up now? Obviously my conventional oven wasn't going to cut it. Luckily, my little toaster oven saved the day.

Toaster ovens are similar to convection ovens in that they have a fan or fans that blow the hot air around. Obviously, they aren't as reliable. You never know what exact temperature you're baking at and they tend to have hot spots.

I decided to try it out regardless. I lined a small tray with parchment paper and was able to have enough room to place two cookies on it. The pamphlet that came with my toaster oven said that, for baking, you should place the cookie dough into the oven and then turn on the heat. Otherwise, it would be too hot and bake improperly. I thought this was kind of odd, seeing as normally you would preheat the oven regardless if it was convection or conventional. I decided to go with what the pamphlet said and try it first with the oven off. I set the toaster oven to 350 degrees, but the actual temperature it got to is completely unknown.
The cookies baked here took much less time than the cookies baked at 375 in the conventional oven despite starting off room temperature!
First off, I would like to say hallelujah!! The cookies spread much less and have the signature domed shape of my beloved bakery cookies.
As you can see, the Brummel cookie turned out much darker. In addition the right side of the butter cookie also seemed to have browned more. This would indicate that I definitely have a hot spot. I didn't notice it this time, but for the next rounds in the toaster oven I switched the pan around half way through so they would evenly bake.
I took these guys out because the Brummel was browning so much (in that outrageous hot spot) and the butter cookie looked to be done as well. In actuality, however, this cookie was supremely underdone. (A picture of the inside in a second)
The Brummel cookie fared much better in the convectional oven as compared to the conventional oven. Although it spread more than the butter, it looked quite nice for a cookie made with butter substitute. I had determined by now that Brummel cookies bake faster than butter cookies. The science behind this? I don't know. You'd think a cookie with more fat would cook faster, right?
Here's a comparison of both the cookies made with butter that I had made so far-
As you can see, both cookies are underdone (obviously too hot of a temperature) but what you can also see is that the convection cookie formed a (delicious) hard outer crust while the conventional cookie just sunk in the middle. In addition, the convection cookie is less wide and more tall (yes!).
And now for the Brummel cookies-
Unlike the butter cookies, the Brummel cookies are cooked throughout despite being baked at the exact same temperature and times as the ones above. Just as the butter cookies, the convection oven produced another cookie that is much fatter and less spread out than its conventional counterpart.

What is my conclusion from this? Obviously, my problem all along was that I wasn't using a convection oven. I almost didn't want to make any more cookies using the lame conventional oven, but I had to make a batch at 350 degrees since 375 proved to be too high. However, for the rest of my Brummel batter I baked them in the convection oven since they turned out so much better that way.

But first, I decided to bake another batch of cookies made with butter in the convection oven (with a lower temperature, of course).
It came out perfect! Cooked throughout, crispy outer edge, rounded shape, and of course (most importantly) it tasted right on the money.
Let's compare-
Bakery cookie.
Similar, right?!
I loved how thick it was...this is what I was trying to accomplish all along!
I think I was just a little bit obsessed with this particular batch...
And how does a (properly baked) convection butter cookie compare to a convection Brummel cookie?
Obviously, the butter cookie looks a little better visually, but it also spread less and had more of a dome.
I'm not saying the Brummel cookie is bad at all. In fact, it would be very odd if the Brummel cookie actually looked and tasted better than a cookie made with the real deal. The whole point is to get to something close that is a little bit healthier.

After I cooked a butter batch at 350 instead of 375, I took some comparison pictures of butter cookies made in both the conventional and the convection oven-
The conventional cookies do have a nice thickness to them, but obviously the convection cookie prevails in both looks and texture. Unfortunately, unless I want to make cookies two at a time, convection baking isn't really an ideal option for me.
I've talked a lot of about Experiment #6's texture, but not so much about it's taste. I think they were really delicious. I used a combination of dark chocolate chips and milk chocolate chips and it worked very well. The little bites of kosher salt tasted great with the caramel-esque undertones. The Brummel cookies tasted great as well, but they did slightly lack in textural differences. It's not a bad sub but I'd probably go with butter next time simply because the recipe is so low in butter already.

Here's my adapted recipe:
1 cup + 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
heaping 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 a stick unsalted butter (2 ounces) at room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons imitation vanilla extract
1 large egg
3/4-1 cup mixed chocolate chips (dark, milk, semi-sweet)

Preheat oven to 350° F.
Combine flour, baking soda and salt in small bowl. Beat butter, granulated sugar, and brown sugar in large mixer bowl until creamy. Add eggs and vanilla extract. Gradually beat in flour mixture. Stir in chocolate chips. Chill for two hours. Form into 1/8 cup sized balls (and use "pull-apart" method explained above) and place on a parchment lined cookie sheet.
Bake for 11 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on baking sheet for 2 minutes then move to a wire rack to cool completely. Makes 14 cookies.
So that's the end of my week long cookie experiment! Starting on Friday, April 8th and ending on Saturday, April 16th I went through 6 different cookie dough batches; 7 if you count the separated cookie dough in experiment #6 as two separate batches.

What did I learn?
1) For cookies, imitation vanilla extract works best
2) always use kosher salt
3) bake cookies on two baking sheets stacked on top of each other instead of one for less spread (learned that from Cookie Madness)
4) In order to get the perfect cookie, you must use a convection oven
5) Chill dough for at least one hour
6) Use the pull-apart method for prettier cookies!
7) Different add-ins will effect how much your cookie spreads
8) Make sure to actually cream your butter and sugar. It should take a couple minutes, not seconds!
9) And lastly, chocolate chip cookies never get old.

Another thing I found interesting is that almost all chocolate chip cookie recipes utilize the same exact ingredients just in different proportions. They usually always contain flour, brown sugar, sugar, baking soda, salt, vanilla, eggs, and (of course) chocolate chips. Its all in the amount of each ingredient and how you manipulate them (is the butter room temperature or melted?) that makes the difference between a good cookie and one that is only so-so (because let's be honest, there's no such thing as a completely bad chocolate chip cookie).

Have I found the perfect cookie?
Maybe. I've found two recipes I am happy with (Harry's & Toll House) but I still want to make them again before I announce a clear winner. Although I got close to the bakery cookie I was trying so hard to imitate, I didn't quite make it. When I say I am "happy" with these two recipes, it means they are serioulsy very good I'm just a tough critic because I failed to make one just like...well you know.

Am I done experimenting?
Never! Even though I don't like shortening, I may try using half (non-hydrogenated) shortening/half butter in one of the recipes above to see how that works out. Obviously I could have tried shortening in my experiments above (since that would most undoubtedly prevent spreading) but I really wanted to keep constant with butter.  And now that I know that convectional baking methods are key, I may try the bakery cookie's recipe again using the toaster oven to bake them. Another experiment? How about subbing half of the flour with whole wheat pastry flour? The possibilities are endless!

If you managed to stick with me through this incredibly long post, then I congratulate you. I think I should give out a prize to everyone that actually reads this whole about a chocolate chip cookie? :P

NOTE: I picked my favorite traditional CCC recipe and did additional experiments in this post. Check it out! 

1 comment:

  1. Your blog is interesting. I read through this whole post and wasn't bored one bit! I wonder why you don't have more commenters...?