Cookies are a favorite treat and especially so during the holidays. Holiday cookie baking is a tradition for many families and a fun way to honor family heritage. Whether making sugar cookies for Christmas, rugelach for Hanukkah, or benne/sesame cookies for Kwanzaa, the ingredients play a role in how “the cookie crumbles.”
Cookie baking is more chemistry than art and the ingredients used play an important role in the appearance, taste, texture, color, and flatness of the cookie. Here’s a look at the five traditional ingredients—sugar, fat, flour, leavening agents, and binding agents—used in cookie baking and the role they play.
Besides sweetening and tenderizing cookies, the type and amount of sugar plays a role in the flavor, texture, color, and spread of the cookie. Sugars give color to cookies as the sugar granules melt together caramelizing the bottom and edges and gradually spreading over the cookie. Sugar is hygroscopic meaning it attracts and absorbs the liquid in the dough, which slows down the development of gluten, a protein in flour that provides strength and elasticity to dough.
Granulated white sugar contributes to the thinness, crispiness, and lighter color of a cookie. Being neutral in flavor and color, it allows the flavors or colors of other ingredients to come forward. With a neutral pH, interference with gluten development is less, allowing the dough to spread more before it sets during baking. When creamed with a solid fat, white sugar easily aerates the dough for puffier cookies.
Brown sugar contributes more tenderness, flavor, color, and rise to a cookie along with a denser and moister texture. The flavor, color, and moisture of brown sugar comes from the addition of molasses. Due to the molasses, it is slightly acidic. In the presence of baking soda or baking powder, the acid reacts with the sodium bicarbonate (alkaline) to produce carbon dioxide. Being more hygroscopic and acidic than white sugar, brown sugar is able to absorb more moisture and slow gluten development faster so the dough sets more quickly during baking.
Substituting one sugar for the other will not affect the sweetness, but will change the appearance and texture of the cookie.
Fat contributes flavor, tenderness, chewiness or crunchiness, and browning to cookies. Fat options include butter, margarine, shortening, or oil. When sugar is creamed into a solid fat, air pockets are created in the dough resulting in puffier cookies. Further, fats can inhibit or enhance gluten development. When solid fat coats gluten strands, gluten is inhibited and yields tenderness. Chewy cookies are the result of water in melted fat binding with gluten to strengthen structure.
Butter, in solid form, traps air during creaming which expands with heat producing a fluffier cookie. For best results, butter should be at room temperature for baking. Some recipes may specify the use of melted butter or browned butter; melted butter incorporates no air, leading to denser, flatter, and chewier cookies. When butter is browned, the water in butter evaporates resulting in a very dense, but flavor-rich cookie. (Butter is at least 80 percent fat and 16-18 percent water.)
Unsalted butter is the standard in baking unless otherwise specified. However, the amount of salt in salted butter is so small that it can be substituted for unsalted butter in most cookie recipes.
Margarine, made from vegetable oils, may contain more water and less fat than butter. It functions similarly to butter and produces a similar texture. However, cookies made with margarine may be thinner and spread more during baking. Depending upon the fat/water ratio, margarine may not be a direct substitute for butter; for best results, recipes specifically tested with margarine should be used.
Vegetable shortening is 100 percent hydrogenated vegetable oil, contains no water, and has a higher melting point than butter. Cookies made with shortening tend to rise higher, hold their shape during baking, and have a soft, fluffy texture. Cookies made with shortening may stay soft longer after baking because shortening returns to a semi-solid after baking.
Vegetable oil is 100 percent liquid fat. Cookies made with vegetable oils are denser and flatter as very little air can be incorporated. A neutral flavored vegetable oil should be used to retain the intended flavor of the cookies.
Wheat flour contains gluten and provides structure by forming a web of gluten strands to catch air bubbles from creaming liquids and leavening agents. Sugar and fats, as mentioned earlier, help restrict gluten formation for a softer, more tender cookie. Generally, all-purpose flour is the flour of choice for cookie baking.
LEAVENTING (RISING) AGENTS
A leavening agent helps cookies rise while baking; the type used affects the texture and structure of cookies. The leavening agents most commonly used in cookies are either baking soda or baking powder. While they both create rise during baking, they function very differently.
Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) requires an acidic ingredient such as vinegar, sour cream/milk, brown sugar, lemon juice, or chocolate to release carbon dioxide and leaven the dough. When baking soda and the acidic ingredient combine, there is a single reaction resulting in a denser cookie. Due to the single reaction, baked goods made with baking soda as the only leavening agent should be mixed quickly and baked immediately to get the most rise.
Baking powder is a chemical agent containing sodium bicarbonate and acids giving cookies more rise and a cakier texture. Baking powder is double acting, meaning it provides leavening first when it gets wet and second when it is heated. Because most of the reaction takes place in the second stage, the dough remains stable and does not have to be baked immediately.
It is quite common for both leavening agents to be used in a recipe, but it is a misconception that the two can be used interchangeably.
Binding agents are the liquids in the recipe that hold the cookie dough together, such as eggs and milk which also add flavor, color, structure, moisture, and nutrition. The proteins in eggs, and to a lesser extent in milk, set with heat contributing to the final shape and texture of the cookie. The emulsified fat of the egg yolks contributes to tenderness while egg white contributes to cookie rise.
While not an ingredient, chilling the dough for 24 hours is one of the easiest ways to improve flavor and outcome. As the dough rests, the large molecules of flour and sugar breakdown and the fat hardens. As a result, cookies expand more slowly, hold their shape, have a richer butterscotch-like flavor, and brown more evenly.
Each ingredient plays a key role in the recipe. Understanding their role and the contributions each make to a cookie is important to baking the best cookies ever or adjusting the ingredients to achieve the desired cookie. How Can I Get the Cookie Texture I Want? has suggestions for adjusting key ingredients to change the texture of any cookie recipe. To get a visual idea of how the various ingredients can affect the taste, texture, and appearance of your cookies, visit: The Ultimate Guide to Chocolate Chip Cookies.
While ingredients are key players, they do not hold all the magical powers; the mixing process and baking temperature also affect the end result—topics for another time.
6 Ingredients that Affect Your Cookies, Home Made Simple.com
How Ingredients Behave in a Cookie Recipe, Instructables. com
The Science of Cookies, Redpath.com
Cookie Ingredients: The Way the Cookie Crumbles, Land O’Lakes Test Kitchen, LandOLakes.com
Here’s What Room Temperature Butter Really Means, Sally’s Baking Addiction.com
Cookie Science: The Real Differences Between Brown and White Sugars, Serious Eats. com
How Can I Get the Cookie Texture I Want?, Dartmouth.edu
The Ultimate Guide to Chocolate Chip Cookies, Handle the Heat.com
Image Source: Canva.com