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The Science Behind the Perfect Cookies

Ever wonder why your cookies come out the way they do? We've got answers to your cookie questions.

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By Nicole Rees
from Fine Cooking #109, pp. 38-39

Cookies should be a cinch to bake, right? In reality, though, producing perfect cookies can be a challenge: Sometimes they’re too flat or too dense, crisp when they’re supposed to be chewy, or barely golden on top and practically burned underneath.

The good news is that cookies don’t need to be so unpredictable. If you understand what’s behind the making of a cookie and follow a few basic rules, turning out sheets of delicious, beautiful cookies will be a snap.

Why do my cookies darken on the bottom before they turn golden on top?
In a conventional oven, the heat conducted to the undersides of the cookies through the baking sheet is more intense than the heat radiating from the air around the top of the cookies. If you have a convection oven, though, you’ve probably noticed that your cookies bake evenly. That’s because the fans in these ovens circulate hot air more efficiently, allowing the cookies to cook and color uniformly.

If you don’t have a convection oven, try baking cookies in the top half of your oven, away from the heat source but where the air is hottest. If baking more than one sheet at a time, be sure to rotate and switch their positions halfway through baking.

Also, avoid dark baking sheets, which cause more browning than lighter ones, and thin, flimsy cookie sheets. Insulated sheets (which are thick but lightweight, due to an inner air pocket) help prevent bottom browning. Heavy, light-colored sheets take longer to warm up and can therefore deter excess browning, too. If your baking sheets are on the thin side, use silicone liners or bake your cookies on two nested sheets.

Cookie Science in Action: Cookies Two Ways
Chewy Sugar Cookies   Crunchy Sugar Cookies

What happens if I replace shortening with butter in a cookie recipe?
You can replace some of the shortening, but don’t omit it altogether. Shortening is a great emulsifier. As it’s already processed to incorporate air and contains emulsifiers that help prevent air cells from collapsing, it helps keep dough aerated. With a higher melting point than that of butter, shortening also reduces spreading when the cookies are baked.

When it comes to flavor, though, shortening doesn’t hold a candle to butter. Your best bet is to combine just a bit of shortening with butter, as in the sugar cookie recipe opposite.

What makes a chewy cookie chewy, and a crisp one crisp?
Chewy cookies contain more moisture than crisp cookies. The first—and easiest—trick for turning out softer cookies is to bake them for less time. Pull them out of the oven when they’re still moist in the middle. The cookies will continue to bake on the hot pan for the first minute or two they’re out. (Conversely, to make chewy cookies crisp, reduce their moisture by leaving them in the oven a little longer than the recipe advises.)

To keep your cookies moist and chewy for as long as possible, add a tablespoon or so of honey, corn syrup, or molasses to your recipe. These all contain fructose, a sugar known for attracting and retaining moisture from the air. In the recipe for sugar cookies at right, corn syrup is key to a chewy texture; without it, the cookies would become firmer and drier just a few hours after they come out of the oven.


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  • brandy24 | 01/08/2011

    i do find getting the texture right sometimes a challenge so like these ideas. i am baking in sararsota, florida which is often humid. so i also find keeping the original crispy texture of cookies a big challenge as they tend to soften even before i can cool and store them. any ideas to help with this issue would be appreciated.

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