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THE SWEET SCIENCE OF COOKIES (AND BAKING IN GENERAL)...

Tis the season for cookies and true to form, I didn’t just want to give you a few recipes and a story and wish you a happy whatever-you-celebrate. I like to go the extra mile and break things down so you will really understand what’s going on in that dough and how the inevitable variabilities that show up in baking can be worked on, like everything else in cooking, to your ultimate satisfaction! Remember, just like cooking, baking is all about enjoyment of life and the process. Having the background understanding helps make it a fun adventure, not a scary walk through the dark… Let’s get into it!!



Flour, Sugar, Leavening, Fat, and Flavorings

These are the basic ingredients in all cookies (and most baking in general). I’m going to break them each down so you have a solid understanding of what they each contribute to the party and then you will understand how to adjust your recipe if you want or how the variability in different recipes will affect the final outcome. Like all things in cooking, when you understand the ingredients, the process becomes easier, more familiar, and less mystifying. This builds confidence which results in a happier time cooking, which results in more cooking, which results in better food and increases your happiness with your life… Pretty simple, right? This is why I like to break things down into simple categories; so when you encounter any recipe you come across, you know what’s going on and that increases your skill level and your confidence before you even start! Let’s get into it!



Flour: The Big One!


All baked goods need structure and flour is the main ingredient that provides that! Flour provides starch and protein, which is what gives our doughs structure. Think of all doughs like a batter to be able to visualize these different processes and roles that each ingredient plays. Flour is what keeps the baked good from collapsing when the water is baked out of the dough; it’s the building blocks of any baked good. This comes from any type of flour and why we can make baked goods with non-wheat flours and they still come out.

Wheat flour (which is what most “regular flour” is in case you weren’t aware) contains 2 special types of protein (glutenin and gliadin) that when combined with water form gluten strands. Gluten gives a batter/dough stretch and can be encouraged to get stronger the more they are mixed. This is why gluten-free desserts tend to be more crumbly, because they are made with flours that don’t contain gluten and give the final product a more delicate texture.

The more you work a dough/batter with wheat flour, the longer the gluten strands will get and the tougher the dough (and the ultimate baked good) will become. This is why all cookie and cake recipes say to stir in the flour “just until incorporated”, to not develop the gluten in the flour once the flour comes into contact with moisture (aka, when you mix the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients or vice versa). This is how they come out soft while breads can come out hard, because you don’t develop the gluten by mixing/kneading. Sometimes, like when making bread, pasta, or pizza doughs, you want to develop that gluten to take advantage of the stretch that it provides. If you don’t develop gluten in these types of doughs, you can’t stretch them without the dough wanting to break. In cookies and cake doughs/batters, you want a soft final item, so only mixing until incorporated is how you avoid a tough cookie or cake.

Higher gluten content comes from wheat flours with higher protein content. So when shopping for flour for baked goods, try to avoid flours with higher protein content (like bread flour- really just flour with a higher protein content). But if all you have on hand is bread flour, simply adding a pure starch (like cornstarch or rice flour) to it will bring down the protein content and give you a softer final product.

The last thing flour gives is flavor. When flour browns, the protein in the flour gives off a nutty flavor (because of the Maillard Reaction aka the browning of proteins) which adds flavor to many of our favorite baked goods! Pretty straightforward when you know the background science behind it, right?



Sugars and Syrups: Keep it Sweet!


Sugars add sweetness and a little structure to the final product. They add structure because when they dry out or brown (aka caramelize) they harden and help the flour in the dough (if any) hold the shape of the baked good. Because sugar is sweet, one of the 5 basic tastes, they also add sweetness to the final product. Syrups, aka sugars that are naturally in liquid form (honey, agave, molasses, corn syrup, etc.), will also add structure and sweetness. But because they are in liquid form, if the dough/batter isn’t cooked fully (soft baked cookies, anyone?), these can also add a bit of moisture to the final product. Again, pretty straightforward, right?



Leaveners: Air to the Rescue!!

Leaveners provide air into any batter or dough. They come in 2 varieties- chemical and natural. Chemical leaveners are Baking Soda and Baking Powder and natural leaveners are Yeast and Eggs. I’ll start with the chemical first because they are the easiest to understand.

If you ever look at a container of Baking Powder, almost all will say “double acting” on the label. What this means is that it will release air 2 different times, once when it comes into contact with moisture/acid*, once when it comes in contact with heat. Baking Soda releases air only once, when it comes into contact with moisture/acid*. This is why pretty much all baking recipes say “mix the dry, mix the wet, then mix them together and bake immediately”. This is also why preheating the oven and getting the pan ready is always the first 2 steps of pretty much any baking recipe because as soon as you mix the wet and the dry ingredients together, you only have a limited amount of time before the baking powder and/or soda expends all its air and your cake or cookie begins to deflate. The goal of all baking recipes is to get the item to solidify (aka be cooked) while the leavening agent is at the peak of its leavening strength. Hence why it’s good to preheat the oven and get your pan ready before mixing your wet ingredients with your dry ingredients when using Baking Powder or Soda.

*I said moisture/acid because technically it’s acid that causes the reaction, but in almost all recipes the “acid” is actually dairy (milk/butter/eggs) because there is acid in milk/butter (lactic) and eggs (yolks are slightly acidic). But because the dairy is usually combined with the wet ingredients, I have found it easier to understand to describe it the way I have here.

Natural Leaveners, yeast and eggs, work in a different way from chemical leaveners, but both add air to the batter/dough. Egg whites are predominantly made of water and protein. So when you mix them into a batter or dough, they bring moisture that is trapped in the network of protein strands in the white of the egg. This trapped water in the dough/batter then turns to steam in the oven and produces the leavening effect. You can increase this effect by whipping your egg whites prior to adding them to your batter/dough to produce even greater leavening power because of the extra trapped air in the whites (as long as you don’t knock out the air in the batter by over mixing after you add the whipped egg whites). This is how angel food cake achieves its super light texture, from folding in whipped egg whites into the batter.

Yeast is technically a fungus that feeds on sugar and starch and produces carbon dioxide and alcohol. When using yeast in baking, it is good to understand what it is to understand why it works differently than chemical leaveners. Because it is a living thing, when it gets too hot, it will die and then not produce any gas. Yeast comes in 3 different forms (fresh, active dry, or instant dry) and they need to be used a little differently. Fresh yeast (aka cake yeast) can simply be mixed into the water/liquid before adding it into your dry ingredients or can be rubbed into the dry ingredients before adding in the wet ingredients. Either way is good! When using active dry yeast you first need to “wake it up” or activate it by mixing it with a little warm water with a little water or flour added to it. This begins the fermentation process which will continue in your dough. Instant Dry Yeast is much finer than active dry yeast, so it doesn’t need to be activated prior to using. Simply mix your Instant Dry Yeast into your dry ingredients and make your dough. The big thing to remember is that Yeast will begin to die at 120°F and will completely die at 140°F. So when either activating Active Dry Yeast, or mixing Fresh Yeast into your liquid, make sure it isn’t above 120°F so it doesn’t kill your yeast! The last thing to remember about yeast is that because it is a natural process, it takes time to happen. This is why Yeasted breads require time to proof (give off gas and leaven your dough) prior to baking as well as why they will only give so much leavening action once they go in the oven. Because once the dough reaches 140°F, the yeast is dead and that is the highest your baked good will rise!

Leavening can be a little tricky to understand, but when you get the basics, it makes it so much easier to understand how to use them to their strengths! Long story short, most cookies and cakes simply use Baking Powder and/or Baking Soda (possibly with Eggs in addition) because they are simply a mix-it and bake-it type of baked goods that you want to remain delicate (no gluten formed when making the dough). Yeast is typically used in Breads because the kneading of the dough creates the gluten that is required to trap the air produced by the yeast. These also require proofing to give the yeast time to make the gas that leavens them. Once you know the ingredients, again, even baking can be pretty straight forward!


Fat Equals Flavor!

Last but not least in the baking/cookie realm is fat! This usually comes in the form of butter, shortening, or oil. Shortening is simply oil based fat that is solid at room temp (because of the addition of hydrogen known as hydrogenation). These add flavor to baked goods and also add to the final product’s moisture content because the fat doesn’t cook out like moisture does.


Fats in baking also do 2 important things, hinder gluten development, and produce steam when used properly. Mixing the butter directly with the flour prior to adding moisture in certain recipes coats the flour in fat, thus hindering the absorption of water and production of gluten in a dough. This is called the “Cut-In” Method of mixing a dough- mixing in the butter by hand into the dry ingredients before adding the wet ingredients.

Some recipes call for cold/frozen butter and direct you to keep the butter and/or the dough chilled prior to baking. This is done because there is a little moisture in butter and if the butter keeps from melting and separating into its oil and water components during mixing, it will produce steam which will give a soft, flaky texture (hello pie crusts and biscuits)! This adds to the rising of the items as well, so this is a pseudo leavener as well!

Some baked recipes call for melted chocolate to be added into the batter (can you say brownies?). This is simply treated as a fat and gives the same properties as simply adding oil but with a fantastic flavor in addition!



Flavorings

The rest of things that are added into doughs and batters are simply there for flavor and don’t really change the processes that are happening from the other principle ingredients. Play until your heart’s content with flavorings and additions as long as you don’t throw the ratios off too far with the other ingredients!


Methods for Cookies

The two main methods for most all cookies are either the Cut In Method or the Creaming Method. The Cut In Method is simply rubbing/cutting in the butter into the dry ingredients (cutting the butter in) then mixing in the wet ingredients. Then add additional flavorings if needed.

The Creaming Method is where you mix (or Cream) together the butter and the sugar first before adding in your eggs, then dry ingredients (sometimes alternating with wet ingredients if needed for the recipe).

That’s it! Those are the two different ways to make cookies and many of your favorite baked goods!



The Wrap Up

Now that you understand the science behind what’s happening in your dough/batter, I hope this makes it easier to understand what’s happening in the oven and mixing bowl! As cooks (or bakers), we’re all food detectives and we will assess how our baked goods come out compared to how we were hoping they would turn out! With baking, it can simply be a little more complex because there are a few more areas where variability can happen. That’s why practice is one of the best teachers, but now that you know what’s happening, you can work backwards to improve your baking to how you like it (or just appreciate it on a deeper level!)! Just remember, there is no perfect food (or baked good), just the true purpose of cooking, to make others (and yourself) happy! I hope this helps you enjoy your food even more!!



Happy Baking Season!!



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