Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Cookie Dilemma

 Help, my cookies have fallen and they can't get up!  Actually, the problem is that my cookies won't fall, but no one made a clever commercial saying "Help, my cookies are too dry."  Here's the issue:  When we lived in Southwest Kansas I made massive numbers of cookies each summer for the employees and customers at the elevator during harvest.  I have five or six basic recipes that I have tweeked so they work every time.  That is, until March 16, 2011.  That would be when we moved to Southeast Nebraska.  Now my cookies are inedible disasters. They don't spread at all and they're dry.  Help!

Here are the facts as I know them.  Our average humidity went from about 20-30% to nearer 65%-75%.  You would think this would make for moister cookies, but not so's you'd notice.  Our elevation dropped over 2300 feet (from 3322 to 968).  I'm sure this makes a difference, but what?

Also, my all-time favorite cooking guru, Alton Brown did an episode of Good Eats entitled Chips for Sister Marsha, in which he explained how to adjust cookie ingredients to make your choice of thin, puffy or chewy cookies.  Here is a summary of what I learned:

  • High-protein bread flour (made from hard wheat) produces more gluten than other types of flour and therefore can give you a chewier cookie.
  • Low-protein cake flour (made from soft wheat) ties up less moisture, thus making it available for steam production.  Steam will lift the batter in the oven producing a fluffy, cake-like batter. 
  • All-purpose flour is a mixture of hard and soft wheats and is best for thin cookies.
  • If you like cookies that stay flat and spread out on the pan, up the baking soda a bit.  Reducing acidity will slightly increase the setting temperature, allowing for more spread.
  • A higher ratio of white to brown sugar will give you a crisper cookie.
  • A higher ratio of brown to white sugar will give you a more tender cookie.
  • Egg whites act as drying ingredients.  Using more yolks than whites will make for a moister cookie.  Since eggs tend to puff rather than spread, replacing egg with milk makes a chewier cookie with more spread.
  • Nothing affects a cookie's texture more than the melting characteristics of its fat. Butter has a sharp melting point meaning there is just a few degrees difference between  solid and liquid states.  Since conversion occurs at a relatively low temperature, the resulting batter spreads prior to setting.
  • Shortening melts at a higher temperature than butter so it remains solid longer giving the batter time to rise and set before it spreads.
  • Cold dough spreads slowly giving the cookie time to climb before setting.
  • The smaller the scoop the more puff the cookie will have.
  • For chewy cookies, melt butter before creaming.  The water from the melted butter will combine during agitation with the higher protein of the bread flour therefore producing gluten ... which is chewy. Also, since bread flour can absorb much more liquid than all purpose flour, more moisture will stay in the cookie.
  • The darker the sugar, the chewier the cookies are going to be.  Brown sugar is coated in molasses.  Molasses loves moisture. By increasing the amount of brown sugar the finished cookies are guaranteed to attract H2O from the air keeping them moist and chewy.

    And if that's not confusing enough, throw in oven temperature.  My mother and grandmother always bake their cookies at 350 degrees - and they make wonderful cookies.  I have found that I have better luck at 375 and all of Alton's recipes call for 375.  

    To summarize, for the chewy cookies I prefer, I need more gluten, melted butter, a higher brown to white sugar ratio, and more egg yolks than egg whites.  But where does the elevation and humidity fit in?   Any helpful hints would be more than welcome.  I'm tired of wasting time and ingredients to create inedible,dry, clumps of dough.

    All of the above information is available in Alton Brown's cookbook, Good Eats: The Early Years, or at  I highly recommend this cookbook, as well as volume 2 - Good Eats: The Middle Years.

    This post is part of Weekend Cooking, sponsored by Beth Fish Reads.  Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs.


    1. Love the chewy chocolate chips! Good Eats is such a great show, I bet his cookbooks are fun, too!

    2. I like soft chewy cookies -- but I don't remember much about how to deal with altitude. Years ago I lived almost a mile high, and I know I had to do lots of adaptations.

      I love Good Eats.

    3. I wouldn't have even considered that elevation etc would have made any difference! Good luck on your quest for perfect cookies.

    4. It's amazing how many different variables there are to the cookie making process :)

      We definitely prefer chewy to crunchy in our house...

    5. HI Tami, I wish I could help. I do think that at higher elevation you need to use a higher temperature. So perhaps at the new lower elev. you should go to 350. Other than that, I prefer butter to shortening. i rarely chill before cooking, but letting your pans cool between cooking batches keeps them from spreading out too much. Let us know in a future post what happens.

    6. Guess this explains why my butter based copies are flatter than my shortening based ones. Thanks for sharing this Tami.