Saturday, July 9, 2011

That's the Way the Cookie Crumbles

Last week I posted about my baking woes since moving.   My time-tested, go-to cookie recipes were producing inedible lumps rather than soft, chewy circles of deliciousness.  Our new home is over two-thousand feet closer to sea-level and averages three times the humidity as our former home. Some online research and info gleaned from my favorite celebrity chef, Alton Brown, revealed a list of variables that could be affecting my cookie catastrophies:
  • elevation
  • bread flour vs. all-purpose flour
  • acidity
  • white sugar vs. brown sugar
  • choice of fats 
  • drying properties of egg whites
  • size of cookie
  • dough temperature
Heather @ Books and Quilts recalled that higher elevations require higher cooking temperatures, so perhaps I needed to lower my oven temp.  More Googling revealed that the higher the altitude, the lower the boiling point of water.  In southwest Kansas, water boils at about 206 degrees, while in southeast Nebraska, it boils at 210.  Somehow, this small variation explains why I got better results baking cookies at 375 at the old house, but needed to dial it back here.  

In preparation for an upcoming family reunion, I tried baking cookies again this week.  (Seriously, what kind of grandma shows up for a reunion without goodies that the grandkids aren't allowed at home?)  The first step was to verify the oven temperature on my new oven.  It was accurate within a degree or two. 

Then, I tried Alton's chewy chocolate chip recipe from Good Eats, The Early Years.  I followed the recipe with only two minor variations - I didn't have bread flour and didn't want to drive to town.  And I didn't refrigerate the dough for an hour before baking.  Who can wait that long for warm chocolate chips?  Guess I should have. The nine mounds of dough on the cookie sheet became one large, paper-thin cookie when baked.  That pan went in the trash and I added a smidge of flour to the remaining dough and chilled it for about 20 minutes.  Much better results.  This recipe calls for melting the butter in order to let the water in the butter create more gluten from the flour and make a chewier cookie.  This also made a thinner dough which most likely contributed to the spread, so I probably won't bother with that again.

Next, I tried two of my old-faithful recipes.  Here are the original recipes and the adjustments I made:

Oatmeal Cookies

1 c. shortening                                1 t. baking powder
1 c. brown sugar                             1/2 t. salt
1 c. white sugar                              1/2 t. cinnamon
2 eggs                                            3 c. oatmeal
1 1/4 c. flour                                  1/2 c. nuts
1/2 t. vanilla

Cream shortening and sugars.  Add eggs and vanilla, then dry ingredients.  Bake at 350 for 10-11 minutes.

I used butter (softened, but not melted) and all-purpose flour (still hadn't been to town). I replaced the equal parts white and brown sugar with 1 c. dark brown, 1/2 c. light brown and 1/2 c. white.  (Remember, the molasses in the brown sugars holds moisture.)  I replaced the two eggs with one whole egg, one egg yolk and a tablespoon of milk (again, for more moisture - egg whites act as drying agents).  Not too thick, not to thin, chewy - delicious!

Ginger Snaps

1 c. sugar                                  1/2 t. salt
3/4 c. shortening                        2 t. baking soda
1/4 c. sorghum (molasses)           1 t. cinnamon
1 egg                                         1 t. ground ginger
2 c. flour                                   1 t. cloves

Cream sugar and shortening.  Add egg, then dry ingredients.  Roll in balls and roll in sugar.  Bake at 350 for 10-11 minutes.

Again, I used butter (non-melted) and all-purpose flour.  Since this recipe has added molasses and only calls for one egg, I stuck with the original as written.   Deliciousness again.  

Further tips: 
  • I usually use a small scoop or rounded teaspoon to measure out the dough because that's what my Mom and Grandma did.  i have a suspicion that their motive was to make smaller cookies and fool kids into thinking they were getting an extra treat when they got the second one.  Alton uses a much larger scoop to make a less "puffy" cookie, so I switched to a rounded tablespoon. 
  • Somewhere in the past - probably from someone on the cooking channels - I learned that the warm air in the oven must be able to circulate completely around the pan to ensure even baking.  In my previous stove, which I stupidly left in the last house, I could use my large air-bake cookie sheet, no problem.  The oven that came with this house, though the same dimensions on the outside, has a smaller oven area and that cookie sheet touches on both sides.  I switched to a smaller cookie sheet which just meant more batches, but not a major thing.
After all that, the biggest change was the oven temperature,  so a huge thank-you to Heather for pointing it out.  

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.


  1. Sounds like you are slowly but surely figuring this connundrum out...I'm sure much to the grandkids' delight!

  2. wow, I never considered the issues of altitude..but then I live at sea level. fine, until the hurricane

    I always chill my cookie dough and yes, air circulation is very important to even baking.
    But sounds like you are slowly figuring it out.
    You can just send those 'failures' to me! :-)

  3. Practice makes perfect! I am baking challenged and very inconsistent but the kids don't mind eating the mistakes. Sounds like you are doing great! Glad you got deliciousness :)

  4. Very interesting experiments. I didn't think there would be that much difference between your former house and the new place. I'm surprised. I hope the kids were happy with grandma's treats.

  5. I wish I had picked up on that temperature issue --but glad that Heather did. I always bake cookies at 350F. So glad you are back on the road to successful baking. Bummer about the oven size in your new place though.

  6. I've always cooked at a low elevation in Mississippi River valleys, and I always bake cookies at 350. Glad you're starting to have some successes with your baking.

  7. You must be so frustrated with the mystery of adjusting to your new place (elevation, humidity, kitchen equipment). Glad to know these cookies were much improved ... I'm sure these changes will be second nature in no time!