The Weird Science of Chocolate Chip Cookies

My NYT chocolate chip cookieLast week, the New York Times ran an article on the pursuit of the “perfect” chocolate chip cookie, and included a recipe adapted from chocolatier Jacques Torres (Link from ALoTT5MA). It touched on people’s obsessions with the cookie, as well as things that can be done to tinker with the classic, back-of-the-Nestle-bag recipe.

Torres, for example, refrigerates his dough for 36 hours before baking. Food scientist Shirley Corriher, author of the excellent Cookwise and the upcoming Bakewise, laughed when she heard this, and said it was a clever way to dry out the dough and bind the flour and butter, thus creating a better-textured thick cookie that’s crisp on the outside and chewy in the middle.

Of course, I tried this recipe. I happened to have both cake and bread flour in the pantry, since those were the two types specified, rather than the more easily found all purpose. I used Guittard semi-sweet chips (which my grocery co-op sells in bulk), rather than spending $20+ on either of the chocolates the recipe called for, here and here. And because the timing was inconvenient, I made one batch about 31 hours after refrigeration, and the other about 47. The latter batch browned more nicely and turned out better. The earlier batch tasted more like sugar cookies (albeit very good ones) with chocolate chips. The latter batch tasted like excellent chocolate chip cookies. Even so, I probably won’t make this recipe again. The two special flours, plus the long refrigeration time are inconvenient. Even worse, I thought, was how difficult it was to scoop out the refrigerated dough. I tried letting it warm a bit, but that produced the lightest cookies in the bunch.

Instead, I’m returning to what has been my go-to chocolate chip cookie recipe for about three years, Pam (not Pamela!) Anderson’s Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies. Making the dough is easy (though use unbleached all purpose; there’s no reason for bleached). Rather than refrigerating the dough, she says to scoop out dough balls, freeze them for at least 30 minutes, then bake first at 400F, then finish at 350F. It has a few more steps than the back-of-the-bag recipe, but it’s well worth it. The cookie, as promised, delivers puff, crisp, and chew. It browns nicely without having to wait 36 HOURS! as in the Torres recipe. Also, it’s a marvelous vehicle for experimentation with additions other than chocolate chips or chunks. I’ve even added some oats and wheat bran before with excellent results. Further, the dough balls can be refrigerated for a long time. I’ve made a batch after thirty minutes, then another weeks later. This is a versatile recipe with a few weird twists that produces great results without long waits, specialty flours, or expensive chocolate.

Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies by Pam Anderson from USA Weekend

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
2 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
3/4 tsp. salt
14 Tbs. butter (2 sticks minus 2 Tbs.), cut into chunks
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 Tbs. flavorless oil, such as vegetable or canola
1 1/2 cups chocolate chips or 8 ounces good-quality bittersweet or semisweet chocolate cut into 1/4-inch chunks, about 1 1/2 cup
1 cup each chocolate chunks or chips and 1 cup toasted nuts (pecans, walnuts, unsalted peanuts or macadamias)

Hot tip: If you have a 3/4-cup measuring cup, it’s the only one you’ll need. The sugars measure 3/4 cup each, the chip quantity is 1 1/2 cups (3/4 cup times 2), and the flour is 2 1/4 cups (3/4 cup times 3).

Mix flour, baking powder and baking soda in a medium bowl; set aside. Mix eggs, vanilla and salt in a small bowl; set aside. Microwave butter on high power until just melted but not hot, 30 to 45 seconds; set aside. Mix brown and granulated sugars in a large bowl. Add butter and oil; stir until smooth. Add egg mixture and stir until smooth and creamy. Add dry ingredients and stir until smooth. Stir in chocolate and optional nuts. Using a 1 1/2-ounce (3 Tbs.) ice cream scoop, spoon 16 dough balls onto a pan that will fit in your freezer. (Don’t worry if the dough balls are crowded. They pull apart when frozen.) Freeze until dough is hard, about 30 minutes. (Once dough balls are frozen, they can be stored in freezer bags up to 3 months and baked as desired.)

Meanwhile, adjust oven rack to upper middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Working in half batches, place 8 frozen dough balls onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Bake until set, but not brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees. Continue to bake until cookies are golden-brown around the edges and lightly brown on the top, about 10 minutes longer. Let cookies cool on cookie sheet. Repeat, preheating oven to 400 degrees again before baking second batch.

Cookies can be stored in an airtight container up to 5 days.

Servings: 16 large cookies.

: Boing Boing discusses Ideas in Food’s experiment with vacuum sealing the NYT recipe’s dough, which significantly reduced the 36-hour refrigeration. The vacuum-sealed dough looked much different than what I’d made, which was significantly lighter in color. And the cookies looked different also. Theirs were browner, but high in the middle and thin on the edges. Mine (see above) were a uniform 1/4 inch from center to edge.

7 Responses to “The Weird Science of Chocolate Chip Cookies”

  1. Steph Says:

    Mmmm… I love cookies. I agree that 36 hours is far too long to wait for anything, ESPECIALLY cookies as I tend to be an impulse baker. I do always, hate however, when the amount of predicted cookies is always way off from the actual yield. I recently made a recipe (the second cookie I mention below) which claimed to produce 3.5 dozen cookies… we got 12 out of it, and no, they weren’t 12 huge cookies!

    The two cookie recipes I’ve recently been rocking are: pecan pie cookies (I love pecan pie best of all, but these cookies are especially fantastic as I don’t have to deal with pie crust!) and orange poppy seed cookies (light and wonderful for the summer). Best of all, the orange poppy seed cookies store for up to a week in an air-tight container (that is if you can resist them for that long and make them last! ;) ).

  2. girldetective Says:

    I almost always get MORE cookies than what the recipe calls for. The NYT recipe says 18, I got 24. The Pam Anderson one says 16, I usually get 18 or 19, and I am using a generous sized ice-cream scoop for the dough.

    For the first time ever, I think, I used the weights of the flour called for in the NYT recipe, rather than amounts. Most recipes don’t publish weights anymore, anyway. But for both flours, the volume by weight was greater than what was specified in cups.

  3. weirleader Says:

    Steph - if you could hook me up with those Pecan Pie cookies, I’d be your (virtual) friend for life! Seriously, they sound intriguing. Yum!

    And I have to confess (terribly embarassing) that I never made the connection that 3/4 x 3 = 2 1/4. This may not sound like a huge thing, but as I consider myself an avid baker, make chocolate chip cookies using that amount of flour all the time, and am a math teacher to top it all off (meaning I’m constantly lecturing my students that they should get better with their fractions), I just can’t believe I overlooked that simple - and fascinating - fact. (If this sounds sarcastic, it’s not - I really am THAT much of a math nerd.)

    And lastly, Alton Brown (my FoodTV hero) recommends weighing your ingredients in his book I’m Just Here For More Food… not as easy to come by those type of recipes, but I plan on trying it for a while to see if I’m happier with the results.

  4. Steph Says:

    weirleader, the pecan pie cookies can be found at:

    You won’t be disappointed!

    Also, I never would have thought of how 3/4 * 3 = 2 1/4 either.

    Girl Detective, maybe I will have to challenge you to make the orange poppy-seed cookies and see if you do somehow manage to make more than the specified 42 cookies… Seriously, this second time making them we got 18… which is nowhere close to 42!

  5. girldetective Says:

    Steph, share the orange poppyseed recipe, and I’ll give it a try.

    The 3/4 x 3 thing was new to me with that recipe too, and I love it. I use it a lot with some other recipes now. Don’t buy the OXO cup set that has a 3/4 measure–the numbers wear off. The Amco stainless ones look good.

    It’s a good example of how Pam is a great recipe writer. I’ve been baking from the book by the woman who won all the ribbons at the state fair. She’s clearly a skilled baker, but not so much with the recipe writing.

    Another useful rule I bake with–replace 1/3 of the total AP flour with whole wheat. So with the Perfect Choc Chip recipe, I do one 3/4 of whole wheat, then two of AP.

  6. kayenne Says:

    just a thought… why not scoop out and ball the dough first before refrigerating? that way, you’ll just have to plunk it down onto the baking sheet. the dough should be dry enough to hold it’s form even if you stack them all in a bowl.

    while you’re at it, make double or triple batch… after the required refrigeration, stick the rest in a freezer bag and freeze. instant cookies next time you crave some. and having it pre-scooped means you can take out only the number of cookies that you want.

  7. weirleader Says:

    excellent idea - pre-scooping and freezing… I’m definitely gonna start doing that!