The last time I attempted to make chocolate chip cookies, they turned into crisp, greasy disks that my husband thought were more like sweet crackers than cookies. I consider myself a pretty decent cook, but the perfect chocolate chip cookie remains elusive. I try to make chewy cookies with crisp edges and gooey centers. Instead, I get crackers.
I pretty much know the Nestle Toll House recipe by heart after using it my entire life, but the classic recipe (which has been around since the 1930s) can be improved with a few tweaks. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here, but a little extra effort can go a long way when it comes to baking.
A quest for perfect the chocolate chip cookie could seem like chasing a pot of gold or searching for unicorns, but it’s not quite that elusive. In reality, it probably has more to do with remembering something about science. You don’t have to become a master in chemistry to be excellent at baking, but it doesn’t hurt to know how some of the cookie’s key ingredients work together. Regardless of whether your perfect cookie is crisp, chewy, or cakey, there’s a way to almost guarantee result you want if you use the right ingredients and simple techniques. With that in mind, we’ve cultivated a few key tips from baking experts to help your cookies turn out exactly how you like them, every time.
1. Use butter
Even if your mother used shortening in her cookies and you prefer to use margarine for all of your other cooking needs, butter is where it’s at when it comes to the chocolate chip cookie. It’s the fat that adds the most flavor to each bite and it helps the cookies spread during baking.
Perhaps no one has spent as much time devoted to perfecting the chocolate chip cookie as chef and author J. Kenji López-Alt, the mastermind behind a column called The Food Lab at Serious Eats. In his quest to make the perfect cookie, he churned out more than 1,500 chocolate chip creations, testing every aspect of a basic cookie recipe. When it comes to the butter, he suggests browning it in a pan to enhance the flavor, then tossing in an ice cube to add moisture back while also cooling it to room temperature. This step brings out the nutty, butterscotch flavors we all want in a chocolate chip cookie.
Browned or not, butter is part of what determines chewy versus cakey cookies. Less butter will often yield cakier cookies, ChefSteps explains, since the presence of butter is one of the elements that allows the dough to spread. More butter equals more spread.
2. Choose your sugar carefully
Many classic cookie recipes use equal measurements of brown and granulated sugars. Tweaking that; however, will change the consistency of your cookies. For example, a heavier hand with granulated sugar will make the cookies crispy and flat. Like butter, the amount of sugar you use dictates how much the cookies spread out while they’re baking. As ChefSteps explains, this is probably where my cookie/crackers went wrong. In all likelihood, I added too much granulated sugar.
As chef Thomas Joseph explains on Martha Stewart’s site, brown sugar contains molasses, which makes the cookies chewier. If you’re looking for a classic soft and chewy cookie, it helps to add slightly more brown sugar. If a cakey cookie is what you’re after, you’ll use less sugar overall.
To get a little more science-based, brown sugar is more hygroscopic than white granulated sugar, which means it retains moisture better. According to López-Alt at Serious Eats, adding just a little bit of corn syrup will yield the chewiest, most uniform cookies you’ll ever see, since the syrup is dramatically more hygroscopic than either type of sugar.
3. Chop your chocolate
It’s safe to say that regardless of cookie texture, we’re all looking for those pools of melty, gooey chocolate in each bite. And a chocolate chip cookie, by definition, is supposed to contain the actual chips, right? Not necessarily. Experts like Ina Garten (the Barefoot Contessa herself) and López-Alt suggest chopping a chocolate bar by hand instead. Smaller shavings will simply melt into the dough, while larger chunks will create those pockets of liquid chocolate in just-baked cookies. Each bite will be slightly different, just begging you to take another one.
Chopping the chocolate allows you to choose your favorite bars, which will melt differently than the chips. As The Huffington Post explains, chips are designed to retain their shape during the baking process, while the chocolate chunks will blend more into the cookie.
If you’re nervous about skipping the chocolate chips, stick with the tried and true Nestle Toll House versions. ChefSteps reports that the brand uses glucose in its chips, which results in the “melty effect” you want.
4. Refrigerate the dough
You allow your bread dough to rest, and some baking experts say doing the same for your cookie dough can increase the flavor exponentially. Essentially, allowing the dough to rest in the refrigerator — for 8 to 12 hours or even a few days– allows the ingredients to combine more completely. To explain how it works, López-Alt compares the proteins and starches in your dough to LEGO structures.
To take a LEGO castle and turn it into spaceships instead, you’ll need to break down the original structures and reconstruct them into new forms, both of which take time. Resting the dough allows deconstruction the time it needs to fully develop flavors — López-Alt’s version of leaving the LEGO castle out overnight to let your kid sister destroy it for you. That firmer dough, which was first championed by Jacque Torres, leads to an unbelievably chewy and flavorful cookie.
Note that even if you couldn’t possibly wait that long to have a warm cookie in your hands, refrigerating the dough for even a few minutes can help if your first tray of cookies came out of the oven looking a little flat. The blogger at Pinch of Yum suggests this trick.
5. Bake one tray at a time
You’ve already gone to the trouble of pulling out your stand mixer, and in some cases, have waited days to bake your cookies to golden perfection. Don’t ruin them now by sticking multiple trays in the oven at once, the experts at America’s Test Kitchen warn. The reason? It will always lead to uneven baking, a problem you can’t fix by switching the trays at the midpoint.
“The cookies on the top tray are often browner around the edges than those on the bottom, even when rotated halfway through cooking,” the site advises. Who knew the perfect chocolate chip cookie relied so much on having patience?