Cookie science: how to personalize your chocolate chip cookies

Good bakers know how to follow recipes. Great bakers know how to tweak them – how to deviate subtly from the printed word and create something that’s not just tasty but tailor-made to your palate. The line between good and great is surprising easy to navigate when it comes to chocolate chip cookies. All you need is a little cookie science and a friendly guide to show you the way.

In our case, that guide is Jocelyn, a top-notch baker who develops recipes in King Arthur Flour’s test kitchen. She knows that just a few simple changes can turn a regular chocolate chip cookie into one that’s extra-crunchy, extra-chewy, or extra-cakey.

Cookie Science via @kingarthurflour

I caught up with Jocelyn (with a very helpful assist from our own Dr. Andrea Brown) to understand the yummy science behind personalizing each batch of cookies.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s focus on Everyone’s Favorite Chocolate Chip Cookie, a new mix that Jocelyn developed for King Arthur Flour’s Essential Goodness line. She’ll share exact measurements for personalizing that mix, but the basic principles apply to pretty much any chocolate chip cookie recipe.

Cookie Science via @kingarthurflour

How to make extra-crunchy cookies

If you’re making Everyone’s Favorite Chocolate Chip Cookie, add 2 tablespoons granulated sugar and bake for 2 to 4 extra minutes.

What does the extra sugar do?

Although sugar may seem like a fairly simple ingredient, it plays a very important and complex role in cookie dough. It contributes to both texture and flavor in many ways: it melts in the heat of the oven to increase spread, and it creates little air pockets in the dough to expand and make cookies rise. Sugar also caramelizes and participates in Maillard reactions to add both color and additional notes to the flavor, and it recrystallizes upon cooling to give the cookies crispy texture.

Maillard reactions are when amino acids react with sugars to give you the brown color and caramelized flavor in baked goods.

When adding an extra two tablespoons of granulated sugar here, you increase the ratio of sugar to fat and flour in the cookie. This will result in a bit more spread, a larger surface area and more material to caramelize and react and, of course, a little bit of extra sweetness as well, which never hurts.

You may notice that the cookies won’t be crispy immediately out of the oven; that happens later. While the exact science of cookie cooling is still somewhat of a mystery, one theory is that as the molten sugar retreats to its crystalline structure and solidifies, the cookie becomes crispy as opposed to bendy. Working with that theory, we can then understand why the more sugar present to recrystallize, the more snap your cookie will have.

How does granulated sugar act differently than brown sugar?

Granulated sugar contains little to no “invert sugar,” which is what you find in the molasses or refiners syrup added to brown sugar. This invert sugar is actually single monosaccharide molecules that were created by breaking down the double disaccharide molecules that make up granulated or table sugar (sucrose). These monosaccharides possess different chemical properties that make cookies chewier, as we’ll see in the tip below.

Why the different bake time?

By adding extra sugar, you can bake the cookies to a slightly higher temperature without over-baking, which will allow for a crispier final cookie as well as deeper flavor development.

Why not just bake any version longer to get a crunchy cookie without added sugar?

While it’s certainly true that baking any cookie longer will cause it to have a firmer final texture, having the extra granulated sugar allows the cookie to maintain a tender, “snappy,” crisp texture (due to the properties discussed above), as opposed to a less enjoyable hard/crunchy texture.

 

Cookie Science via @kingarthurflour

How to make extra-chewy cookies

Add 2 tablespoons brown sugar.

What does extra brown sugar do to the dough?

While brown sugar is similar to granulated sugar in many ways, it has one major functional component that granulated sugar does not: invert sugar!

The two primary invert sugar monosaccharides found in brown sugar are glucose and fructose, which are actually bound together to make the disaccharide sucrose which is what Americans know as our standard white table sugar.

Compared to sucrose, invert sugars caramelize at a lower temperature, and absorb and retain more moisture; fructose is particularly hygroscopic, meaning it really loves to suck up and hold onto water.

Invert sugars also interfere with recrystallization upon cooling, which helps make cookies crisp. By holding that extra moisture and delaying the sugar’s recrystallization, brown sugar has the wonderful ability to give you a moist, tooth-packing, bendy cookie loved by chewy cookie fans around the world.

Does it make the cookie extra sweet?

While a particularly perceptive taster might be able to tell the difference in sweetness with the additional two tablespoons brown sugar, the overall sugar level increased by less than 20%; so it’s really just a delightfully sweet cookie at either level.

Do light and dark brown sugar work the same?

In fact, they do. The differences between light and dark brown sugar in terms of the amount or types of syrup used are usually minimal, even though you might expect otherwise given the significant difference in coloration.

Cookie Science via @kingarthurflour

How to make extra-cakey cookies

Add 2 tablespoons milk.

What does the extra milk do to the dough?

Although it may seem obvious, the most important role extra milk plays is adding a little more liquid. As cookie dough is very low hydration, that two tablespoons of milk has more of an impact here than it would in something with higher hydration, such as cake batter.

Milk is around 85% water – and that water will evaporate in the heat of the oven to form steam. This steam will migrate to air pockets created by the melting sugar grains.

As the steam gets hotter, it teams up with gases produced by the leaveners, expanding those air pockets. That expansion causes the cookies to puff and rise in the oven, creating an airy, cakey texture.

The moisture contributed by the milk will also increase spread and hydrate more of the starches in the flour. These hydrated (gelatinized) starches support the structure of the air pocket wall, keeping the cookies from collapsing once cooled. By holding more water, they also help keep the cookies softer over time.

Why milk and not water?

While milk is mostly water, those other little molecules in milk do serve a purpose. First, their presence means that there’s 15% less liquid being added to the dough, and this helps prevent the dough from spreading too far and turning into some less-than-ideal chocolate chip pancakes in the oven.

The proteins in milk – about 3% to 4% – will enhance Maillard reactions (as discussed above) and contribute many of the flavor notes that we recognize as “baked,” giving the cookies their roasted, toasted, and even sometimes nutty notes.

Finally, the fat and sugar from the milk also add extra tenderness and richer flavor.

Cookie Science via @kingarthurflour

Some extracurricular reading on cookies science

So there you have it – the cookie science behind transforming our standard chocolate chip cookie mix into crunchy, chewy, or cakey versions. I’m fortunate to be able to share the kitchen with King Arthur’s research and development team, and I have to say that I’m personally just blown away with how good they are at their jobs.

I also want to thank Paula Figoni for her awesome book “How Baking Work” and Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking.” Both were enormously helpful.

Happy Baking!

Gwen Adams
About

Gwen Adams grew up in northern New Hampshire, on top of a mountain, surrounded by nature and not much else. After graduating from Lyndon State College in 2010, Gwen sought a career that combined her passion for writing with her love of baking. She found ...

comments

  1. Lorraine Fina Stevenski

    Thanks Gwen for the baking tips! I love to experiment too with baking. Sometimes experiment recipes flops but that’s how we learn. I improve chocolate chip cookies with many additives. I like to add 2 tablespoons of honey for a more chewy cookie. I coarsely grind pecans or almonds for a nuttier textured cookie. Omit the amount of flour per added ground nuts. I also use Heath toffee bits in many of my cookies as it disappears into the cookie but adds a nice crunch and nutty flavor. Happy baking!

    Reply
  2. Corylea

    Thanks for the information! My mother has been wanting chewy chocolate chip cookies for decades and is always disappointed that the recipe she’s using comes out hard instead of bendy. I’ll direct her here!

    Reply
  3. Jean

    I want to make ginger cookies using a family recipe. Does the King Arthurs GF flour substitute in the same quantity as the called for amount of wheat flour? Thank you!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We’re glad you checked, Jean! Our newest gluten-free blend, Measure for Measure, can be used as a straight 1:1 sub in your favorite recipes for cookies, cakes, muffins, pancakes and other non-yeasted treats. Our Gluten-Free Flour, on the other hand, will typically require the addition of xanthan gum and possible other adjustments to the recipe. If you decide to give this a try, you’ll want to start by substituting the Gluten-Free Flour lour 1:1 for the all-purpose flour and adding 1/4 tsp xanthan gum per cup of flour. Our blog article, the Gluten-Free Conversion Conundrum, can then help walk you through some of the other changes you may want to consider. Hope this helps and happy baking! Mollie@KAF

  4. Marie

    Great information. I am trying to convert my sweeter to honey instead of sugar. How would that affect the cookie recipes? Any suggestions on how to do this?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Marie, we when substituting sugars we recommend using an alternative sweetener that’s similar in consistency and moisture level for best results. Therefore, honey can be used to replace maple syrup or corn syrup in recipes, as they’re all liquids. (Honey can be used to replace white sugar in some recipes, but the other liquids need to be reduced. Since cookies don’t typically have much liquid added to them, try using a granulated sugar substitute instead, like coconut sugar). Otherwise, your cookies will likely turn out flat, overly sweet, and burn. We hope you find a granular sugar that works for your needs! Kye@KAF

  5. Lori

    Thanks so much for sharing the science I knew was lurking behind every mixing bowl and cookie recipe I’ve every touched! King Arthur flour and it’s staff rocks!

    Reply
  6. Ralph

    Ok would like to share this chocolate chip cookies recipe have kept it kind of a special to me used it in many of bakery I have work 2-1/4 cups of cake flour 1 teaspoon baking soda 1 cup butter/softened 1/4 cup sugar 3/4 cup packed light brown sugar 1 teaspoon vanilla(the good stuff) 1 package (4 oz serving size jello brand vanilla instant pudding) 2 lg eggs 1 package (12-oz)chocolate chip Combine the butter,sugar,vanilla,pudding mix in large bowl beat until smooth and creamy,Beat in eggs,Gradually add flour and baking soda mixture then stir in chips Bake at 375 for 8-10 minutes hope u enjoy

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      The answer is more or less yes, Jackie. We’ve found that the changes can be more pronounced in some formula rather than others. Try playing around with your favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe and see if you can find your favorite adjustment. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

  7. Michelle Shamasneh

    Many years ago, a friend of mine made cookies that were very thick (over an inch!) and dense, almost fudge-like. I’ve searched in vain for a similar recipe. Do you know what she might have used to make her cookies so thick and dense?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      It sounds like you’ll need to find a recipe that’s specifically designed to produce this kind of cookie; the slight adjustment shown in the blog work in just that vain, to make small changes or tweaks to the final texture. If you’re looking to make something that’s notably fudgy and thick (which would be a recipe with a small amount of flour relative to the eggs and sugar), check out this recipe on our website for Fudge Drops. I hope that helps and happy baking! Kye@KAF

  8. Shari giarraputo

    I have a question. I made shortbread. I measured out. 3.5 cups of flour and 1 cup of sugar, 1/4 teaspoon of salt,1 teaspoon of vanilla extract, 3/4 pound of butter. I made a mistake and added one more stick of butter. Can I add flour or something else to adjust the butter amount:(

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We’ve all had those oops, moments, Shari! The safest thing to do would be to adjust all the ingredients up to meet that change in butter – in other words adding an extra 1/3 of each ingredient: 1 cup plus 1-2 Tbsp flour, 1/3 cup sugar, a small pinch of salt, and 1/3 tsp vanilla. Hope this helps! Mollie@KAF

    1. PJ Hamel

      Whoooops! Right you are, Ms. Tweetley. Thanks so much for your eagle eye — all fixed now. PJH

  9. Claudia

    I would rather not use vegetable shortening, but use only butter in my cookies. How can I tweak the recipe so my cookies are not so spread out and thin? I was afraid if I just added more flour they might be doughy. Should I just cut the amount of butter?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Claudia, to prevent your butter-based cookies from spreading, try adding a few additional tablespoons of flour to the dough and reduce the sugar by the same amount (2-3 tablespoons). The cookies won’t taste drastically different, but you’ll find the cookies hold their shape better. It’s also a good idea to chill the dough for at least 30 minutes before baking. Enjoy! Kye@KAF

  10. Emma

    Hello,

    French baker here (and I do thank you for the grams measurements which allow me to bake american recipes, as I hate baking with cups, no precision thus no reliance). As our brown sugar is not like yours : it is unrefined cane sugar. What is best to make them more chewy : fructose or glucose ? I already have glucose for marshmallows, meringues… so do I need to buy fructose ?

    Regards, and thanks again for your great recipes, I mean the lemon bliss cake, in a swirl bundt pan is always a success as it is not common in France !

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid

      Bonjour, Emma, ça va? Unrefined cane sugar is likely a little lighter in color than our commercial brown sugars, but the principle is similar; there is some of the molasses left with the sugar crystals, instead of being taken out and added back as it is in the US. The chewiness you seek is caused by an invert sugar inhibiting recrystallization, and a touch of glucose is likely to get you there. In truth, any invert sugar will do the job; I have used a tablespoon of corn syrup in a cookie recipe with good results; also honey and maple syrup. I would try a couple of teaspoons of glucose in addition to your unrefined cane sugar; I think it will take you where you want to go. That and baking cookies just so the bottom is set (it should hold itself together when you pick one edge off the pan with a spatula at a 45° angle; if it can do that it’s done, regardless if the top looks underdone.) There will be enough carry over heat to set the top if you let the cookies stay on the baking sheet when you take them out of the oven. Hope this is useful. Bon chance! Susan

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