Technique Tips for The Best Cookies!

Hey BwB Family! Today we’re talking cookies.

Wait…the saying is “talking turkey”, isn’t it…😬

Oh well. “talking cookies” works. Friends, the purpose of this post is to give you universal techniques that you can use to make your favorite cookie recipes even better. You don’t need a specific recipe to make amazing cookies!

Let’s go!

In this Post

There are few things I love baking more than cookies. This post has been a long time coming because cookies are kind of my jam. Let’s get started!

Don’t Overmix the Dough

What does “overmix” mean, exactly? If you’ve done any baking whatsoever (not being dramatic 😉), then you’ve seen this word in a cookie recipe or two. Overmixing is literally just the process of mixing something too much, which usually creates texture issues from too much gluten development and leads to tough cookies.

Like these “soft, chewy” cookies from when I first started baking:

In standard cookie recipes, the flour (combined with a leavening/salt mixture) is the last thing added to the recipe; once that comes into contact with your wet ingredients, it starts to form gluten bonds that give structure and texture to those cookies. The more that you physically mix flour with the rest of your wet ingredients (either with a mixer, spoon, or spatula), the stronger those gluten bonds become.

Strong gluten bonds mean chewy texture in breads (yay!), but strong gluten bonds can also mean a brittle, tough texture for cookies (boo!). You don’t want this!

How to Mix Dough Properly (With a Picture Tutorial!)

How do I avoid overmixing cookies? I thought you’d never ask. This is a story that’s best told in photos.

Before you add the flour, you need to make sure that all of your other ingredients are completely incorporated. If they’re completely mixed together, you won’t have to do much more mixing once you add the flour. And don’t forget to cream the butter and sugar properly!

So, instead of this:

You’re looking for this:

Once the pre-flour ingredients are uniformly combined, that’s when it’s time to add flour. I add flour in batches, even if I’ve scaled my recipe down. Adding too much flour to your recipe at once is a great “recipe” for a giant, magical PUFF of flour right in your face.

That’s…not my favorite. It also means that that flour you’ve meticulously measured for your recipe isn’t going into that recipe.

So, I add a little flour and mix until it’s almost incorporated. Like this!

At this point, the objective is not to get every streak of flour incorporated into your dough. The objective is to have your mixer do as few revolutions as possible to combine most of the flour from that first batch. Remember, we want to reduce gluten development! The loose texture is what you want to see at the end of your first batch of flour.

Onto the next flour addition!

After the second batch, you can see that there’s still flour that’s not fully incorporated. This is okay! We will address all of it!

Third (and final) batch on deck!

Some of you probably want me to make it make sense at this point. To you I say, Okay!

At this point, I stop my mixer completely and finish by very gently mixing with my trusty red spatula.

If there are chocolate chips or other accoutrements that have to be added right at the end (like with this batch), I stop mixing with my trusty red spatula just shy of the flour being fully incorporated. This is because there’s still mixing going on when you add the chocolate chips! Luckily, the chocolate chips only need 3-4 turns with your mixer to be fully incorporated into your dough. Or, even better, you can use your trusty silicone spatula to incorporate those chocolate chips and avoid over-mixing!

Here’s the finished cookie dough!

At that point the flour is *just* incorporated and your dough is complete.

Let the Dough Rest!

I never, ever bake cookies immediately after making the dough. In fact, I usually don’t even bake cookies on the same day that I make the dough. I put it in a glass bowl, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and a lid, mark it with a “TBB” (To-Be-Baked) date, and put the dough in a refrigerator for anywhere from 8-48 hours. Overnight is my favorite, but if I make cookie dough before the crack of dawn, and if my children give me puppy dog eyes all day, then I’ll begrudgingly bake them off around dinnertime.

When you allow cookie dough to rest, some really good stuff happens:

  • The flour gets fully hydrated without additional mixing. This means fewer gluten bonds and a more chewy cookie!
  • The fat (usually butter) gets a chance to firm back up, which helps the cookies hold their shape and not get completely flat and burnt around the edges when they’re baked. Because yuck.
  • The flavors fully come together, meaning that you’ll be able to really detect the molasses notes that that brown sugar adds to your chocolate chip cookies!

The only downside to resting your cookie dough is…the wait. But it is completely worth it! If you’re truly short on time (shout out to the “Babe, would you mind making cookies for the company potluck this afternoon?” bakers out there), even an hour or two would be better than baking cookie dough fresh from the mixer.

Don’t Crowd the (Light-Colored, Parchment-Covered) Cookie Sheet!

I don’t make huge cookies. Despite that fact, I only put six cookies on a cookie sheet. SIX:

Fewer cookies on the pan means better airflow over each of the cookies. Better airflow over the cookies means more even baking, even if your oven has hot spots!

We do not like the hotspots, Beloved, but they are inevitable in almost any oven. After a while, you’ll think of them affectionately because they’re unique to your oven. More importantly, though, you’ll know how and when to adapt your baking in order to avoid their wrath.

For cookies, I prefer light-colored cookie sheets that are covered in parchment paper. For more about why I prefer light-colored cookie sheets, take a look here!

Fewer cookies on the cookie sheet also gives the cookies a chance to spread out. Because cookies need room to spread into their perfectly imperfect shapes:

Baking fewer cookies on a cookie sheet allows those cookies to spread without blending together into one big, underbaked cookie (unless that’s your thing, of course).

Different bakers have different numbers of cookies that they’re willing to put on a sheet pan. I landed on six and I’m quite comfortable here. As with anything else, practice is key to help you develop your special baking style!

Use the Convection Setting

I love a good turn up.

While I have no idea what that term actually means (what are we supposed to be “turning up”, anyway?), I use it to describe my oven settings for baking. A 350°F oven on the convection setting is my happy place for baking just about any cookie on earth.

Yes, my ovens are set higher than 350°F because my ovens have a very loose relationship with the truth (about temperature) and my cheapie oven thermometer is the ultimate truth teller. And yes, it is 6:13 in the morning. A late start to baking for sure.

Convection baking simply means that a fan blows heated air around the oven cavity during baking. For cookie purposes, this means that you can bake more cookies at one time and those cookies will bake more quickly and evenly. In theory, it also means that you don’t have to turn your cookie sheets and switch their oven racks during baking. I still do that though. #BecauseMyOvens

For new bakers, the thought of using a convection oven can be terrifying, because convection baking can lead to disastrous results if you’re not paying attention or if you’re unfamiliar with your specific oven. I understand that completely. It took me five years to get comfortable with the thought of convection baking. But Family, once I finally understood what convection can do?

If you are nervous about using the convection setting on your oven, no worries! Just reduce the temperature of your oven by 10-15°F and check a minute or two earlier than you normally would. You’ll develop an understanding for your specific oven’s convection settings very quickly with enough practice.

For cookies, I set my ovens to 350°F and put the oven racks on the fourth and sixth levels so that I can bake two pans of cookies at the same time. This photo is a rush job at the 5:00 minute mark, when I was turning the cookie sheets and switching them on their respective oven racks:

{In my Wicked Witch Voice}: They are melllllllting…

Not every baker will need to turn pans and switch racks. Once you know your oven, you’ll know whether the hot spots are going to dictate this step! For these cookies, I baked on the first rack for five minutes, turned both cookie sheets and switched the racks, and baked for four minutes more.

Results and Conclusion

If you hyperlinked to this section, you’re probably looking for proof that all of these tips can work for you. Here it is!

While these finished, cooled cookies take quite a pretty picture, they never look that way immediately out of the oven. Fresh out of the oven, they are very puffy up and look slightly underdone in the center.

They flatten out after about a minute out of the oven, and the color in the center deepens ever so slightly even after coming out of the oven.

That, Friends, is the mythical thing known as the baking “touch”, and that will come to you with practice! The secret is to let them sit for three more minutes on the hot cookie sheet before removing them to a cooling rack. This is totally counterintuitive to watching them bake to a perfect golden brown in the oven, I know. But if they get to that point in the oven, they’ll continue to cook on your countertop and get overdone.

These are my absolute favorite chocolate chip cookies that I developed for my custom bakery. But you can have amazing results with any cookie recipe if you use these techniques. I want to see you be successful with your family recipe or your favorite blogger’s recipe, and these tips universally apply to standard cookie recipes!

Those of you who are searching for cookie recipes can find unbelievable ones here (the world-famous Jacques Torres recipe) or here (on handletheheat.com). But try these techniques with as many recipes as your heart desires!

For those of you who’ve told me before that you can’t bake, I’m here to help you bust every barrier imaginable so that you can. So, today, if I’ve helped you bust any barriers to making decadent, delicious, chewy, perfect cookies, I am grateful that you’ve given me the opportunity to do so.

Keep being great and KEEP PRACTICING! I’m an email away if you have questions, or feel free to leave a comment below.

Until next time!

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Sunday Session #3: Spontaneous Blueberry Muffins

Spring. Hate the pollen (OMG the sneezing). Love the start of berry season.

Friends. I woke up at 4:10 this fine Sunday morning (don’t judge) with blueberries on my mind. While a more healthy person might have put those blueberries in some Greek yogurt and moved on with their day, I decided that blueberries on the brain could only mean one thing:

Blueberry muffins.

While I did have a desire to bake blueberry muffins, because this was a spontaneous decision, what I did not have was fresh blueberries or the desire to go to anybody’s grocery store at 5:00 in the morning. Fear not, Family! There is ALWAYS a big box store-sized bag of frozen blueberries in my poorly-organized deep freezer. Crisis averted and onto the bake!

Note: this is why I tend not to be spontaneous. LOL.

While I have my own tried and true blueberry muffin recipe, I figured that today was just a good a day as any to try a new recipe. This morning, that was quite possibly my delirious mind at work.

I do, however, generally believe that trying new recipes, even when we have Old Faithful recipes in our repertoire, keeps things fresh and can introduce us to flavor profiles that we can incorporate into our favorites.

Or we can find new faves!

Honestly, Saints, I have no idea what got into me with all this spontaneity!

I hope it’s not catching.

The Recipe

I landed on the “Best Blueberry Muffins” recipe from Once Upon a Chef with Jenn Segal. This recipe offers Metric measurements for its ingredients, and if you read my most recent post, you’ll know that Metric is my primary love language when it comes to baking.

I read the recipe from start to finish to determine the level of difficulty, and to see if I had all of the ingredients on hand. Aside from the fresh blueberries and almond extract (my baking is nut and nut-extract free), I had everything else. The recipe looked very simple so I was good to go!

The Prep

Of course I started by prepping my mise en place before I got started. Pro tip: when it’s early in the morning and you don’t want to prep your ingredients, that’s when you need to prep your ingredients the most!

Intrigued about mise en place and what it means to actually prep your ingredients before you bake? No worries! You can check here for helpful tips that will help you become a more efficient, calm, and controlled baker in your home kitchen. Because nobody wants to be a frazzled mess during a baking session.

The Method

There are a few categories of muffin: the ones that use the creaming method and the ones that use an all-in-one method. The “creaming” method simply means that you mix your room temperature butter and sugar at high speed until the mixture is well blended. This method creates lovely air pockets that allow your leavening to do its work and create rise.

Creamed butter and sugar look like this:

I used Plugra for today’s muffins. Plugra is a great cultured butter that appeals to a lot of different palettes, so I knew I wouldn’t go wrong with it!

The other common muffin type is the all-in-one muffin. In traditional baking, this usually means that the dry ingredients come together in one bowl and the wet ingredients in another, then the two are married and barely mixed before the batter goes into muffin cups. The fat in an all-in-one muffin can either be oil or melted butter.

Each type of muffin has its own pros, and honestly I don’t prefer one over another. When I want a muffin, I want a great muffin, and both methods can deliver a great muffin.

This recipe uses the creaming method, and it came together so quickly! Before I knew it, I was ready to take the batter off of the mixer stand and fold in the fruit by hand.

Fun fact: fruit muffins (like this one) mostly come together without the fruit. Fruit typically gets folded into the batter at the end of the mixing phase, when there are still a few streaks of unincorporated flour. That’s what I did here.

Sorry. No pictures of that! BUT if you want to see an example of what a completed batter with “unincorporated” flour looks like, as well as a technique for folding ingredients into a batter, take a look at this literally-totally-unrelated-but-totally-relevant-on-this-point video about pancakes (around the 2:45 mark):

Prepping the Pan (and a Surprise Technique!)

Batter finished, I prepped my muffin pan for the bake. For fruit muffins, this means using both paper muffin cups and nonstick spray.

I mean, unless you like scraping muffins from a pan and toasting the muffin carcasses to make parfait…forget that cooking spray, Saints, and that is exactly what you’ll be doing.

No hate! I like parfait too! (Let me write that down, though, for the next time I stick muffins to the pan.)

Tip: when making blueberry muffins, I carefully fold three quarters of the blueberries into the batter itself and save the other quarter to drop on top of each muffin right before I bake them. This gives me glorious blueberry color and texture throughout the entire muffin!

That’s exactly what I did here:

Before I put these in the oven at 350, I sprinkled some demerara sugar (I used Sugar in the Raw) over the top of each muffin for additional texture.

The Bake

I am…not patient. This was a long 35-minute bake. But it was totally worth it when these came out of the oven:

I burned my mouth eating that half of a muffin! But listen, Family. it was SO WORTH IT. These muffins are delicious and so easy to make. Including the time for mise en place, I spent a total of 25 minutes of active time working on them. The rest was waiting, and waiting, and UGH waiting…

So much waiting.

I hope you enjoyed this Sunday Session! Don’t forget to subscribe and tell me what your favorite muffins are to eat!

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The Basics of Butter

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Friends. I am the bona fide owner of a site called Begin with Butter, and I haven’t discussed butter. At all.

Let’s go ahead and chalk that up to being a rookie mistake. But it’s a rookie mistake that’s going to get fixed tuh-day.

Time for a deep dive into butter.

That actually sounds fun and delicious.

Isn’t it Just Butter? Why is This Important?

Excuse me while I curl into a fetal position and sob.

Butter is one of the most important elements in all of baking! It is one of the primary ingredients in almost all conventional pastry baking (and also in a huge number of savory baking recipes). It has an enormous ability to impact flavor, texture, and color in almost anything you bake.

If flavor, texture and color don’t matter to you, then I guess this isn’t for you (but I…have questions). If you want to improve those three elements of your baking, think of this post as your entrée into the rare air of exceptional home bakers and professionals the world over.

But no big deal. Totally your choice.

What, Exactly, is Butter?

Well, to start, butter is a fat. But it is SO. MUCH. MORE.

It’s commonly known that butter is a fat that adds a whole lot of flavor to whatever dish you’re making. But, in the baking world, butter is actually dissected all the way to its bare elements in order to decide which kind of butter is best for a specific recipe.

I can hear you now. “Sorry Shani, what?!”

Here’s the thing. Not all butter is created equal for baking use. Whether you’re making a flaky pie crust or a luscious lemon pound cake, the components of your butter make an enormous difference in your final product. Sometimes the butter itself is as important as any technique.

Let me say that again: there are times when an ingredient (in this case, the butter) is as important as any technique that you’re using in a recipe. In other words, you really want to have both of them in order to help a recipe reach its maximum potential.

So, what is butter? It’s a semi-solid emulsion, made from milk or cream, that contains butterfat, water, and some milk solids.

Saints. Saying that butter is an “semi-solid emulsion” is just a fancy way of saying that butter is not quite liquid and not quite solid. It’s somewhere in between and it’s composed of fat and liquid that can be separated from one another.

The fat content is key in butter. In the U.S., in order to even qualify as “butter”, a product has to have at least 80% butterfat.

TL;DR version: Butter is a fat. So it contains a lot of fat.

American Butter and European/ “European-Style” Butter.

American butter is most commonly known as “sweet cream butter” or “unsalted butter”, and most American butters weigh in right at that 80% butterfat mark. Land O’ Lakes, a name that is synonymous with butter in the United States, sits exactly at 80%. Land O’ Lakes is the standard bearer of American butters; it’s actually the one that my mother used when I was growing up.

European or “European-style” butters typically range from 82-83% butterfat, which leads to a much more distinct buttery flavor.

**note: when I say “European-style”, that just means that these are butters with at least 82% butterfat content that are not actually produced in Europe. A couple of examples of “European-style” butters are Plugra (American) or Vermont Creamery (American).**

Some European/European-style butters can get as high as 86% butterfat. This next-level butterfat content leads to the glorious, gluttonous holy grail of butters that’s meant to be slathered on warm, fresh artisan bread. This butter can be extremely hard to come by, but it’s worth the exorbitant price tag for a special occasion.

The true distinction between American and European/European-style butter, though, is that European/European-style butter is usually “cultured”. This does not mean that European/European-style butter has better manners and observes afternoon tea. This does mean that the milk or cream is infused with active cultures (bacteria) and left to ferment before churning, leading to a distinctly tangy flavor in the finished product.

Chile. That tang is IT.

Butterfat?

Yes! Butterfat!

When milk or cream are churned, they separate into two main parts. Butterfat is the semi-solid element that separates from the liquid and is the main component in any butter.

The total difference between 80% butterfat Land O’ Lakes and 82% butterfat Kerrygold Irish butter is actually much more than you’d think. Yes, baked goods with an 82% butterfat butter will be noticeably more buttery.

In addition, butter with a 2% higher butterfat content creates a softer texture for your cakes and adds a very noticeable golden color to your cookies (this is especially true for my boo thang Kerrygold, which is an Irish butter that is known for its gorgeous golden hue).

Butter with a higher butterfat content also comes to room temperature more quickly for baking, since higher butterfat content means less water and that equals faster melt (this is a blessing for cakes and an absolute, soul-crushing, demoralizing curse for pies; you can overcome this with practice though.)

This is some delicious 82% butterfat butter in a blueberry pie crust. This…is an experience.

In short, when baking, less water and 82% butterfat takes your baked goods to the next level.

What is Cultured Butter?

Two major types of butter are sweet cream butter and cultured butter. Sweet cream butter is butter made from milk or cream and churned shortly after milking. Cultured butter is still butter from milk or cream, but with one distinctive difference: active cultures and time.

Active cultures are live bacteria that are added to milk and allowed to sit, or ferment, for a period of time (typically 12-36 hours or so). After that fermentation is done, then the milk is churned into butter. Since cultured butter is usually European/European-style butter, it’s typically churned longer than American butter in order to separate more fat from the water and achieve that higher butterfat content, in addition to that tangy je ne sais quois from the fermentation process.

My mouth is watering.

Salted vs. Unsalted?

To salt or not to salt…THAT, friends, is the question.

Salted butter is butter that has salt added during the churning process. The salt adds a bit of flavor and also serves as a preservative for the butter.

“Preservative” just means that natural salt helps butter last longer in the refrigerator case of your local grocer and in your refrigerator, y’all. I’m not talking about those preservatives that none of us can spell or say.

Unsalted butter is…butter without salt. Because it lacks salt, it doesn’t last as long on store shelves or in your refrigerator. Butter can be frozen in its original packaging, though, so if you find yourself doing bulk butter shopping, you won’t have to worry about this as much.

I cannot be the only person who does bulk butter shopping.

Which One Should I Use for Baking?

Like many things with baking, which butter you use is a personal preference. It’s my opinion that baked goods made with cultured, higher-butterfat butter taste noticeably better than baked goods made with sweet cream butter.

These are some examples.

BUT

If the only thing available is sweet cream butter, by all means use it! I would never encourage someone to avoid the experience of baking because they didn’t have the right butter. That’s neither the purpose of this post nor is it the purpose of this blog. There are so many beautiful experiences that you can have during the baking process; I would never discourage anyone from baking because they didn’t have cultured European butter at their disposal.

We don’t do elitism here.

Plus, anything you make at home is going to taste much, much better than just about anything you can buy. I believe in you.

My Favorite Things.

This is the point where I get to wax poetic about my journey to my favorite butter.

I’ve tried a bunch of them since I really got started in 2013. Of course I began with what I knew (Land O’ Lakes), and then bounced around with some other brands before I discovered cultured European-style butter.

I have never looked back. I tried Plugra first, since my sister recommended it.

BUT THEN…

I stumbled onto Trader Joe’s “Trader Jacques” brand and Saints I was changed. Trader Jacques doesn’t get the credit it deserves but that’s only because of the fact that it’s not widely available at other stores. If you are in Trader Joe’s and you have the opportunity to stock up on their butter, BUY IT ALL.

Unless, you know, they tell you that you can’t. Otherwise this is a strong buy. The looks from other patrons at checkout would totally be them appreciating your knowledge of fine French butter.

Trader Joe’s is pretty far from me, and I wanted something more accessible for my Cupcakes and Cocktails birthday party a few years ago (or at least something that could be delivered so I could avoid looking like a butter creep in the store). So, I went on a search to find another perfect butter.

After lots of internet research and a couple of trials, I found Kerrygold and folks I CANNOT. I am at a total loss for words about how much I love this butter. It delivers a perfect crumb every single time. The color is so vibrant that it can actually look filtered in pictures. When I cut into a lemon pound cake, I get the most luscious and perfect aroma of butter.

I can actually smell butter right now.

Currently, I prefer salted Kerrygold butter. In my experience, cultured and salted butter adds an unidentifiable umami to baking when it’s done correctly. It’s what my kids and I used in our first Sunday Session, and it performed unbelievably well on the cookies that we made. This does take trial and error, though, so if you’re new to baking, I would recommend using an unsalted, cultured butter until you have developed your baking taste.

Baking with salted butter can be very rewarding, but it can quickly go wrong if you don’t remember to adjust the amount of salt in your recipe to accommodate for the salt in your butter. For beginners, this can be a lot to remember and a very frustrating experience.

Whatever butter you choose, may you have incredible baking experiences and may you form many memories of laughing, hugging, and baking with your loved ones.

I hope you’ve found this post interesting! Don’t forget to subscribe while you’re here so that you can get notified with more helpful baking science tips!

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