a.k.a. The Great Sugar Cookie Experiment Part 1
I’ve always thought of baking, especially decorating, as a form of art. Surprise! It’s actually more of a science… chemistry really. In my quest to find the perfect sugar cookie for decorating, I have learned a lot about how individual cookie ingredients behave in a recipe.
The foundation of any cookie recipe consists of five types of ingredients: fat, sugar, flour, a rising agent, and a binding agent.
Fat is added for flavor and controls how chewy or crunchy the cookie is. More fat = a chewier cookie, less fat = a crunchier cookie. Your options for fat are butter, margarine, shortening, or oil. Since shortening melts at a higher temperature, it is the best choice if you want to keep spreading to a minimum.
Sugar is a sweetener (obviously!) and tenderizer, while controlling how much the cookie spreads. Using white sugar will result in a crispier cookie, while brown sugar will help retain moisture, making cookies chewier. Adding sugar increases the spread of a cookie, so cookies with less sugar will be puffier. Ever notice how sugar cookies spread like crazy?!
Flour is a stabilizer and thickener and controls how much the cookie rises. It holds the cookie together, providing it with its structure. If you use too little flour your cookie won’t keep its shape but if you use too much you’ll end up with a thick tasteless cookie. Also, different types of flour result in different cookie textures. For example, cake flour provides a cake-like texture (go figure!). All-purpose flour is the standard flour used most often.
The rising agent or leavener most commonly used is either baking soda or baking powder. If you use baking soda, your recipe must include another acidic ingredient, like sour cream, lemon juice, or buttermilk. On the other hand, baking powder has its own built-in acid. Baking soda increases browning and spreading, resulting in a flatter cookie. Baking powder will give you a puffier cookie.
Binding agents are the liquid in the recipe that hold the cookie together. Examples of binding agents are eggs, milk, honey, and fruit juice. Cookies with more eggs will rise more and spread less. If you want a crispier cookie, you can replace a whole egg with just an egg white. Or, if you want a chewier cookie, you can replace a whole egg with just an egg yolk.
The rule of thumb for cookie baking is to always keep the amount of fat and sugar used relatively equal. There should be less than 1/4 cup difference between the two. The amount of flour used should be about two times the amount of fat. To determine how much flour to use, start with equal amounts of flour and fat and then increase the amount of flour until the dough is slightly tacky. It is better to have too little than too much. And you should add 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of your leavener for every cup of liquid or flour you use (use liquid to determine the baking soda, use flour to determine the baking powder).
Once you have these basic rules down, you can start to tinker with recipes to make them more to your taste. Like I did! See Part 2 of The Great Sugar Cookie Experiment to see my results or head straight to My Favorite Sugar Cookie Recipe and start baking!
Sources: How To Create Your Own Cookie Recipe by Fahrenheit 350, Cookie Chemistry 101 by In the Kitchen with Suzanne Martinson, How To Create Your Own Easy Cookie Recipe by DailyLife, The Science of Chocolate Chip Cookies by I Really Like Food