How Ingredients Behave In A Cookie Recipe

a.k.a. The Great Sugar Cookie Experiment Part 1

How Ingredients Behave In A Cookie Recipe -

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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.

eggs and butter

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

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73 Responses to How Ingredients Behave In A Cookie Recipe

  1. Theresa says:

    Oh my goodness! Thank you! My son is severely allergic to eggs. Because of this I have had so many kitchen experiments go bad. I knew there had to be a “science” behind it! Wish me luck, I am going to use this knowledge to revolutionize our baking! Again, thank you so much for sharing.
    Theresa recently posted..Bring On Baseball; Little Man RefashionMy Profile

    • Janine says:

      So glad to hear that I could help, Theresa. I hope this info about how ingredients behave in cookie recipes leads to some awesome new recipes!

  2. As a beginner-ish baker, this is so informative. Thanks! :)
    Aki @ Minted Strawberry recently posted..DIY: Chain Cage Pearl EarringsMy Profile

  3. Very interesting. I’ve always been scared to experiment with recipes. The most experimenting I do is to tweak existing recipes. This has given me a little more confidence to try. Thanks!
    Melissa {Simply Sweets by Honeybee} recently posted..Peek-a-Boo Bunnies {Simply Sweet Saturdays}My Profile

    • Janine says:

      Once you know how ingredients behave in recipes, you just need a little time to start experimenting. I hope you create a new recipe you love, Melissa!

  4. I’ve shared this all over the place. Pinned! Thanks so much for linking up to Two Cup Tuesday at Pint Sized Baker. I look forward to coming back on Monday Night!
    Karyn – Pint Sized Baker recently posted..Eggs, Sunny Side Up!My Profile

  5. Great, fun info. I love food science. I think sugar also helps in the browning process.

  6. Wow, this is fascinating. i’ve always wondered how this stuff works. Thanks so much for linking up to Monday Funday!
    Kelly @ View Along the Way recently posted..Next Big Project: Moving on out(doors)My Profile

    • Janine says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Kelly. Isn’t it amazing what you can do with a little bit of insight into the science of baking!

  7. Thanks so much for linking this post up! It’s definitely taught me a lot. I think I’ll be a lot more confident in adapted recipes now 😀
    Tash @ The Velvet Moon Baker recently posted..Creme Egg CupcakesMy Profile

    • Janine says:

      I hope you find some new favorite cookie recipes after learning how ingredients behave, Nash. Thanks for commenting!

  8. Pingback: Pin It Thursday - Sweet Bella Roos

  9. This is so helpful!! I don’t bake that many cookies so I’m learning a lot!
    Yvonne @ bitter baker recently posted..Dark rye breadMy Profile

    • Janine says:

      Glad you found this information helpful, Yvonne. Now that you know how ingredients behave in cookie recipes I hope you will be baking more cookies! :)

  10. Brooke says:

    What about salt? It’s a flavor enhancer, but I’ve also always been told that it deactivates the baking soda so cookies and cakes set up right. Should be 2:1 ratio soda to salt. Advice from grandma, those things you don’t ask why, you just do!

    • Janine says:

      Interesting, Brooke. I know that salt is added to enhance the flavor and have heard that it also acts as a preservative. But, I have not heard that it deactivates baking soda. I’ll have to look into that. Thanks for the comment.

  11. Wow! How neat…it makes it seem so easy to come up with your own cookie recipe. I never knew.
    Thanks so much for linking up at the Real Family Fun link party! Hope to see you next week.
    KC @ The Real Thing with the Coake Family recently posted..Guest PostMy Profile

    • Janine says:

      Once you know how ingredients behave in cookie recipes, you can start changing up the ingredients to get the results you want. It’s like a littl science experiment!

  12. This is great info! My brain never thinks like this when I’m baking. LOL! Thanks for sharing.
    I Gotta Try That recently posted..I Gotta Try That Party #61My Profile

  13. Betty Taylor says:

    What an interesting post! Never really thought about what each of the ingredients do.
    Betty Taylor recently posted..Paleo/Primal/Low Carb Eating. Is it Expensive??My Profile

  14. Sharaden says:

    Hey! I’m new to your website so I’m not sure if this has already been posted but I’m wondering if you could help me with converting my favorite sugar cookie recipe to a chocolate sugar cookie? I’m not sure whether to try adding melted bakers chocolate or cocoa powder?

  15. Gretchen says:

    So great to find your blog! Question about the crispier or chewier with regards to the eggs….if a recipe calls for 2 eggs do I replace both with either just the yolk and/or egg whites or just one of the eggs?

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