February 7, 2011
Keys To Baking Cookies & Brownies
Harold McGee’s Keys to Good Cooking (2010 Doubleday) provides simple statements of fact and advice, along with brief explanations that help cooks understand why, and apply that understanding to other situations. Not a cookbook, Keys to Good Cooking is, simply put, a book about how to cook well.
1. Cookies are miniature versions of moist cakes, dry pastries, and often something in between. Many cookie doughs are made like cake batters, but with more flour and less liquid. Cookie doughs and batters refrigerate well and take only a few minutes to cook, so they’re easy to bake fresh.
2. Cookie doughs often have very little moisture, and small changes in proportions can cause big differences in consistency and how much the dough pieces spread when baked.
3. The flour for cookie doughs and batters is usually a low-protein pastry, cake, or southern all-purpose flour, to produce the tenderest result. National all-purpose flours make more gluten and absorb more moisture, so substituting with them will produce less tender, drier cookies that spread less when baked.
4. To make more tender cookies with all-purpose flour, replace a quarter of the flour weight with cornstarch.
5. Cocoa powder, chocolate, and ground nuts, including nut butters and meals, can replace some or all of the flour in cookies while also tenderizing and intensifying flavour. They contain starch or starch-like particles and fat, but no toughening protein.
6. Real butter is essential for a good texture in cookies whose recipes call for it. Don’t substitute margarine or low-fat spreads.
7. To make most cookie doughs, beat butter or shortening with sugar to develop leavening air bubbles. If the recipe includes leavening, whisk it thoroughly with the flour to disperse it evenly and avoid uneven texture and unpleasant taste. Mix in the flour and then the eggs, adding them one at a time to blend them evenly. Minimize the final mixing to avoid developing gluten or causing the egg proteins to foam.
8. Rest cookie doughs in the refrigerator for hours to even out moisture and relax gluten, and to firm the fat and produce neater edges.
9. To develop more flavour, refrigerate doughs for days wrapped airtight. Refrigerated doughs slowly break down some starch and protein, and make progressively darker and more flavourful cookies.
10. Freeze doughs to keep them for more than a few days, pre-sliced to avoid thawing and refreezing.
11. Size dough pieces according to the cookie qualities you want, small for uniformly crisp or soft, large for crisp edge and moist centre.
12. Bake cookies on a heavy-gauge sheet pan for the most consistent results. Line the pan with a silicone sheet, parchment, or other nonstick surface. Space the dough pieces to leave room for spreading. In a standard oven without convection to circulate the hot air, bake one pan at a time on the middle rack, rotating the pan if necessary for even heating.
13. Monitor cookie doneness closely. Cooking times are short.
14. Allow cookies to cool and firm somewhat before removing them from the pan. If they cool enough to stick, return the pan to the oven for a minute or two to release them.
15. Before storing cookies, cool them thoroughly on a rack to release free moisture and prevent spoilage. Store in an airtight container to prevent moisture loss or gain.
16. To soften hardened cookies, warm them in a medium oven for a few minutes, or microwave on medium power for a few seconds.
17. Cookie recipes often need adjustment to produce a specific texture or shape. Adjustment of one ingredient often requires rebalancing of others:
- To make cookies less crumbly, add more egg.
- To make cookies more tender, add more fat or egg yolk and less white sugar.
- To make cookies crisp, add more white sugar.
- To make cookies more moist, replace some white sugar with brown sugar, corn or agave syrup, or honey.
- To get darker brown colour and flavour, replace some sugar with corn or agave syrup, brown sugar, or honey, or add some baking
- To make cookies spread more, replace shortening with butter and granulated white sugar with superfine sugar.
- To make cookies spread less, replace butter with shortening, and Dutch process cocoa with natural cocoa.
1. Brownies are a cookie-cake hybrid, the result of reducing the flour in a cookie recipe to make a dough into a batter. They can be cake-like or fudge-like, crusty or crustless.
2. Make brownies cake-like by using a large proportion of flour to liquid, cocoa rather than chocolate, and baking until an inserted toothpick or knife tip comes out clean.
3. Make brownies fudge-like by using less flour, chocolate rather than cocoa, and baking until barely set, when an inserted toothpick or knife tip still brings a slight trace of batter.
4. To avoid a thin surface crust, mix eggs into the batter gently. To make a crust, beat the batter vigorously after adding the eggs.
5. To get a crisp crust and moist interior, bake at a relatively high temperature, 350°F rather than 300°F.
6. To cut brownies cleanly, allow them to cool completely first.
Reprinted with permission from Harold McGee’s Keys to Good Cooking (2010 Doubleday).