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How to Make the Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

Achieving the cookie you want is not rocket science, nor is it random.

Achieving the cookie you want is not rocket science, nor is it random.

What is Nirvana?

Nirvana [nur-vah-nuh]

In Buddhism, the highest state of consciousness, in which the soul is freed from all desires and attachments. Nirvana is sometimes used as a synonym for heaven or paradise. (Or, it could be an 1980s grunge band from Seattle).

Seattle's Nirvana

Seattle's Nirvana

Depending on your personal taste, you might describe chocolate chip nirvana differently. Does one of these descriptions match your preferences?

  • A soft, buttery, cakey vanilla-scented dough flecked with melting milk chocolate chips.
  • A chewy, moist-centered cookie with barely crisp edges, flecked with semi-sweet chocolate chips.
  • A crunchy, crisp cookie wafer dotted with chunks of dark chocolate.

Ingredients Matter

Let's pause for a moment. You need to know that there is a science to baking. There is a reason that some cookies are tall and puffy and others are flat and crispy. Let's look at a few of the key components and how they work together.


Flour is the foundation for a good cookie, and a key component of that foundation is a protein (otherwise known as gluten). Despite what you might think, gluten is not a poisonous substance. It's a nutrient, a basic part of many of our foods. When viewed under a microscope, protein looks like a spider web; it is that “web” that traps carbon dioxide bubbles. The other important part of flour is starch. When heated, starch becomes firm and supports the protein webs.


Fat is a primary and so very misunderstood component in baking. My grandparents ate butter (I'm sure they churned their own), and they lived to their 90s. A generation (or more) of us were led to believe that animal fat (butter) is unhealthy and that margarine is a good substitute. But then we heard the word "trans-fatty acids."

The truth is that butter has a high-fat content (about 80 percent), and margarine about 35 percent. The decision to use butter rather than margarine has nothing to do with dietary restrictions or healthy eating habits (do you really eat a chocolate chip cookie to get healthy?) All fats have the same amount of calories (about nine calories per gram). But the difference between butter and margarine can make a significant difference in the quality of your baked goods.

What does butter do?

  • It makes cookies tender (prevents gluten from forming)
  • It adds flavor—the milk proteins brown and contributes a caramelized flavor.
  • It provides lift/puffiness—if you cream butter with sugar it will incorporate some air. However, melting the butter instead of creaming it with the sugar will give a more dense cookie.


Obviously, there are two main components to an egg—the white and the yolk. The white is mostly water (and some protein) which, combined with flour begins the formation of gluten. They need a little bit of that gluten to provide structure (lift and height) for your cookie, but too much will give you a tough hockey puck.

Egg yolks are also a source of moisture, but their primary job is providing some fat. So, the extra egg white will give you a taller cookie. Extra yolks will give you a more dense, fudge-like cookie.


The bottom line is that brown sugar and white (granulated) sugar are not interchangeable. Brown sugar adds a net of about one percent more moisture overall to baked goods because most brown sugar in the United States is made by adding five percent molasses by volume to granulated white sugar.

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Cookies made with brown sugar, or a combination of brown and white will be soft or chewy, while those baked with white only will be crisper.

Baking Powder/Baking Soda

Baking soda is the non-scientific name for sodium bicarbonate. When it is combined with liquid and acid it immediately jumps into action and creates bubbles. Immediately is the operative word. Since baking soda is fast-acting, you have a short amount of time to move that dough from the mixing bowl to the baking sheet. Baking soda also helps with browning (what would our golden cookies be without it?).

Baking powder is made of baking soda and a powdered form of acid (usually cream of tartar). So when you use baking powder as a leavening agent (1) you don’t need to add acid and (2) you have more time to fiddle with the dough/batter because that second agent doesn’t react until it becomes wet and hot. So baking powder gives an immediate lift to your dough, but there’s another, sustained “push” when that cookie dough goes into the oven. This is what you need for delicate cookies.

Next, the Science in the Oven

The oven is where the action is. Until the dough meets the cookie sheet (and the heat), dough is just dough. Here's a summary of what happens in the oven:

  • The dough spreads: You know how butter softens in a warm room; with a bit of imagination you can envision what happens when the heat of the oven hits the butter in the dough, can't you? The butter loosens up, becomes liquidy, and the dough begins to spread out.
  • The edges set: As the dough spreads out, the edges get thinner than the middle of the cookie. Those edges are exposed to the hotter areas of the baking pan, making them begin to set (firm up) while the interior of the cookie is still basically raw dough.
  • The cookie rises: The butter is melting and so the dough begins to loosen up and then a domino effect begins. Melting of the butter frees up the water in the dough which in turn reacts with the baking soda. The baking soda is dissolved and then reacts with the acid of the brown sugar. Poof—that chemical reaction makes gases that inflates the cookies.
  • Egg proteins and starches set: When they get hot enough, the proteins and hydrated starches (gluten) begin to set (like wet cement) By the time this happens the final size and shape of your cookies are Once they get hot enough, egg proteins and hydrated starches will begin to set (like concrete, but not as hard we hope).
  • Sugar caramelizes: The hot-spots will be the edges of the cookie and the dough on the bottom that comes in direct contact with the baking sheet. First, the sugar melts, but then it caramelized and browns, producing rich flavor and color.
  • The Maillard reaction occurs: In the Maillard reaction (I'll explain that in a moment) is when the proteins in the dough (flour and eggs) begin to get all toasty and brown. It produces nutty, savory, yummy flavor.

What Is the Maillard Reaction?

The website has an excellent description of the Maillard reaction:

The Maillard reaction, also known as the browning reaction, is the phenomenon responsible for turning meat brown, converting bread to toast and turning beer brown, along with hundreds of other examples. It is named for Louis-Camille Maillard, a French chemist who studied the science of browning during the early 1900s. This phenomenon can be a complicated bit of biochemistry, but what's most important to know is the effect it has on foods and other protein-based technologies.

In simple terms, certain foods contain carbohydrates in the form of sugars, while others contain amino acids in the form of proteins. These sugars and amino acids often exist side-by-side, as in the case of raw meats. They may also be blended together, as in the case of bread dough. As long as there is no outside catalyst, or cause for change, the meat remains red and the bread dough remains white.

This reaction is the catalyst for change, primarily by the addition of heat. When bread dough or meat is introduced to a hot oven, a complex chemical reaction occurs on the surface. The carbon molecules contained in the sugars, or carbohydrates, combine with the amino acids of the proteins. This combination cannot occur without the additional heat source. The end result of this chemical recombination is the Maillard reaction. The surface of the heated bread dough is now brown, as is the outer layer of the roasted meat.

Chocolate chip cookie dough ready to go into the oven

Chocolate chip cookie dough ready to go into the oven

And Then What Happens?

The cookie cools: The baking process isn't done, even when the cookies come out of the oven. Remember that caramelized sugar? It's hot but as the cookie cools that hot, melted sugar will begin to harden. That dear friend is what creates the crispy edge. At the same time, the air in the hot cookie will cool. Like a balloon with a slow leak, the cookie will (ever so) slightly deflate.

Ingredients/Measurements for Soft, Chewy, or Crisp Cookies

IngredientsSoft CookieChewy CookieCrisp Cookie


3 cups

2 cups

1 1/3 cups

Baking soda

1 teaspoon

1/2 teaspoon

1/4 tsp.

Baking powder

1/4 teaspoon




1 teaspoon

1/2 teaspoon

1/2 tsp.


1 cup





3/4 cup, melted

1/2 cup unsalted, at room temperature

White (granulated) sugar

3/4 cup

1/2 cup

3/4 cup

Brown (packed) sugar

3/4 cup

1 cup



1 teaspoon

1 tablespoon

1 tsp.


2 large

1 large

1 large

Egg yolks




Chocolate chips

12 ounces

2 cups

1 1/2 cups

Instructions for Soft Cookies

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
  2. In a large mixing bowl sift together flour, soda, baking powder, and salt.
  3. In a separate bowl cream together shortening, sugars, and vanilla. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
  4. Beat in the flour mixture one cup at a time.
  5. Stir in chocolate chips.
  6. Form dough into 1 inch balls; place 2 inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet.
  7. Bake 11-12 minutes.
  8. Allow cookies to rest for 10 minutes before removing from pan.

Instructions for Chewy Cookies

  1. Preheat to 325 degrees F.
  2. Grease cookie sheets or line with parchment paper.
  3. Sift together flour, soda, and salt; set aside.
  4. Cream together melted butter, sugars. Beat in vanilla, egg, and yolk until light and creamy.
  5. Mix in dry ingredients until just blended. Stir in chips.
  6. Drop cookie 1/4 cup at a time onto prepared sheets, about 3 inches apart.
  7. Bake 15-17 minutes or until edges are toasted. Cool on sheets a few minutes before removing to wire racks to cool.

Instructions for Crisp Cookies

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
  3. Whisk the flour, salt, and baking soda in a medium bowl.
  4. In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar with a handheld mixer until light and fluffy, about 4 to 5 minutes.
  5. Beat in the egg and then the vanilla. Gradually add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture, to make a soft dough.
  6. Stir in the chocolate chips.
  7. Spoon a heaping tablespoon of dough onto the prepared baking sheets, spacing them about 3-inches apart, (a standard pan can accommodate about 6 cookies).
  8. Bake the cookies until brown around the edges, about 12 to 14 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool. Repeat with the remaining dough.

How to Cream Sugar and Butter

Unless you are specifically working on your shoulder and arm strength (maybe you missed your morning workout at the gym today), you’ll be using an electric mixer for this. But what does “cream sugar and butter until light and fluffy” mean, and just how soft is butter that is softened to “room temperature"?

The good folks at King Arthur Flour have put together a photo montage to explain both of these steps and have produced a short video to show exactly how your sugar/butter combination should look.

© 2014 Linda Lum

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