My Journey to a Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie
In 2008, David Leite published an article in the New York Times about the perfect chocolate chip cookie. After interviewing Jacques Torres, Dorie Greenspan and many other pastry chefs, Leite discovered that even though a recipe may call for simple ingredients (flour, butter, sugar, eggs and chocolate), it does not mean it’s an easy recipe to master. These classic, simple recipes are often times the true test for grandiose chefs like Jacques Torres. After all, even Elisabeth Prueitt of Tartine Bakery admits that before hiring a pastry chef, she asks to taste a simple genoise, not an elaborate confection.
But what does it take to make a great, simple and classic chocolate chip cookie? When I started baking at the age of 13, armed with my Williams-Sonoma “Cookies” cookbook, I immediately realized that baking is not as easy as creaming and stirring a bunch of ingredients together. Even after following a recipe meticulously, the cookies would look nothing like the picture (I am still dealing with this general frustration towards food stylists). Thankfully, my father, who’s business involved selling dairy products, finally identified the problem – ingredients. The recipes I kept trying came from the United States or Europe. I grew up in the Dominican Republic and, at the time, European or high-quality American butters were not readily available in the market. My father told me that butters at home were lower in butterfat (laws in the US regulate a minimum of 80% butterfat) and Dominican butters were watered down to achieve lower prices. In essence, this meant that every recipe I made had to be altered while I was at home.
After the lesson from my father, I realized that the first stepping stone on my way to chocolate chip cookie goodness was understanding the importance of ingredients. Every pastry chef I know can immediately list, without hesitation, which brands of each ingredient they prefer. Whether it is flour, sugar, butter or chocolate, every single ingredient in a pastry matters. In a basic, classic recipe, like this cookie, ingredients matter even more. Before you embark in your own journey to perfecting a personal pastry recipe, first embark on a journey to a grocery store. Know that the more careful you are in selecting the ingredients, the better the finishing product.
It may not be too much fun testing different butters, so I would recommend buying a high-quality European butter. However, this really is not a viable option unless you are interested in investing in gold-wrapped chunks of churned cream. On that note, I buy Whole Foods’ 365 Organic Unsalted Butter because it’s affordable and delicious. If budget is not a concern, reach for the delicious butters from Europe. If it’s cultured, even better.
On to a funner taste test, test your chocolate options. If you bake a lot, I suggest buying bulk online (I love, love, love Chocosphere for their amazing selection and amazing service). I use Scharffen Berger chocolates, because it tastes best to me, but go ahead and try the range that is out there. You don’t have to marry a brand, so slowly start exploring different choices and note which ones taste best to you and your family. Also, most expensive does not necessarily mean better. My boyfriend always complains about ”that weird chocolate I use” whenever I splurge and buy Valrhona. So, have patience with boyfriends’ taste buds and explore.
Also, most chocolate chips out there are made with inferior quality chocolate. I prefer buying bars of chocolate and chopping them finely. Not only does this allow you to have more options in terms of brand selection, but it also creates beautiful different sized bites of chocolate.
It’s also important to understand how ingredients should come together and how they are baked. Here are some general guidelines that I learned through various successes and occassional failures:
1. The more butter to flour, the flatter the cookies (more fat makes flat cookies).
2. To make a chewy cookies, add molasses, honey or brown sugar as one of the sweeteners.
3. All ingredients should be at room temperature before they are incorporated into a cookie batter. For butter, you should be able to create a small nudge or indentation with your finger. Eggs should be left out for at least 30 minutes before using.
4. If a cookie recipe calls for mixing butter and sugar, don’t over mix. This will result in a tough cookie. Unlike cake batters (in which creaming should take at least 5 minutes), only mix cookies until the butter and sugar are just incorporated.
5. Never, ever add unbaked cookies to a hot baking sheet. The cookies will spread too much. Also, try buying a good quality insulated baking sheet. This will prevent the bottom of the cookies from browning too quickly.
6. Use parchment paper to prepare a baking sheet to ensure even baking and easy removal.
7. Bake cookies until they are slightly browned. Do not judge crispiness or texture while cookies are still in the oven. Even if they seem too soft, remove the cookies after they have browned slightly. Cookies begin to harden as they cool.
8. After removing the cookies from the oven, allow to sit and cool 2 minutes on the baking sheet. Then remove the cookies and place them on a wire rack to continue to cool. The wire rack should have at least 1 inch from the bottom surface, so air can circulate from under the wire rack.
Also, and this is a well known secret among pastry chefs and bakers, always let your batter rest at least 24 hours. I know, its annoying. I used to completely avoid cookie recipes that required chilling or refrigerating for any period of time. Maybe I’m impatient (I am) or maybe every baker delights in the instant gratification of a pastry that can bake in about 15 minutes. Regardless, the wait time used to be a deal breaker for me. Now, I know the difference it makes in a cookie. I’m not a food scientist, but something magical does happen between the moment you bring everything together to when it has all chilled together. So, trust me, let your cookies chill.
It took me ten years to synthesize everything I now know, and I have learned a lot from my disasters (too much baking powder tastes gross, by the way) and from my successes. My last tip is to get in the kitchen and just try. I am sure that gathering tasters won’t be a problem.