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Monday, July 21, 2014

Cookie Hacks - Part I: Flour and Alternatives

This series of "Cookie Hacks" gives an overview of some of the ways in which you can customize a recipe to make a cookie that is exactly to your liking. Crispy, chewy, dry, moist, soft or dense... it's all about knowing which levers to pull.  Time to play mad scientist in the kitchen.

Cookie Hacks - Part I

#1 - Flour:

"It's not all 'All Purpose'"

Flour and eggs are the structural elements in cookies - they both contain proteins that come together to give a cookie its form.

In wheat flour, the wonder-protein is gluten. When flour combines with water and the dough is kneaded, gluten proteins align and form bonds. The stronger the gluten protein bonds, the more "structured" the dough - which is to say, the dough is more elastic, better able to hold together, and will result in a more satisfying "chew".

Why does the type of flour matter?

Different types of flour have different amounts of protein. More protein means more gluten bonds and stronger gluten bonds. By experimenting with different types of flour, you can change the texture of your cookies.

  • All purpose flour contains an "average" amount of protein - about 12%. Most recipes will default to all purpose flour since it yields a good balance between structure and tenderness.
  • Bread flour is a higher protein flour at about 14%. Bakers like the higher protein content because it produces more structurally sound loaves. A bread made with all purpose flour will not be able to rise and hold its shape as well as a loaf made with bread flour.
  • Cake flour moves in the opposite direction. At 8% protein, this flour produces softer, more tender baked goods. The downside is that they can easily crumble apart.
  • Self-rising flour is typically an all purpose flour (as regards the protein content) to which a chemical leavening agent has been added. You do not need to add baking soda or baking powder to a recipe if you use self-rising flour. Why not simplify life and always use self-rising flour? The problem is you do not have total control over the amount and type of leavening when you use self-rising flour (similar problems arise with a recipe's salt content if you use salted butter). For control-freak bakers (*hand raised*), this isn't a desirable feature. Then why would anyone use self-rising flour? The nice thing about this pre-mix is that the leavening agent is evenly mixed throughout the flour - something that can be surprisingly tricky when mixing flour and chemical leavening agents on your own.

Cookie Hack: Use high protein flour if you want cookies that can hold their form and have a more bread-like chew. Use low protein flours if you want softer, more tender, cake-like cookies.

Various Types of Flour

#2 - Wheat Flour Alternatives:

"You say 'Flour', I say 'Peanut Butter'"

When someone says "flour", they're most likely referring to wheat flour with its gluten protein features. However, there are an intimidating number of wheat flour substitutes. Barley, chickpea, corn, nut, oat, quinoa, rice, rye... each alternative brings its own unique flavor and textural characteristics.  

What should you consider when using a non-wheat flour?

  • Hydration requirements: Different types of flour require different amounts of liquid to be "properly hydrated" - that is, to form a dough of the desired consistency. Whole grain flours typically absorb more moisture than refined all purpose flour. If you substitute whole grain flour for all purpose flour, you need to increase the amount of liquid that you use. If you don't, you will find yourself with a very dry dough. The same is true for higher protein flours - the higher the protein content, the more liquid that is generally required.
  • Gluten content: Non-wheat does not mean gluten free! Barley, oat and rye flours all contain gluten while potato, rice and quinoa are gluten-free. Knowing which flours contain gluten and are capable of forming gluten protein bonds is critical in predicting the texture of your final product.
  • Fat content: Some flours, particularly nut flours, contain high amounts of fat. Gluten content notwithstanding, fat interferes with the formation of gluten bonds (more on this later). For instance, if you substitute almond flour for all purpose flour, you should expect a softer, more cake-like end product (which may be exactly what you want)! You may also find that the cookie completely falls apart because there are no protein bonds to hold it together.

Cookie Hack: Experiment with non-wheat flours - mixing and combining different flours in different ratios - to produce uniquely flavored and textured cookies. But be aware of the hydration requirements, gluten content and fat content.

If gluten containing wheat flour is replaced by gluten-free or high-fat alternatives, how will my cookie hold together?

If you don't change anything else in a cookie recipe, the answer is "your cookie won't hold together". 

When you make one change to a recipe, you almost always have to make a balancing change elsewhere. In the case of non-gluten flours and high-fat flours, the answer come in the form of a tiny little egg. More on this tomorrow...

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