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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Cookie Hacks - Part IV: Leavening

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 IV

#6 - Leavening:

"... or why baking soda is not the same as baking powder"

Do you like eating hockey pucks? Because without some form of leavening to give your cookie lift, that's what you're going to be baking - sweet, buttery hockey pucks.

In baking, there are several ways to avoid a disastrously dense fate: yeast, baking soda and baking powder.


For breads, yeast is the leavening agent of choice. Thousands of tiny fungi wake-up in the warm, carbohydrate-rich environment of a bread dough and begin metabolizing the sugars. The yeast emit carbon dioxide as they "eat", which slowly gives an elastic bread dough some needed lift.

The elasticity of bread dough is critical in this process. The dough needs to be strong and elastic enough to capture the carbon dioxide from the yeast. If the gluten bonds in the bread dough are too weak, then the rate at which the carbon dioxide escapes the dough will be too great relative to the rate at which the yeast produce more carbon dioxide. The bread will never rise.

Leavened Dough

The typical cookie dough is too inelastic to be leavened with yeast. While gluten bonds exist in most cookie doughs, the bonds are much weaker than those in bread dough. Remember all of that delicious fat and sugar you added to your dough? Those ingredients inhibit or weaken the gluten bonds that would otherwise form. Yeast simply can't burp fast enough to inflate a cookie dough.

Chemical leaveners depend on the reaction between alkaline compounds and acid to produce carbon dioxide. The "chemical" moniker may sound unappealing, but this is simple science (and are a couple of harmless chemical compounds any less appealing than burping fungi?)

Chemical leavening to the rescue!

Chemical leaveners work well in cookie doughs with less elasticity because they produce gas bubbles quickly. In a weak dough or liquid batter, where carbon dioxide can escape quickly, the rate at which new bubbles form is sufficient to create some lift.

There are many different types of chemical leavener. Each is specifically formulated to release different amounts of carbon dioxide at different rates and at different points in the dough mixing and baking process. Some leaveners are only available for commercial operations. For the modest home kitchen, it's all about baking soda and baking powder.

Baking Soda:

Baking soda is powerful stuff. Only 1/4 tsp is needed to leaven one cup of flour. But baking soda doesn't provide lift all on its own. It must be mixed with an acid to catalyze the chemical reaction that produces carbon dioxide. In a cookie dough, acid can be found in many ingredients including buttermilk, yogurt, brown sugar, molasses or citrus. If there is no (or too little) acid in a dough, then carbon dioxide will not be created, the cookie dough will not rise, and the unappealing taste of baking soda will linger.

Cookie Hack: Supplement cookie dough with some form of acid, such as a squeeze of lemon juice, to ensure that baking soda is sufficiently activated.

My blueberries are green!

If a recipe call for too much baking soda relative to the acid content of the dough, then the baking soda will not be fully neutralized. The dough will be excessively alkaline. Aside from potentially leading to disappointingly flat cookies, an alkaline dough can turn greenBlueberries and walnuts are two common cookie add-ins that contain the pigment anthocyanin. Anthocyanin turns green in an alkaline environment. So if you're baking up green cookies, you probably need less baking soda or more acid.

Cookie Hack: Finding green blueberries in your cookies? Cut back on the amount of baking soda or add more acid to ensure that the baking soda is fully neutralized... or consider using baking powder.

Fresh Blueberries

Carbon dioxide is released as soon as baking soda is mixed with an acid. With cookies, this typically occurs when the baking soda hits the wet ingredients. As a result, it is important to bake cookies soon after mixing or else the cookies may begin to collapse.

Cookie Hack: When using baking soda, get your cookies in the oven soon after mixing the dough... and bake all of the dough in  a single batch if possible.

Baking Power:

Unlike baking soda, which must be combined with acid to trigger the gas-releasing reaction, baking powder is a complete package. Baking powder contains a balanced mix of alkaline compounds and acid. When it is mixed into a moist dough, the desired chemical reactions are triggered and the baking powder is fully neutralized. 

Cookie Hack: In a dough with little or no acid, use baking powder rather than baking soda.

1 tsp of baking powder will leaven one cup of flour. There are two reasons why the amount of baking powder is so much greater than baking soda. Some of the additional volume comes from the acid that is part of the mix. The remainder of the volume comes from compounds that have been added to keep the powder protected from atmospheric moisture that could trigger the chemical reaction prematurely.

Another feature of most (but not all) baking powders is that they are double acting. A double acting leavener releases an initial round of carbon dioxide when it is mixed into a moist dough. A second reaction is triggered by the heat of the oven. 

Cookie Hack: Use double acting baking powder for a second 'lift' triggered by the heat of the oven.

More is not always better!

Fast forming gas bubbles may sound great, but excessive chemical leavening will result in collapsed cookies. As gas bubbles grow larger and larger, the strength and elasticity of the dough are tested. If too much leavening is used, the bubbles become too large and pop, causing the dough to collapse.

Cookie Hack: Resist using too much chemical leavening in doughs. Use only slightly more leavener for elastic doughs or doughs dense with "add-in's" (e.g. chocolate chips, nuts, etc).

Questions? Comments? Send me an email or leave a comment.
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  1. So when it comes to "aging" the dough mentioned in Part V, you should never do that for a recipe that includes any amount of baking soda?

    1. Great question.

      If you want to rest a dough that uses baking soda, the easiest thing to do is replace the baking soda with baking powder. For every 1/4 tsp of baking soda, use 1 tsp baking powder (if your recipe is 'balanced' that should be 1 tsp baking powder for every cup of flour).

      If you don't make this swap, you'll likely have unleavened cookies. Baking soda is 'single acting', which means the gas-producing chemical reaction starts as soon as the baking soda becomes wet in the dough and reacts with some acid. If you let a baking soda leavened dough rest overnight, all of the gas will have escaped.

      Most baking powders are ‘double acting’ (it should be clearly indicated right on the box). Like baking soda, there is an initial gas-producing reaction when the baking powder becomes wet. However, baking powder also produces a second round of gas in reaction to the heat of the oven. So even though the gas from the first reaction is lost during the resting period, you have the benefit of that second reaction.

      And here’s a little bonus info. Even when you are resting a dough, there could still be a good reason for keeping some baking soda in the mix. Since baking soda is an alkaline substance, it neutralizes some of the acid in a dough (which may be in the form of buttermilk, yogurt, citrus juice, etc). A less acidic dough will brown better during baking. The flip side is that a MORE acidic dough will develop stronger protein bonds more quickly, so it's a balancing act.

      Hope this helps! Let me know how any experimenting turns out!

  2. Your articles are excellent! Ive read so much on the science of cookies, recipes and baking in particularly chocolate chip cookies (CCC). I've found that most recipes use only baking soda. Very few use baking soda and powder. I have a great recipe for CCC and the end result tasted great but it was too crispy and chewy for me. I will give you the recipe in hopes you would please google and find it at allrecipes.com. Its called "Felix K's Dont Even Try To Say These Arent The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies You Ever Had Because You Know They Are". They were flat but had some thickness. Crispy outer edges & exterior with a hard chewiness towards the centers. Taste wise it was GREAT. But I want more tenderness & softness, less crisp & less hard chewiness. My goals: add an egg yolk, omit the the baking soda and add a tablespoon of canola oil. Maybe even cut out 1/2 cup of brown sugar. Its literally making my own recipe I guess. But I would totally like to have your expert opinion! Thank you!

    1. Lisa:

      Looking at that recipe, there are a few things that stand out.

      First, the bake temp seems a little low / time seems a little long. You may want to try to increase the heat to 350 and bake for less time.

      The use of baking powder and baking soda is not too crazy. The baking soda is reacting with the acid content in the brown sugar. It does seem like a lot of leavening in total, however. Rather than cut the baking soda entirely, which would leave you with too little leavening overall, perhaps cut it to 0.5 tsp and then use 2 tsp of baking powder in total.

      I would not cut the brown sugar. Brown sugar is hydroscopic (pulls in water), so it helps make things more tender. If anything, replace the white sugar with brown sugar.

      Adding an egg yolk could work to provide more tenderness. Just remember it will make you dough wetter. And not knowing the consistency of the batter, it could become too runny and result in overall flat cookies.

      Hopes this helps!

  3. Thank you so much Mark! I will make your recommended adjustments and hope the cookies dont become cakey but I'm sure they will be better than ever! One thing that puzzles me its why nearly every cookie recipe I read, hundreds, only uses baking soda and no baking powder. Could it be because people are seeking chewier cookies? Ive have noticed that when a tall soft cookie is desired the baking powder is greater than the soda. And sometimes the baking powder is replaced with cornstarch. This is in reference to the famed Levain Bakery chocolate chip walnut cookie that so many people want to copycat deligently. The bakery won't reveal their recipe. Ive done some homework on it and some think its bread flour. I dont because results are dense cookies. A youtube video shows the bakery owners making the cookies. No leavening or salt is used by them and the ingredients are viewed on the counter at the end of the video. Again no leavenings or salt is shown. Ive concluded theyre using a high-quality self-rising flour not available for the masses, that may be made for them by a flour company and theyre bypassing on the baking powder. Otherwise, people are believing that huge mounds of dough make a tall cookie and it does. They also have professional bakery equipment that projects the outcome of their baked goods that home bakers cant produce at home. As for me, based on the youtube video Ive concluded they used 24 eggs, 24 sticks of butter, 10 pounds EACH of brown sugar and white sugar and 10 pounds of flour (self-rising). They dont use vanilla. What are your thoughts Mark? These amounts could be broken down into an average size recipe for the home baker(?). Could you view the Levain Bakery youtube video where Pam and Connie make the cookies? Also, if using self-rising flour, is baking powder needed? But again its not visibly being used or on the counters. Thank you so much for your time, Mark!

    1. Baking soda and baking powder are not interchangeable. Baking soda requires an acid in the dough with which to react. Baking powder has that acid included as part of the mix, so you do not need a separate acid. If you had a batter with no acid and you replaced the baking powder with baking soda, you wouldn't get any leavening.

      You would have to look at each cookie recipe individually to evaluate if it makes sense as to whether baking soda or baking powder is being used. Another benefit of baking powder is that it reacts to the heat of the oven, creating a second round of leavening action. As a result, you could generalize that baking powder will result in more leavened cookies.

      One thing to keep in mind is that many people post horrible, untested recipes online, and they have no idea why certain ingredients do or do not work... they just copy bits and pieces from other people's recipes. So, always take what you see "with a grain of salt", so to speak.

      No recipe would actually replace baking powder with cornstarch. They're apples and oranges. It would be like replacing flour for sugar. They serve two entirely different purposes.

      As for the youtube video, while I've not seen it, I'm 100% certain that if they're intentionally obscuring the actual ingredients so that people cannot replicate them at home. The cookies simply would not be possible without some form of leavening. And it's unlikely that they're using self rising flour. Most baker's like to be able to control the exact amount of leavening that goes into their batters.

      And no, if you are using self-rising flour, you would not want to also use baking powder (unless you wanted to supplement the leavening a little). If you used both, you'd over-leaven your product, which would actually cause it to collapse.

  4. Hi Mark. One of your Cookie Hacks states to use "double acting baking SODA" for a second lift triggered by the heat of the oven. Is it suppose to be double acting baking POWDER and not SODA? Ive never heard of double acting baking soda, nor do I know of any brand for it. Just wanting clarification. Thanks Mark!

    1. Good catch. Should have been powder. It has been corrected.

  5. BTW, Mark do you have a recipe for chocolate chip cookies? If so, can you publish it here? Thank you!

    1. Perfect timing. Check out the most recent blog post from earlier this week!