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Monday, July 28, 2014

Cookie Hacks - Part VI: "Add-in's" and Baking

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.

#9 - "Add-Ins": 

"Chips & chunks"

So you've got an awesome cookie dough? Excellent! 

But you want to add a few little extras to move things from awesome to perfection... a few chocolate chips perhaps... and some dried fruit... maybe M&M's... and pretzels... and what about a little caramel... and a crunchy sugar topping...

Breathe! While adding various chunks and chips to a dough isn't brain surgery, the process is more involved than just dumping things into the mixing bowl and proceeding as usual.

Chocolate Chunks

How much "add-in" should I add-in?

A dough doesn't have an limitless capacity. Add 500g of chocolate chips to 250g of dough, and you will have melted chocolate with unbaked chunks of cookie dough, not cookies with chocolate chunks. Even at more realistic ratios, anything that breaks up a dough may change the structure of the cookie.

Whatever confectionery flight-of-fancy you decide to toss into the mixing bowl, think of a few things first...

Will the ingredient make the dough wetter or drier?

Certain ingredients will completely change the amount of moisture in your dough. The base recipe should be adjusted to keep things in balance. Unfortunately, there's no hard and fast rule because every dough and every ingredient will be different. Nevertheless, it's important to remember that some changes will likely be necessary.

For instance, adding fresh fruit will make the dough much wetter (after all, fruit is mostly water). Adding strawberries? They are 92% water. If you add a pint (or about 300g), you're increasing the water in your dough by over one cup! To balance your recipe, you can either reduce the amount of some other liquid ingredient or add more flour.

In certain situations, you may be able to minimize the moisture effects by 'pre-treating' the added ingredients. For example, raisins will make a dough drier because the dried fruit pulls moisture from the dough. But you can avoid this water-theft by soaking the raisins in warm water first. The raisins will pre-hydrate and will not pull moisture from the dough.

Cookie Hack: When adding ingredients that make a dough wetter or drier, adjust the base dough recipe to keep things in balance. Reducing liquid is preferable to adding flour.  

How should the ingredients be mixed into the dough?

Some ingredients, like chocolate chips, are pretty resilient. Once you have mixed your base dough, they can be incorporated in a few seconds using an electric mixer. Fresh berries, on the other hand, will get crushed by an electric mixer and are best added through gentle stirring by hand. Of course, maybe you want crushed berries... the choice is yours.

How will the ingredients react to the heat of the oven?

Heat can do some crazy things to chocolate and berries and various other candies. Explode, melt, deflate or burn... what goes into that 350 degree oven may be completely transformed by the heat.

Juice-filled berries have a tendency to pop and ooze. Marshmallows can quickly move from toasted to carbonized. Gummy bears have a fiendish tendency to melt in the oven and reform as the cookies cool, transforming into rubber with tooth-extraction capabilities. Resign yourself to a few rounds of trial and error.

Cookie Hack: Stop, think, test and retest... "Add-in's" will inevitably change your dough both in ways that you can anticipate and in ways that will totally surprise you.

#10 - Baking:

"Not everything bakes at 350 degrees, thank you very much"

Cutting to the chase...

Why do most recipes call for baking at 350 degrees Fahrenheit?

The tried and true temperature of 350 degrees Fahrenheit appears in most recipes for two practical reasons.

First, when it comes to most doughs and batters, 350 degrees is the "Goldilocks" temperature: neither too hot nor too cold, it consistently yields end products with interiors that are thoroughly cooked (yet still moist) while exteriors are not burned.

The second practical consideration is the burning temperature of sugar (sucrose) which, wouldn't you guess, is 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Granted, this is the burning point for unadulterated sugar. It changes (increases) when sugar is nestled among other ingredients in most doughs. Nevertheless, 350 degrees remains a significant temperature point for sugar-rich cookies.

Practical considerations notwithstanding, the joke is when you set your oven to 350 degrees, good luck actually holding that temperature. Open the oven door for a couple of seconds, and the temperature can plummet by over 100 degrees. Modern ovens, sensing a sudden drop in temperature, may be designed to overcompensate, blasting the heat to return to 350 degrees as quickly as possible. Ta Dah! The oven blows past its target, rising to 400 degrees. In reality, a 350 degree setting is more of a hoped-for temperature around which the actual heat will fluctuate.

Muffins Rising in Over

When should you use a temperature other than 350 degrees Fahrenheit? 

With 350 degrees Fahrenheit established as the happy starting point, there may be good reasons for going hotter or colder.

A hotter oven can be useful in "setting" the outside of a baked item. The high heat quickly bakes the exterior and creates a sort of shell. The shell acts as a container in which the interior continues to cook. If the shell is firm enough, the baked item will be unable to expand, and a dense interior will result. In other cases, the shell may crack as the pressure inside builds. Depending on the situation, cracking may be desired result.

High heat also creates a lot of steam, which causes baked items to rise. A soufflé, the perfect example, exclusively depends on steam to achieve that intimidating lift. A temperature well in excess of 350 degrees Fahrenheit is necessary to generate steam quickly and produce steam in sufficient quantities.

Many recipes calling for initially high heat instruct to lower the temperature after a few minutes of baking. A mid-bake temperature reduction prevents the exterior from burning before the inside finishes baking.

Temperatures below 350 degrees can be useful too, most often when dealing with 'delicate' ingredients (i.e. egg and sugar-rich products). For example, meringues, which are just egg and sugar, typically bake at temperatures as low as 250 degrees Fahrenheit. The low temperature prevents the sugars from burning and prevents the proteins in the eggs from forming bonds that are too tight (tight protein bonds = rubbery eggs).

I've never encountered a recipe that starts at a low temperature than goes higher. If you find one, send it my way!

Questions? Comments? Send me an email or leave a comment.
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