Published November 1, 2010.
Everyone thinks it’s easy to make classic buttery-tasting sugar cookies that are crisp at the edges and chewy in the center. Everyone is wrong.
More often than not, sugar cookies range from stunted and humped to flat and brittle, with a smooth rather than crackly top. And without nuts, raisins, or chocolate to provide distraction, these flaws become all the more glaring.
We were determined to engineer a recipe that would produce our ideal, every time: A sugar cookie crisp at the edges, soft and chewy in the center, crackly-crisp on top—and, of course, richly flavorful.
We already knew that the key to a truly chewy texture is all in the fat. For optimal chew, a recipe must contain both saturated and unsaturated fat in a ratio of approximately 1 to 3. We got to work adjusting the fat in a working recipe, knocking down the recipe’s butter and adding vegetable oil to achieve a fat content that was approximately 25 percent saturated and 75 percent unsaturated.
With so little butter in the recipe, there was not enough solid fat to hold the air, so creaming it with the sugar no longer made sense. Instead, we melted the butter and whisked it with sugar. This simple switch proved to be a boon in two ways. First, it eliminated one of the trickier aspects of baking sugar cookies: ensuring that the solid butter is just the right temperature. Second, melted butter would aid in our quest for chewiness: When liquefied, the small amount of water in butter mixes with the flour to form gluten, which makes for chewier cookies. And finally, with creaming out of the equation, we’d no longer need to pull out our stand mixer; we could mix all the ingredients by hand.
But there were two downsides to swapping butter for oil. The two doses of liquid fat made the dough too runny, and now that we were no longer creaming, there wasn’t enough air in the dough and the cookies were baking up too flat. More flour helped build up structure, while another little bit of baking powder added lift. To keep the cookies from being too dry and biscuitlike, we ramped up the sugar, salt, and vanilla, and added a tiny bit of milk.
With this new formula, the chewiness of our cookies was spot-on, but we still had a few problems that we needed to solve. Trading more than half the rich butter for neutral-tasting vegetable oil had rendered the cookies very sweet—and only sweet. To counter this, we zeroed in on cream cheese, wondering if it would enrich the dough’s flavor without adding too much liquid. Unfortunately, this affected our perfect chewiness ratio: Cream cheese contains less than one-third the amount of overall fat that vegetable oil contains, but most of it is saturated. With every ounce we added, we would be chipping away at our carefully calibrated ratio of fats, so we traded oil for cream cheese judiciously and were thrilled to find that the difference didn’t markedly affect the cookies’ texture—only the depth of their flavor. As an added benefit, with acidic cream cheese in the mix, we could now add baking soda to the dough, which solved our other two pesky problems: slightly humped cookies with not enough crackle.
There was only one thing left to do. We needed to provide some wiggle room to our recipe so that it could be made measuring the ingredients by volume or weight. The solution turned out to be as simple as cutting back a little on the oil. While this rejiggered our fat ratios further, the cookies still had far more chew than any sugar cookie we’d ever eaten.list of recipes