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Kitchen Science

Experiment: Cookie Science

America’s love affair with cookies dates back to 1614 when Dutch colonists settled a place we call New York City. They introduced “little cakes” (small spoonfuls of batter used to test oven temperature) or keokje. Today cookies may be in bars, rolled, piped or pressed, dropped, molded, or refrigerated. Add some chocolate, nuts, dried fruit, coconut and more and we have a favorite hand-made way to show people we care.

Cookie science is fascinating and sometimes frustrating. Home bakers wonder why cookies crumble or crack after a day…will the cookie spread out too thin on the baking sheet? A minor tweak to the ingredients you choose can have a major outcome.
Variables include: type of flour or sugar used, temperature of ingredients, how you mix ingredients and how all the ingredients interact and react with one another while mixing and in a hot oven.

Five (or fewer) basic ingredients contribute to successful cookies:

Flour or meal (cake, all –purpose, whole grain, pastry)
Sugars (granulated, brown, powdered, honey, molasses, corn syrup)
Fat (butter, margarine, shortening)
Leavening (baking soda, baking powder, cream of tartar, eggs)
Eggs (large eggs are standard for baking)

The choice of fat is a major variable in cookie baking. Here’s a way to observe the differences—or learn what happened when you had a strange outcome!

  1. Bake one batch of standard Snickerdoodle cookies (recipe follows).
  2. Use standard measuring, mixing and baking methods for all tests.
  • Have ingredients at room temperature.
  • Measure flour in the same way each time.
  • Option 1: Stir the flour with a spoon. Spoon the flour into a dry measuring cup until heaped up—level off with a flat-edged utensil.
  • Option 2: Stir the flour to loosen it. Dip the dry measuring cup into the flour so flour is heaped up. Level off with a flat-edged utensil. Mix using the same speed and length of mixing time.
  • Scoop each cookie using a cookie scoop or melon ball utensil to make uniform sized cookies. (Important in comparing outcomes).
  • Use similar baking sheet pans for each batch. Line all the pans with parchment baking paper or leave ungreased as directed.
  • Bake at the same temperature and for the same amount of time for each pan of cookies.

  • 3. Vary only the fat selected. Variations in fat could include:
  • over-softened butter or margarine (warmed in microwave so it puddles in bowl or finger easily pokes through the stick)
  • vegetable oil (soybean, sunflower, corn etc)
  • solid shortening (hydrogenated vegetable shortening)
  • spread (stick or tub, whipped or reduced fat margarine or butter—less than 60% fat)

    4. Prepare a grid or chart to measure outcomes such as:
  • Spread time: (If possible observe through oven window.) How long did the cookies bake before they started to spread or flatten on the pan
  • Width of spread: How wide did the cookies spread out on the pan
  • Flavor: How did the taste compare between cookies.
  • Texture: Were cookies greasy (when left on a paper towel), gritty or coarse?
  • How cookies stored: Did they get dry, crumbly, or crack after storing one hour, 12-hours, 24-hours (at room temperature).

Snickerdoodles Makes 2 dozen

Ingredients 1 ¼ c. plus 2 tablespoons (1/8 c.) all purpose flour
¾ cup granulated sugar ½ cup butter,
(1 stick or 4 oz.) –softened (yields when finger touches it)
1 large egg
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon salt

Sugar mixture: 2 tablespoons sugar + 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon


  1. Heat oven to 400 degrees F. Combine all cookie ingredients in large mixer bowl. Beat at low speed, scraping bowl often, until well mixed.
  2. Stir together sugar mixture in a small bowl. Shape rounded teaspoonfuls of dough into 1-inch balls; roll in sugar mixture. Place 2 inches apart onto ungreased cookie sheets.
  3. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes or until edges are lightly browned.

    Source: Land O’ Lakes test kitchen. www.landolakes.com

Spread the Facts—what did you observe, taste and learn?
Spreads (tub margarines or butters; reduced fat sticks) contain much more water than butter, shortening or margarine and the cookie dough will spread WAY out.
Butter and margarine are 80% fat—shortening and oil are 100% fat—so substituting one for the other will affect the spread, chewiness, crispness and flavor.
Vegetable or cooking oil does not hold air so will not cream with the sugar. Some types of cookies will then be greasy and too thin when baked.
Shortening and margarine are hydrogenated fats—they will melt slower than butter in baking and the resulting cookie may be thicker and chewier.
Shortening is generally less flavorful than butter.
Salted or unsalted butter: If there is salt in the recipe, unsalted butter is best OR adjust the salt called for to taste if using salted butter.
Margarine does not need to be softened before creaming or mixing with the sugar(s).
Baking butter with canola oil is a new butter formulated to not require softening, but bakes like butter.
If butter or margarine are softened too much (melted or fingers go all the way through the stick when touched), they will not incorporate air—get fluffy-- when mixed (creamed) with the sugar. The water or liquid part of the butter or margarine will also be released and will make the cookie tough, greasy and affect spread.


Cookie history is irresistible and it’s science too. Why do some recipes call for unsalted butter and some salted? When did we first start using vanilla flavorings and extracts? Why did we sift flour? Do we still have to?

Learn more about when, why and how we use the ingredients we do. Explore www.homebaking.org and its member web-sites, the glossary, and FAQ section. More baking labs in Baking for Success video and lessons.

Great cookie resources by Nancy Baggett:
The All-American Cookie Book. (Houghton Miffllin)
The International Cookie Book. At: www.kitchenlane.com