Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Great Cookie Experiment: Sugar

If there's anything I've been craving this pregnancy, perhaps it would be cookies. It's hard to say, because I'm quite the cookie fan anyway.

I've been baking a lot of cookies lately, usually chocolate chip. I thought it would be fun to experiment with some cookie basics. For Science! Of course.

In Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, Michael Ruhlman presents the "essence of cookie" ratio: one part sugar to two parts butter to three parts flour. This produces a shortbread cookie, rather than the chewier drop cookie base you usually use to make chocolate chip cookies. But if I wanted to eventually divine The Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe, I decided I'd better start with the basics.

Plus, shortbread cookies are tasty, too.

The first experiment had two parts: one, to get a taste for the cookie this ratio produces at its most basic, aka the all-purpose flour, white sugar shortbread cookie.

Second, I wanted to vary some of the ingredients to get an idea of different sugars, fats, and flours affect the finished cookie product.

For the first night, the simplest substitutes: sugars.

I made a tiny batch of Ruhlman's essential cookie ratio, one each with white sugar, brown sugar, and honey.

The white sugar is basic, obvious, subtle, traditional. Brown sugar usually features prominently in the various drop cookie recipes I used, and I expected it to provide a bit of depth to the unadorned cookie flavor (remember, these cookies are otherwise completely unseasoned--no spices, no vanilla). I wasn't sure how honey would react, but was curious what effect it would have on both the texture--since it's a liquid instead of a powder--and the taste of the cookies.

Now, no scientific lab in the country would call this a rigorous or clean experiment. I made the batches one at a time; the butter was in varying stages of softness (and I know this effects the outcome of the cookies) and they were in the refrigerator chilling for varying lengths of time (but for several hours, so, probably that didn't matter that much).

Also, I didn't weigh the butter the first time but just cut it in half following the little tablespoon guidelines on the package; when I weighed the second half, I realized that it was likely .10 ounce or more larger than the "half" I used in the first batch. I don't know if that's a material degree of difference. My scale only measures to the .05 of an ounce anyway.

Oh, and I mixed them all in the same bowl without cleaning it between batches. So. Dangerous cross-contamination or whatever.

Full disclosure. ^_^

Anyway, for each batch I followed the same procedure:

Weigh out one ounce of sweetener.

White sugar.
Brown sugar.

Pour in a bowl with two ounces (ish) of butter.

Beat together until creamy.

White sugar; not beaten enough.
Brown sugar.

Honey. See how much smoother it is?
Stir in three ounces of flour.

Work into dough. With the exception of the honey batch, this was hard to do. The doughs, with such a high proportion of flour to fat, were crumbly and dry. Perhaps more vigorous mixing would have helped to better incorporate the flour. Perhaps all shortbread doughs are like this--I usually make higher-fat drop cookie doughs.

White sugar.

Brown sugar--not fully mixed.


Anyway. I did manage to mash them all into balls.

White sugar.

Brown sugar.

Honey--a much more cohesive a dough than the others.
I tasted all of the doughs at this point, and the results were as I expected. The white sugar makes a dough that doesn't really taste like much--slightly buttery, slightly sweet, mostly just white. The brown sugar gave the cookie, still only subtly sweet, that toasty, molasses flavor that brown sugar imparts (because brown sugar is pretty much white sugar + molasses). The honey tasted...weird. The honey flavor was much stronger than even the brown sugar flavor, and perhaps because it's unexpected (you don't run into honey-sweetened cookies that often), it was jarring. More on that later.

The dough chilled while I went to Zumba and made dinner and ate dinner. Eventually I came back to it and preheated the oven.

I took the chilled doughs out and forced the DDH to sample them. You wouldn't think you'd have to force anyone to sample cookie doughs, but he doesn't like shortbread. He said the two sugar ones were fine, but he spit out the honey one and called it nasty. The DDH does not care for unexpected flavors. While he didn't particularly care for any of them, he thought the brown sugar one tasted best and (obviously) the honey one the worst. I gave him a bit more of the brown sugar dough to take the honey taste out of his mouth.

I made three balls out of each cookie dough, trying to make them roughly the same size, put them on my silpat-lined cookie sheet,

Left to right: Honey, brown sugar, white sugar.
For some reason, the brown sugar was super crumbly
compared to the white sugar--I feel like something else messed
it up, since if anything brown sugar is more moist than white.
and baked for about twenty minutes. Usually you roll shortbread dough into a log, chill it, and slice flat round cookies off, but that was too much work with my three crumbly doughs; I figured that if I treated them all the same it would count for the purposes of the experiment.

Left to right: Honey, brown sugar, white sugar.
The DDH repeated his performance tasting the final cookies; he maintains shortbread is kind of gross to start with, that the honey ones were disgusting, the white sugar ones tolerable, and the brown sugar ones mildly tasty.

I actually liked all three, though I agreed that the brown sugar would be my favorite.

The white sugar shortbread really is just the perfect essence of a shortbread cookie. It doesn't taste like anything except that short taste that defines shortbread, and as such would be the perfect backdrop for whatever flavorings you wished to use--citrus or spices or nuts. Lemon poppyseed shortbread? Cinnamon vanilla? Pistachio? All would be perfect with that base, which is not very sweet and thus makes a nice "grown-up" cookie that could showcase fun "grown-up" flavors.

White sugar shortbread cookies.
The brown sugar shortbread was a better cookie just plain, because it had more flavor. It's still not very sweet, but the touch of molasses added depth. If I were to make plain shortbread cookies, I might make these, with a bit of vanilla and salt to punch up the flavor slightly. And brown sugar, I think, is the sugar of choice for drop cookies--it would go best with the chocolate.

Brown sugar shortbread cookies.
And the honey cookies...they really do taste different. Technically, they were the most flavorful of the three, and once you adjust to the flavor, or expect it, that's a good thing. I could see serving them with jam or pats of butter like biscuits, with mint tea or something. I may never make them again because I think more people would agree with the DDH that they're disgusting than would agree with me that they're tasty, but I was glad to have tried the experiment. I'm not too beat up about eliminating honey as a sweetener in my future cookie experiments, anyway, since it's by far the most expensive of the three.

Honey shortbread cookies. You can see the texture is much
different from the dry sugar cookies.
So there you have it, the Great Cookie Experiment Part One: Sugar! I plan to use the same ratio to vary the fat (butter vs. coconut oil vs. ?) and the flour (white/All-Purpose vs. whole wheat vs. half-and-half). Then, armed with those results, I plan to start playing with the ratio to see if I can achieve other cookie textures and whatever else we want to try!

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