The Search for the Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie

June 28, 2012

by Margaret Cabaniss

Ask ten people what makes the best chocolate chip cookie, and you’ll get ten different answers. I’ve tried cookies with butter only, shortening only, and both butter and shortening; cookies with whole wheat flour and no wheat flour at all; cookies with secret ingredients ranging from cornstarch to pudding mix… There’s pretty much zero consensus on what the perfect cookie looks like.

Back in 2008, the New York Times made a bold claim that it had the best chocolate chip cookie recipe – big talk that they backed up with input from master bakers, blind taste tests, and some really, really specific instructions (chocolate fèves, not chips; letting the dough rest 36 hours, no less…). I’m willing to concede that they probably are pretty amazing cookies…but amazing enough for all that work?

Enter the Blue Ridge Baker (via NotMartha), who tweaked the Times‘ recipe with some suggestions from my favorite cooking authority, Cook’s Illustrated. Her recipe may not be the best cookie I’ve ever had — but at the moment I’m hard-pressed to think of one that’s better: crispy outside, dense and chewy inside; salty, sweet, subtle perfection.

Her recipe includes three tips (suggested by the Times and CI) that I think make all the difference:

Browned butter. I’ve never cooked with browned butter before, but now I’m wondering where it’s been all my life. Toasting the butter slightly before you add it to the dough brings out the most incredible nutty, toffee flavor in the cookie. This stuff is magic.

Browning is simple: Just set the butter in a saucepan over medium heat and stir it occasionally. The butter will foam, then simmer, then separate; before long, it’ll start smelling distinctly caramel-y and turning a tawny brown color — that’s when you know you’re there. It took about 10-15 minutes for me to brown a full stick, but keep an eye on it: Once it starts browning, it will go very quickly to burnt. (Also, if you use browned butter in a different recipe where the butter needs to be cold or room temperature, just be sure to cool it first.)

Sea salt. I am all for the salty/sweet craze we seem to be smack in the middle of right now. Sprinkling a little high-quality sea salt on top of the cookies before baking them balances the creamy sweetness of the chocolate beautifully, giving the cookies a great, complex flavor.

Time. Those first two tricks are easy enough to incorporate in any recipe, but this last one is a little more difficult: letting the dough rest for a day — or more — before baking the cookies. I know it seems contrary to the very nature of cookie-baking — which, to me, is usually about satisfying an immediate chocolate craving — but it definitely has its benefits. According to the Times, slower-moving liquids (like butter and eggs) take more time to be fully absorbed by the dough, so the longer you let it rest, the better the flavor and consistency.

And I have to admit, waiting a day does make for incredible cookies — though I’ve also baked them right after mixing up the dough, and they are not at all terrible then, either. The sweet spot is probably letting it rest overnight; you could let it go 36 hours, if you have that kind of patience, but at that point I’m not sure I could tell the difference.

Like I said, you could incorporate any of these tricks into your own favorite cookie recipe, but I definitely recommend trying the Blue Ridge Baker’s. (The only tweak I make is using Ghirardelli’s bittersweet chocolate chips, instead of chopping a bittersweet bar; the chips are nice and fat, melt beautifully, and save me all that chopping.) I made a batch for Zoe’s party last weekend, and guests were filling go cups with cookies on their way out the door, which I took as a good sign. It’s my new chocolate chip cookie recipe to beat.

If you try it, let me know what you think! How does it stack up against your own favorite recipe?

Images: Margaret Cabaniss

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Ann Waterman 1 Ann Waterman June 28, 2012 at 9:26 am

My favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe is the Cook’s Illustrated one, but, of course, I can’t post a link to it.

I think the real secret to cookie baking — and where most people screw it up — is pulling the cookies out at the proper time. You want to get them out when they appear a little underdone to account for latent cooking. That’s how you achieve a soft, chewy cookie cookie instead of a hard disk.

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Margaret Cabaniss 2 Margaret Cabaniss June 28, 2012 at 11:45 am

Agreed, Ann. And I think that’s where refrigerating the dough first has an added benefit: If the dough is too soft when it goes in the oven, it spreads out too quickly and you’re left with flattened cookies that are crisped on the outside before the inside is done cooking.

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3 Alissa Lively June 28, 2012 at 11:22 am

Brown butter… that is just genius. FC has a pumpkin cake that you make with brown butter and the frosting is made with brown butter and it is HEAVEN. Consider me converted.

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4 Alissa Lively June 28, 2012 at 11:23 am

Ahem…*browned* butter. ;)

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5 EML June 28, 2012 at 9:24 pm

Wait…you mean all this time when I thought I was being lazy and making cookie dough at night and then baking the cookies the next day, I was actually doing something to make the cookies taste better??

I do like my current chocolate chip recipe, but will have to try this one.

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6 Therese de Fairfax June 28, 2012 at 11:03 pm

These cookies were UNBELIEVEABLE.
I confess. I was one of the people carrying out Margaret’s cookies in a large
plastic cup.

I swear I saved them for my family! I really didn’t eat any more on the way
home…..NOT that I didn’t try.

I put them purposely in the back seat so I couldn’t break down and eat them
on the way home.

The car did swerve now and them in my attempt to reach around the seat
feeling for them.

Yep. They were that good:-)

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Margaret Cabaniss 7 Margaret Cabaniss June 29, 2012 at 11:10 am

Ha! Thanks, Therese. This is especially high praise coming from you, since I always feel like you are so chock-full of tasty recipes… Anyway, glad you can add this one to the arsenal. (And don’t feel compelled to share all the time…)

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8 SarahD July 1, 2012 at 7:13 pm

I too have discovered recently that refrigerating cookie dough (even if only for an hour or two) makes a dramatic difference in the finished product. My current favorite cookie recipe is the chocolate chip-peanut butter-oatmeal cookie on Allrecipes called “outrageous chocolate chip cookies”. The recipe doesn’t call for refrigeration, but I do it anyway with good results. Also, in general, rolling the dough slightly into a ball (as opposed to dropping a spoonful on the sheet from a spoon) seems to help too, although I have no idea why.

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9 Therese August 1, 2012 at 11:09 pm

OK, I saved this post to try and today coordinated a “chocolate chip cookie bake-off” at work as a sort-of summer afternoon “coffee break.” The results from work aren’t in yet – the five recipes are still being tested by students, faculty, and staff – but the products of this recipe not only disappeared at home but – and this is a BIG BUT – my husband has promised to shampoo the rugs if I will just make the cookies again. BIG PRAISE! APPRECIATIVE PRAISE! Thank you!

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