Secrets of really good chocolate chip cookies

updated February 28, 2010

The recipe on the back of the Nestle Toll House Morsels [tm] bag makes fine cookies, and if you were to follow it precisely, you couldn't go too far wrong. However, based upon my own experience and that of others, I advise a few minor modifications and refinements.

First, always use real butter. Don't let anyone convince you that butter vs. margarine doesn't make any difference. It does.

Another reason to use real butter instead of margarine or Crisco: HYDROGENATED FATS. As in, margarine and Crisco are teeming with them, while butter is a natural product and contains no hydrogenated fats.

Second, TRIPLE the amount of vanilla extract recommended. This means to use a tablespoon where a teaspoon is specified. Also, always use real vanilla extract and not "vanillin," which is bogus, although cheaper, and sold next to the genuine article in many grocery stores. Feh.

(Incidentally, vanilla is a wondrous and versatile substance. Click here to find out everything you ever wanted to know about vanilla, and some things you never suspected.)

Third, and this can make a big difference, don't just let the butter sit out at room temperature to become soft. Instead, melt it, very carefully, so that it doesn't burn (you can use a double boiler -- if anyone out there still has one! -- or else a microwave oven that is set very low and which you are watching like a hawk). A microwave can burn the butter in a second if you turn your back at an inopportune moment. (Use a Pyrex or other microwave-safe transparent container if you do this, so you can watch the butter closely.) Melted butter, because it is both warm and liquid, does a much better job of dissolving and melting the sugar than a room-temperature creamed butter can do, improving the consistency of the dough as you are working with it, and also improving the texture of the cookies after they are baked. My friend Lizabeth says that she gets much better results using melted butter and superfine granulated sugar, and I believe her; however, I have never had a problem with the texture of cookies made with ordinary granulated sugar.

Also, if you're like me, you have often had a problem with your brown sugar clumping together into giant bricks, which you are then banging on the edge of the kitchen counter in order to break them up enough to use the stuff; still, big lumps of brown sugar survive even into the baked cookies. Well, if you take the big solid mass of brown sugar, roughly the volume you desire, put it into the microwave with the melting butter in the Pyrex cup, and let it melt on a very low setting for a few minutes, you will find that the brown sugar will liquefy very nicely. It will help it along if you stir the contents for a few seconds after removing the cup from the microwave. It will then pour smoothly into the mixing bowl. Let it cool briefly before adding the eggs, so they don't poach before you can mix them into the other wet ingredients.

Many correspondents have written to tell me that a slice of white bread, placed into the sealed plastic bag with the bricklike mass of brown sugar, will soften it within a day. My mother likes to use a slice of apple. In either case, put it into the plastic bag with the brown sugar and seal it up and check it again in 24 hours.

Fourth, add a little milk, maybe just a tablespoon or two, when you are mixing the dough. This will make it less stiff and the cookies will be less hard and crunchy when they are done. If you do this, though, make sure the dough is nice and cold as you drop it onto the cookie sheet, and also make sure the cookie sheet is room temperature or cooler when you put the dough on it and put it into the oven. If the dough melts around the edges before it starts to bake, sometimes the edges will burn or get too brown. Frankly, the cookies always taste better if you let the dough chill overnight before baking anyway. It's just that most of us don't have the patience!

Fifth, if you like, try leaving out part of the sugar. I find sometimes that these cookies are easier to take if even 1/8 cup (two tablespoons) of the sugar (white or brown) is omitted. Don't leave out more than that though.

If you like, try adding a 10 ounce bag of Reese's peanut butter chips, along with the chocolate chips. This makes a great cookie, but if you do this it is probably best to omit the nuts. Or, try adding a bag of butterscotch chips and substituting oatmeal for the nuts.

A lot of people have written to tell me that they love to add a package of instant vanilla pudding mix. This does sound good and it makes sense for a lot of reasons. I will try it sometime soon.

You can also experiment with untraditional mixes of white and brown sugar until you achieve the version you like best. In addition, although I have not yet tried this myself, I am told that it is possible to substitute honey on a one-to-one basis for the brown sugar, resulting in nice chewy cookies with a longer shelf life. I recently received mail from someone who likes to use almond extract in equal parts with vanilla, and who also tells me that the honey trick didn't work for her. But she does recommend substituting bran for a small part of the flour (I would make it not more than a tablespoon or two) to make the cookies chewier. She sometimes adds cinnamon "to taste," (I'd say, not more than a teaspoon total, and perhaps less) and observes that stirring chopped-up Heath bars into the dough can create a great cookie. (She didn't say this specifically, but I'd advise against using the cinnamon and Heath bars in the same batch.)

Note that Toll House dough, without chips but with a fair amount of cinnamon, might be a nice variation on the traditional American cookie called the "snickerdoodle."

So many people write to me to ask about problems they run into making Toll House cookies, and the #1 problem I hear about is: "My cookies come out flat! What can I do?" This is such a common problem. Here are the first few things you should check:

-make sure your cookie dough is cold when you put it on the cookie sheet. If you have to chill it in between batches, that's what you should do;

-make sure your cookie sheet is cooled to room temperature between batches. I usually rinse mine under the tap to clean off the crumbs and cool it down;

-mix the dough thoroughly but don't over-mix it;

-try adding a tablespoon up to an additional 1/4 cup of flour to the recipe;

-don't overbake.

Some people experiment with adding baking powder instead of, or in addition to, the baking soda which is part of the recipe. I haven't tried this yet. Other people swear that if you use butter flavored Crisco instead of real butter, this problem goes away. Again, I am a butter loyalist and so I haven't tried that (although in the interests of science, someday I should).

However, because of all those hydrogenated fats I mentioned above, you or I might not want to use Crisco or any other form of shortening in our cookies. How, then, to achieve the desired appearance, texture, and consistency? Here's one trick: instead of using all butter in your cookies, you can use half butter and half liquid vegetable oil (like corn, canola, or safflower oil, or even peanut oil!). This results in a nice chewy cookie with a pleasing appearance and flavor, and a longer shelf life than one baked with butter alone.

A correspondent in Canada urges that real maple syrup (emphasis on the real; no Mrs. Butterworth's, please!) also makes a fine substitute for the brown sugar. (I think I'd also advise against using Heath bars and maple syrup together; maple syrup and cinnamon might be OK.)

Another correspondent says that adding a "dollop" of sour cream improves the texture of the cookies, making them chewier and increasing their shelf life. She swears that the sour cream can't be tasted, and I'm sure that's true; sour cream assimilates well into other foods, and these cookies have enough other strong flavors in them that some sour cream shouldn't be noticeable. The $64K question, of course, is: how much is a dollop? I'd say, take a soupspoon and spoon out a heaping scoop of sour cream, maybe an inch or so above the top of the bowl of the spoon at its highest point: that's a dollop. YDMV (Your Dollop May Vary). Experiment and see what you like.

Whether or not you use Heath bars, cinnamon, maple syrup, or other non-standard ingredients, the nuts are optional. Many people prefer chocolate chip cookies without nuts. Alternatively, you can try adding oatmeal (even if you don't add butterscotch chips) in the same volume as the nuts called for by the recipe (but if you do this, be sure to add more liquid). My friend Susan says that she doesn't bother adding more liquid and her cookies turn out fine, but I prefer always to add that extra tablespoon or two of milk. Also, if you add the Reese's peanut butter morsels as discussed above, they melt and create some additional moistness in the cookies.

The morsels don't have to be Nestle. However, in my experience Nestle morsels do melt in a most satisfactory way during the baking process. Ghirardelli and Guittard morsels are very good. I also like the Hershey mini-morsels for this. The standard-size Hershey Morsels, however, do not melt properly -- at least not in the eight-to-ten-minute baking time of cookies -- and I do not recommend them for use in cookies (although they are terrific in brownies, which bake for a much longer period).

The morsels MUST, however, be semisweet (i.e. dark) chocolate. Milk chocolate morsels, which are sold in similar bags to the undiscerning, are massively too sweet to put into these cookies.

I do feel obligated to point out, for that matter,that both the morsels and the baking itself can be optional. Those of us who make chocolate chip cookies know how important it is to sample the dough before baking! And I'd have to confess that sometimes the raw dough (I prefer my raw dough chipless) is even better than the cookies.

If you do like to eat raw dough, though, be careful. Any foodstuff containing raw eggs can harbor salmonella and/or other nasty little bacteria. Don't use eggs that were cracked before you opened them. Wash the eggshells in warm soapy water (and rinse them well) before cracking the eggs and using them. Alternatively, use one of the pasteurized egg substitutes. And remember that raw dough can be risky. It is especially risky for anyone with a susceptibility to infections or a compromised immune system. So be cautious.

But also have fun!

This page was last updated February 28, 2010.

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