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Saturday, December 28, 2013
Food / Drink ...

I came across a very informative article last week about an amateur baker’s search for the perfect cookie. This fellow, Kenji Lopez-Alt, took a scientific approach; he would vary the basic ingredients in his dough and repeatedly bake up different batches, and then recording the end results (in terms of taste, texture, mouth-feel, density, crunchiness, etc.) for comparison against the other batches. Mr. Lopez-Alt even photographed the resulting cookies for visual comparison. In the process, he gained an appreciation for what each of the classic elements of a cookie recipe does, i.e. how it interacts with the other ingredients to give certain characteristics to the baked cookie.

I have baked a lot of cookies in my life, but for the most part I have followed recipes or improvised based on instinct. I never sat down and thought about what the various ingredients do and how they interact, so as to allow me to mix and match ingredients and tweek the mixing and baking techniques in order to get the cookie characteristics that I am after. If Mr. Lopez-Alt is right, however, then perhaps there is a science to it; perhaps a cookie can be “designed” before it is mixed and baked, so as to actually turn out roughly the way that the baker intended.

Once again, I must admit that my own cookie baking experience to date has not been very scientific. For the most part, I take the a “seat-of-the-pants” approach; I get out my ingredients, mix them up, and then its bombs away, hoping for the best. I am always open to surprises. Most of the time the cookies have been edible, and some of the time they have been truly great. But as to capturing what separates the good from the great — that I have not yet been able to do.

It got even worse a few years ago when I decided to move my vegetarian status up to “near-vegan”; in other words, no more butter or eggs in my cookies. And as a healthy food aficionado, I need to keep the salt under control too, so no making up for gaps with increased amounts of baking soda or powder. My attempts at substituting for these key ingredients has yielded some very unpredictable results; things in cookie-land have become much more unpredictable for me than when using the old tried and true animal products.

However, Mr. Lopez-Alt’s article gives me new hope in regaining a reliable and enjoyable cookie outcome under my 99% vegan philosophy. So, let’s review what he found out in his quest for the perfect chocolate chip cookie, and see how it can be applied to the tricky problem of baking vegan cookies.

OK, first, let’s talk fat. Mr. L-A favors butter in his cookies; but of course, many cookie bakers use hard vegetable shortening or some mix of shortening and butter. Both are off limits for me; butter for its animal origins, shortening for all the saturated fats in it (supposedly Crisco has eliminated the trans-fats that used to be in it). Let’s see what Mr. L-A says about butter versus shortening:

As butter melts and the cookie’s structure loosens, this frees up water, which in turn dissolves baking soda. This baking soda is then able to react with the acidic components of brown sugar, creating gases that cause the cookies to rise up and develop a more open interior structure. Butter is about 80 to 83% butterfat, 15% water, and 3 to 5% milk protein. Because of shortening’s different melting qualities (and the fact that it has no water content), shortening-based cookies come out softer but more dense than those made with butter.

OK, then, we learned that cookie dough needs some water. Since I am not going to use either butter or shortening in my quest to keep the saturated fat down, and since I want as healthy a fat as possible, it looks like I am going to be using canola oil, or perhaps a mix of canola and olive oil (going for more monounsaturates). Oil and water don’t mix, but perhaps a little bit of lecithin as an emulsifier can be used to good advantage, to get the oil to be a little more butter-like (i.e., contain some agua). It turns out, however, that eggs are the biggest source of water in a cookie dough:

Other than the small amount in the butter, eggs are the main source of water in a cookie dough recipe.

We already know that a bit of water is needed to set off the baking soda (either alone or within a baking powder mix — more on that below). But water also does something with the gluten in the flour (I don’t have a gluten problem, so I will not be addressing the gluten-free problem here). Because of the extra water, you also get more gluten formation, which again leads to a taller cookie (provided you use enough flour to absorb that extra water).

Since I am not going to use either eggs or butter, I will need another method to introduce some water into the dough. I suppose that I could just pour a few tablespoons into the dough mix, but I get the feeling (not being very scientific here) that it would best be introduced via the oil, through an oil-water emulsifying agent (i.e., a small amount of soy lecithin, either powdered or liquid — the liquid version might be somewhat better here.)

Some water can also be introduced via the egg substitute. Before we get to that, let’s try to understand the function of eggs in a cookie recipe.

Egg proteins are particularly good at trapping and retaining bubbles of air or water vapor. The higher the proportion of egg white in a cookie, the more it rises during baking. Egg yolks also provide some moisture and protein, but more importantly they provide a well-emulsified source of fat. When cooked, egg yolk forms a tender protein coagulum that can keep cookies tender and fudge-like. A high proportion of egg yolk leads to a more brownie-like texture in a finished cookie.

Another baking site says this regarding eggs:

Replacing eggs is the most challenging aspects of vegan baking. Those suckers bind, they leaven and they give structure to our baked goods

So, we are going to need something to replace eggs that binds, helps to leaven (via water), and traps air or water vapor bubbles. One favorite substitute is ground flax seed mixed with water. Various vegan cooking sites suggest that a tablespoon of ground flax seed (golden flax preferred) mixed with 3 tablespoons of water will do the job of one egg white. Wet flax powder becomes very gooey and gelatinous, i.e. it is naturally “mucilaginous”. So we now have moisture and some binding; however, another site says that flax powder “does not have the ability to make and hold bubbles the way egg whites do”. Perhaps we need something a little more “gummy” for that.

And so, another common substitute for egg whites is xantham gum. They don’t call this stuff “gum” for nothing. It looks like cornstarch powder, but when mixed into a baking recipe, it definitely can gum up the works. I have found that you need to be careful with xantham; don’t overuse it. Even 1 teaspoon might be too much for a typical cookie recipe. Another site suggests using just 1/8 teaspoon of xantham mixed with 1 tablespoon of tapioca powder, since tapioca is also a bit “mucilaginous”. But hey, why not try adding a bit of xantham with flax seed powder? Now we might get something that is both gooey and yet gummy enough to trap air bubbles. The only danger I can see is in mixing the xantham in with water, as would happen if xantham were mixed in with the usual flax-water slurry that is suggested as an egg substitute.

Therefore, I am going to suggest adding the water not with the flax, but via the oil (using some lecithin). Then, a few steps later, I would add dry ground flax powder and xantham powder (perhaps 1/4 teaspoon of xantham with 1 tablespoon of ground flax) into the flour, before mixing the flour into the dough. More on that when we get to the overall mixing sequence. For now, we have something to replace eggs.

But P.S., another suggested egg replacement is over-ripe bananas; a squished-up half-banana is said to replace 1 egg. Supposedly, squished banana will hold air bubbles well and impart moisture and do some binding (but not as much as flax). The problem is that banana also has it’s own distinctive flavor. It go well with vanilla sugar cookies, but doesn’t sound too promising for chocolate chip. I think I would rather go with flax seed for that (with a bit of xantham), which at worst imposes a slightly roasted grain taste.

Now lets get on to sugars. There is really not any “healthy” alternative here. If you want to eat cookies, you need sugar. I myself usually cut the amount of sugar that I put in a cookie dough by 30 to 40%; I just don’t need anymore that “big bawdy taste” that lots of sugar gives a good cookie. But unless you want a biscuit, you are going to need something sweet. I have experimented with various sugar alternatives including glycerine (i.e. alcohol sugars) and corn syrup, but good old sucrose sugar still makes the best cookies, even if used in lesser amounts. Here is what Mr. L-A has to say about sugar:

The type of sugar you use and its method of incorporation can have a profound effect on the finished cookies. White sugar is crystallized sucrose . . . it is mildly hygroscopic (that is, it likes to retain moisture), and relatively neutral in pH.

Brown sugar is mostly crystallized sucrose, but also contains a good amount of glucose and fructose, along with trace minerals that give it its flavor and a slightly acidic pH. Glucose and fructose are far more hygroscopic than sucrose (thus brown sugar helps to retain moisture versus white sugar). Brown sugar has another advantage over white: it caramelizes more readily, leading to more intense flavor. Sugar molecules will dissolve readily in water, but not in fat.

Dissolving too much sugar can lead to a texture that’s too uniform. With sugar left in distinct grains, the pockets of melted sugar that caramelize within the cookie as it bakes remain irregular, giving the cookie more textural interest. Too much pre-dissolved sugar thus gives a uniform texture and less cracking on top.

Slightly acidic brown sugar causes cookies to rise higher when baking (helps to trigger off the reaction turning baking soda to carbon dioxide), which limits their spread. You end up with a cakier end result. White sugar, on the other hand, adds no leavening power, so you end up with a cookie that spreads wide. Because white sugar-based cookies more readily give up moisture, they also end up more crisp.

OK, then — so, we probably want at least some brown sugar mixed in with the powdered white sugar for most cookies. And we want to avoid too much melting of sugar with water up-front, if we want those cracked ridges that make some cookies seem so appealing (to me, anyway). We want some of the sugar in the dough to go into the oven still in powdered form, not melted by water. Let’s keep that in mind when we derive the final mixing sequence.

Oh, by the way — if you totally don’t want any cracking on top of your cookies, and you want something soft and wide, get out some corn syrup and mix a little bit in with the sugars:

If you want the absolute chewiest, most uniformly textured cookies, try replacing some of the white sugar with corn syrup, a sugar that is even more hygroscopic. You end up with wide, flat cookies that stay soft and flexible even when completely cooled. It also caramelizes faster, making the cookie brown faster. Corn syrup is so darn powerful, in fact, that even a small amount of it will completely alter the texture of your cookie; you will get soft, wide, dark and flexible cookies with almost no cracking on top.

Again, I like cracked-top cookies that are a bit crumbly and not too soft or wide. But once in a blue moon, I might try this variation.

Next, let’s think about leavening — the stuff that makes the cookie rise, keeps it from tasting like a sugared poker chip. Our choices are baking powder versus baking soda. I never understood the difference, why you sometimes use one versus the other in cookies. Mr. L-A finally explained it for me:

Baking Soda is pure sodium bicarbonate—an alkaline powder. When dissolved in liquid and combined with an acid, it rapidly reacts, breaking down into sodium, water, and carbon dioxide. Of course, for baking soda to work, a recipe needs to include a significant acidic ingredient. (Brown sugar is acidic, whereas white sugar is not; brown sugar will thus set off baking soda, while white sugar will not).

Baking Powder, on the other hand, is baking soda with powdered acids built right in. In its dry state, it’s totally inert. But once you add a liquid, the powdered acid and base dissolve and react with each other, creating bubbles of carbon dioxide without the need for an external acid source like brown sugar. Most baking powders these days are double acting, which means that it contains two different powdered acids. One that reacts immediately upon mixing with water, and another that only reacts after it’s heated, giving cakes and cookies a little boost early on in the baking phase. Once you add a liquid, the powdered acid and base dissolve and react with each other, creating bubbles of carbon dioxide without the need for an external acid source.

Making cookies with varying degrees of both soda and powder, I found that baking powder generally produces cakier cookies that rise higher during baking, producing smoother, shinier tops, while soda yields cookies that are craggier (cracked) and denser in texture. Once you mix a batter, your baking soda or baking powder immediately begins producing gas, and that gas almost immediately being trying to escape into the air. So your goal is to cook the batter and set the proteins within it before the gas has time to fully escape.

OK, so it looks like baking soda also contributes to cracked-top cookies, but you need something acidic to set it off. Brown sugar will do it. If you don’t use brown sugar, then either go to mostly baking powder, or add a touch of vinegar to the dough to set off the baking soda. But only do that at the end, because the gas might otherwise escape before being able to be trapped in the dough, which makes the cookie rise while baking (and thus avoiding flat, solid, un-edible cookies). Less baking soda and more baking powder gets you more fluffy, well-risen cookies, but with smoother tops, less cracking on the surface.

One other note about the choice of leaving: the more baking soda present, the more alkaline the overall cookie will be. And alkaline cookie dough tends to brown more. As it turns out, the Maillard reaction responsible for the browning of food proteins occurs better in alkaline environments, which means that once you’ve added enough baking soda to neutralize the acid in a batter or dough, any extra you add will work to increase browning.

So, this is another good argument for more straight baking soda / less baking powder — but not too much, as the stuff does add a lot of sodium, which is not good from a health perspective. Obviously, I will not be adding any extra salt, which Mr. L-A would disagree with. He feels that salt enhances flavor. I believe that a nicely browned (but not burnt) cookie with just enough (but not too much) caramelized sugar and emulsified oil-fat will have quite enough flavor and mouth-feel, without the need for the unhealthy effects of extra sodium.

Now, a bit about flour:

More Bread Flour = Chewier Cookies, More Cake Flour = Softer Cookies (same effect from kneading; chilling reverses)

Extra flour will give you cookies that barely spread at all as they bake, with centers that stay dense and dough-like, even after being almost fully cooked.

Thus, less flour relative to sugar, butter, etc. = lacier cookies; More flour overall = doughier cookies

Since I am using less sugar than usual, I should expect somewhat doughier, thicker cookies with dense centers. That should be OK for me, but does need to be watched (don’t want the center to be un-baked). As to type of flour: bread flour has more gluten, so it will make the cookies chewier, possibly even tougher. Cake flour has little gluten, making the cookies soft. This sounds like a good argument for using regular flour, which is in-between cake and bread flower.

It’s just about time to put together a cookie dough mixing and baking plan; flour is probably a good lead-in, since flour is affected by the mixing process. I.e., too much mixing leads to kneading, which sets up rubber-band molecule structures with the flour.

Because extra kneading creates a stronger gluten network, the cookies also end up rather tough. Thus, less kneading = craggier cookies (cracked tops) and better texture

OK, so we might want to be careful about not mixing the ingredients too vigorously, especially after the flour is mixed in. But one trick to “un-knead” the dough is to chill it in the refrigerator before baking. Cold temps allow the rubbery flour molecule structures to “relax”. There is also another advantage to pre-chilling, at least in my book:

The starting temperature of dough also affects the outcome. Cookies cooked straight from the fridge will stay a little more compact, while those that are allowed to warm will spread out more.

I don’t usually like thin, spread-out cookies, so I will do some pre-chilling, for at least a half-hour. The gas-leavening process will have already begun, but I believe that the cold temps in the refrigerator slows this down, such that you don’t have to worry that your cookies won’t rise because you waited too long to bake them after mixing the dough.

But up front — where do we begin? I’ve gotten sloppy over the years; I often dump the flour in a bowl, mix in sugar and baking soda and/or powder, dump in some oil and some flavoring, and mix it up. Mr. L-A makes the case for careful cookie dough mixing, starting with “creaming”, i.e. blending the fat and sugar together before adding flour.

In the early creaming / beating stages of making a cookie, cool butter is beaten until it’s light and fluffy. During the process, some air is incorporated and some of the sugar dissolves in the butter’s water phase. This air in turn helps leaven the cookies as they bake, giving them some lift.

Even though I will be using canola oil with water and lecithin instead of butter, I will “cream” it with the sugar up-front from now on, as to get more air in the mix. I’m going to need that air to help control the “doughy center” problem identified above. But, given the need to keep some sugar in crystal form, I will split the overall sugar amount, say 2/3 to be “creamed” up front, and 1/3 to be mixed in with the flour and thus introduced towards the end of the process. That final 1/3 will more likely stay crystalline and contribute to the “interesting structure”.

So, I will get out an electric beater and get some air in with that oil, water, lecithin and brown and white sugar. Then, add the normal amount of vanilla extract — but I will probably use imitation vanilla. I agree with Mr. L-A that most name-brand imitation vanilla extracts give cookies that are just as good as when using pure (and more expensive) vanilla.

Then we mix up the flour, leavening (perhaps mostly baking soda, if brown sugar is being used), and the residual sugar, and any nuts or chocolate chips; then we fold this dry mix into the beaten oil and sugar. We don’t stir too much, as to avoid kneading. Now we have cookie dough, and into the refrigerator it goes for a half hour or so.

Then we cut the dough and put it on a baking pan, while getting the oven ready. Does oven temp make any difference? Here’s what Mr. L-A says:

I baked cookies at various temperatures in 25°F increments ranging from 250°F up to 450°F. When baked at a lower temperature, the dough has more of a chance to spread out, leading to flatter, wider cookies. Conversely, cookies baked at higher temperatures spread less. Even a difference of as little as 50°F makes a big difference. Cooler Oven = Wide Cookies. Hotter Oven = Compact Cookies

OK, so I will tend towards a somewhat hotter oven to avoid spreading out; but not too hot, given that I want the cookie to be baked long enough to avoid the “doughy center” problem that my high flour-to-sugar/oil ratio might cause. So, perhaps the usual 350 to 375 degree range will do; actually I may try the low end, 350, given that everything else in my chilled cookie dough is designed for high rise / low spread. But then again, I do like a few cookies to have almost-burnt bottoms, as I don’t really like “pale bottoms”. So I may do one pan at 350, then one at 375, to see what happens.

So that’s my plan for half-way decent vegan cookies. I will follow up this blog with a note about the actual results! I suspect that even after all of this research and planning, getting a good vegan cookie out of the oven without butter or eggs will still involve some trial and error, despite all of this good information and analysis. But hey, it really wouldn’t be any fun if we knew right up front exactly how to make the perfect vegan cookie!!!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:40 pm      

  1. Jim, Who knew! that there was so much chemistry involved in making a Vegan Cookie, well, actually in making *any* cookie! So you have here a good and detailed description of that chemistry and how it applies to cookies called “Vegan”.

    There is, however, something I still don’t understand after that long chemical explanation of trying to make vegan cookies: So with all due respect: I’ve heard of cookies called chocolate chip, ginger bread, sugar, macadamia nut, oatmeal, oatmeal with raisin, spritz, and various permutations on any of these and a lot of others I have not mentioned. There are rows and rows of cookies in the grocery store, all different, a whole boat load of cookies – all of which tell me exactly what kind of cookie I’m actually going to eat.

    Yet, after that detailed chemical description, I still have no clue as to what a *Vegan cookie* must be like.


    With all due respect, while it is important to reduce things to their parts, I tend to wonder if the whole has not suffered in this case.


    I understand all the substitutes for all the “good stuff” in cookies but in the end I find myself wondering just what a *vegan cookie* must taste like. Somewhere in this post I respectfully feel that the essential question has been left out: Exactly what kind of cookie will I get when I eat a “Vegan” cookie. No sugar? no eggs? no butter? no chocolate? no raisins? etc. . . .

    I am glad you are happy that you are on the way to discovering a good “Vegan cookie”, and I truly hope you enjoy them thoroughly. It’s always a happy occasion when one spends a lot of time baking or cooking and then truly enjoying the results. But I still have no clue what you are eating when you say you are eating a “Vegan cookie”. MCS

    Comment by Mary — December 29, 2013 @ 7:16 pm

  2. Jim, Some tangential tho’ts that somehow fit this post – or maybe not; I’m not sure. I must also say that these observations, reflections are not meant critically or disrespectfully in any way, shape, or form. Just some observations I’ve been thinking about for a while that seem maybe to fit here. I admit here that my observations on diet apply to me too, most certainly. (I should admit that I too have my own “specialized diet” that consists of whatever happens to be in the cupboards, whatever someone else makes for dinner [except certain items] is what I will eat – with maybe an emphasis on chocolate for a preference.)

    It seems to me that only in America can/do people pick and choose what they will eat. In so many parts of the world people will be glad for *anything*, just plain food would be wonderful to have at any time. It seems to me that people in so many countries of the world (perhaps especially some of the places in Africa) would be happy for absolutely anything at all that can be classified as food for human beings.

    Another strictly general observation that continues to make me wonder; and once again, it’s one of those “only in America” kind of things: Only in America it seems can/is there be a serious emphasis on being thin. In some countries of the world having some “meat on one’s bones” may be a sign of wealth, as in “we have enough money to actually buy food”. But Americans who have more food than they can eat, who can pick and choose what they eat (including chocolate) are obsessed with the worry that they will “get fat”. One has to admit that being “fat” in America most certainly is not “in” – not in any way, shape, or form (and here I am not sure if the pun is intended or not). As I say, it seems to me that worry about “being fat” is once again an “only in America” kind of thing.

    Then too, it seems to me that other cultures and/or countries somehow seem to have a “built in” gene that somehow or other “regulates” how much they eat and perhaps what kinds of food they eat. It appears to me (and maybe I’m wrong and/or uninformed here) that food is no “biggie” concern of theirs. I don’t know what it is. (Well, already I can omit the French, I guess.) Perhaps I just am lacking in awareness of how other countries live and work and are.

    I’m willing to admit it may just be me; yet up to now I find these observations to be peculiarly American. MCS

    Comment by Mary — December 30, 2013 @ 2:50 pm

  3. Jim, Still musing about food. Perhaps it’s that there’s a built in mechanism of survival that makes humans obsess about food, one way or the other.

    If there’s not enough of it (as in the starving people of this world), people can think of nothing else. If there’s too much of it, people can think only of how to not eat so much. Could *that* be the answer to what’s bothering me about this whole “foodie” thing? Maybe. I guess I’ll still keep thinking about it. MCS

    [Let’s go back here — my post is about how to bake a nice cookie if you happen to be a vegan. I’m not sure this is the right post to discuss the starving people of the world — unless one is ready to give up little frivolities in life such as cookies, or say “let them eat cake!” Or cake-like cookies.

    But if we are going to bring up the starving, let’s remember — eggs, meat and animal products that are manufactured by big business, which are mostly what we non-vegan Americans consume, use up a lot more resources than vegan food; for the same resources, a lot more non-animal food calories can be produced. Which might lower prices and help make food more accessible to the starving.]

    Comment by Mary — January 1, 2014 @ 10:23 am

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