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Real Life Balance: Cookie Edition

When I started this blog almost 2 years ago, I told myself I would work in "Real Life Balance." The category, so cleverly named on my blog, would be set aside for things that were unrelated to eating and exercise content. I had aspirations to fill it with fun little articles about all the "other" parts of my life.

Well, It didn't happen. For a long time, I only wanted to write about a very specific type of content. In a way, I still do, but I'm not the crusader that I was 2 years ago. More on that another day...that was a point in my life when I needed to hear my own voice and let others hear it, too. I still feel really strongly about the content I create, but recovery has created more space for other journeys in my life. Most importantly, a journey to baking a perfect chocolate chip cookie. There's no time like the present, where we're all quarantined at home, so here goes nothing. A little bit of "Real Life Balance" for you.

When I was little, I was always in the kitchen with my mom. I always loved baking and learning the methods behind it. Those memories are still with me, and one day I hope to show our future child those ropes too. My love of baking has stayed with me throughout the years, although I had turmoil with that relationship when I was eyeballs deep in diet culture. "Why do you want to do something that will cause you to lose control over your body?" my brain would constantly shout at me. I'm so glad that voice is, for the most part, quieted.

Now, I see baking as so much more than a simple act. It's one thing I feel like I can really create, making something from nothing. I see it as a way to bring joy to others, too - my favorite thing to do is make treats and give them away. I definitely got that from my mom. My whole life, she's baked for other people. It's also a stress relief for me. Being in the kitchen is cathartic, a way to release any negative energy I'm holding on to. Overall, it's HAPPY. There's no way you can be making something filled with chocolate, butter , and sugar and not feel joy (you know?)

The tl;dr is: I honestly believe there isn't much a warm cookie can't fix.

I've learned how precise and unforgiving baking can be. With cooking, you can alter the recipe a little, add a little extra of 'this' or a little less of 'that' to suit your liking, and the recipe might still be amazing. Baking is more relentless. The slightest mistake could lead to a recipe failure. In exchange for perfection, it demands accuracy with almost no room for deviation. I've tried recipe after recipe getting the methods right and learning the science behind cookies, and now I want to share my tips with you. Below are all my secrets to the perfect cookie. You'll thank me later...

Room Temperature Butter + Eggs

This has been a total game changer for me. Unless a recipe specifically calls for something to be cold, assume it should be room temp. At room temp, ingredients bond together more easily. They create an emulsion, allowing for pockets of air to be created. During baking, the pockets of air expand for a fluffy cookie. To get your ingredients to room temp, take them out the night before baking and set them on the counter.

If you didn't plan in advance to bake, I have a few tips. Drop your eggs into warm (not hot!) water for a minute or two and let the water take away the chill from the fridge. For butter, set your sticks on a plate and microwave at 5 second intervals, flipping the butter on it's long side every 5 seconds. Usually after about 20-25 seconds and 4-5 flips, my butter is evenly softened without being too warm or cold. If it's melting on the plate, it's too warm. Over-softened butter could lead to a greasy, flattened cookie. To test the temp, your finger should be able to make a slight indent in the butter without flattening it. If microwaving, flipping it every 5 seconds ensures that the softness is even. I learned a TON about room-temp ingredient's from this post from Sally's Baking Addiction.

Use Real Butter

Real butter has a richness that is extremely hard to mimic with "butter flavored" alternatives like margarine or other oil/plant-based options. While these substitutes might be necessary for dietary restrictions or lifestyle, they might deteriorate from your finished product. The fat content and fat to water ratio in butter is what gives cookies their texture and rise. Alternatives like margarine may have higher water contents, which could lead to a thin, spread out cookie (a "flatty," as we call them in my family).

Spoon and Level Your Flour

Flour has so much to do with the consistency of your finished product, so you want to make sure you get the amount right. I learned that spooning and leveling flour is the most accurate way to do this. If you just take a measuring cup and scoop out a "cup," it's likely not exact - there will be air pockets throughout, creating unfilled spaces and an amount that's less than what you think it is.

When I measure my flour, I do it cup by cup. I spoon in some flour, shake out the cup a little so it falls evenly, then spoon some more. Once I'm at the top, I take a level (or a knife if you don't have one) and run it over the top so I know I have exactly a cup. I do this until I have whatever the recipe calls for. Remember, precision is key.

Chill. Your. Dough.

This one can be HARD, especially if you want a cookie, like, yesterday. I promise, though - if anything has had an effect on my final product, it's dough chilling. When you chill your cookie dough, it solidifies the fat in it, largely controlling the effect of spreading while baking. It can also help with flavor. I learned that as dough chills, the sugar absorbs some of the liquid ingredients, and the carbs break down into sugars. The combination of these chemicals accounts for a more condensed flavor throughout.

At a minimum, dough should be chilled ideally for 1-2 hours before baking, but I find that my cookies come out best when I chill the dough for about 3 hours. Don't skip this step. It's worth the wait and SO gratifying when your cookies don't over spread.

Try a Silicon Baking Mat

This isn't mandatory, but I have found that it helps. Silicone mats create a more even surface of heat for baking, and they prevent the bottoms of your cookies from over-browning or burning. They also don't need to be sprayed with cooking spray, and they make clean up a breeze. Like most people, I hate having to scrub pans. You can get silicon mats on Amazon for good deals, or find them at most stores.

Test Your Oven Temperature

I learned that most ovens are a few degrees off than what they claim to be. Since baking temp is crucial to finished product, I recommend buying a cheap oven thermometer to test the variance on your oven. I discovered that when my oven was at "350," the temperature on my thermometer only read about 345. Now, I know to adjust my oven temp by 5 degrees when baking. I'm not sure how big of a difference this has made, but it can only help with precision.

Roll Ovals, Not Balls

If you're working with a particularly sticky cookie dough, one tip to reduce spreading is to roll your cookie dough balls into taller ovals instead of shorter, round balls. The taller oval shape (meaning longer vertically than horizontally) will ideally spread into an even circle that still has a full, peaked center.

Press On the Chocolate

My secret to a pretty cookie is to press on some additional chocolate chips as soon as they come out of the oven. It takes a while for them to cool and re-harden, but doing it creates that super-delicious look that makes them attractive for pictures, giving away, etc. Not a requirement, but I love the aesthetic.

Use a Good Recipe!

It really helps when you can find a recipe that explains, step by step, how to make the cookies. For that reason, my favorite baking blogger is Sally's Baking Addiction. She walks you through fail-safe ways to get a perfect result. I recommend always reading the recipe through before you attempt it. You might miss a small step if you don't. Here are a few of my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipes, each with their own variation:

Freeze Some Dough

This might be me stretching to make an even '10' baking tips, but I think it can qualify. Usually, a cookie recipe makes at least 2 dozen +. A lot of the time, I either don't need a full 2 dozen or am exhausted from the process and want to be done. In that case, I roll out my cookie dough into balls, put them in a freezer-safe bag or container, and save them for later. I always thank my past self when I'm craving a treat and remembered I put half my last batch in the freezer. Just remember, roll the balls out before freezing them for easy access later.

Now that you're equipped with all the tips - get baking! I genuinely want to see pictures of your cookies, too. That's the content I'm here for. I hope that in some way, this post has helped you - especially if you try cookies all the time and always get the same sad result. Remember: trust the process and the science. Follow the rules. And for the love of all that is holy, please chill your dough.

Good luck!

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