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Looking to improve your cookie baking game? Want to really understand how to improve your cookies? If so, we might have a great book tip for you!
Why do you buy a new cookbook? To gather recipes? Because it looks good? Generally speaking, I buy cookbooks for two main reasons. One, books that make it easier to find recipes without having to scroll endlessly. Books focused on a specific niche, whether it’s a cuisine or a type of food (e.g. cookies!) are great for this. Second, I enjoy buying books that teach me something new. Being a food scientist, I thoroughly enjoy deep dives into how our food works, as well as in-depth, but accessible, explanations of food. Even better if experiments (especially failed ones) are included! Books that satisfy both these needs are at the top of my wish list.
It’s why I was intrigued by Tessa Arias’ (better known as the founder and owner of Handle the Heat) Ultimate Cookie Handbook. On her website, she often explains why something should be done the way it’s instructed by sharing comparisons and test results, which I love. A great example of that was a guide to the ultimate chocolate chip cookie that she published years ago. This book brings the guide to a whole new level. It’s been amped up with more explanations, a beautiful layout, clear tips and tricks, and even more delicious cookie recipes to try. We were excited to start using it!
We received a free copy of The Ultimate Cookie Handbook with no obligation to write a review. All opinions are our own.
Using the Book
The best way to evaluate a cookbook is, of course, to actually use it. So, I got to work by reading the book from start to finish. Even though the recipes make up a little over half of the overall page count, it’s not what attracted me to the book. It’s the explanation of cookie science that precedes the recipes, that makes it so appealing. Having read about the role of ingredients and how to customize and troubleshoot my cookies, I wanted to then bake some cookies to bring this to life. It wasn’t easy to choose which cookie to make, they all looked great, thanks to the beautiful photography. I ended up choosing:
- chocolate chip cookies: that cookie style serves as a key reference in the cookie science section
- gingersnaps: which contained both a chewy and crispy version, which of course we wanted to test to see whether the theory worked in practice
- brownie cookies: just because it sounded yummy
- dulce de leche cookies: because we happened to have some dulce de leche left over from some earlier experiments
Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookie
In the introduction, Tessa Arias shares why she became interested in the science and behavior of cookies. One of the reasons that jumped out for me is an observation she made when hosting a baking challenge on her website. Upon seeing the entries for the same recipe come in, she couldn’t help but notice just how different they were. Even though everyone had followed the same recipe. She started digging and quickly realized that there are a lot of factors that can influence how a recipe turns out, even if people are all following the same instructions!
Deviating from the recipe
It’s something I ran into while making these chocolate chip cookies! Despite having the intention to follow the chocolate chip cookie recipe to the t, I made some changes, some by accident, some on purpose. I accidentally mixed the brown butter with sugar only after it had cooled (even though the recipe says to do it when hot). I had to deviate from the recipe since I didn’t have chocolate chips, only chocolate wafers (whereas the recipe called for both). Nor do I own a cookie scoop, so I guesstimated the size of the cookies.
It’s these types of changes that are discussed in one of the first chapters of the book: the baking sheet you use, the scoops, the way you measure and mix. They can all have an impact on the cookie and Tessa Arias clearly explains how and why. This section especially helps you understand that even a perfect recipe can fail because of factors outside of the control of the recipe writer!
All of this highlighted that yes, you’ll probably deviate from recipes here and there, but, that’s ok. The cookie science chapters will help you overcome and correct these inconsistencies. For example, using the tips from the book, I adjusted the baking time of the brown butter chocolate chip cookies to adjust for a difference in dough portions.
Experimenting with the recipe
Of course, being the scientist I am, I couldn’t help but test a few other lessons that are taught in the earlier sections of the book. For the brown butter chocolate chip cookies, I decided to focus on baking mats & resting time.
Impact of baking mats on spreading
In the first chapter, the author discusses a range of tools that will improve your cookies. For instance, she highly recommends using weight measurements, not volumetric ones (I wholeheartedly agree with that!). She also recommends using silicone-coated parchment paper. I, however, am more a fan of using my Silpat mats (these are fiberglass mesh strengthened silicone baking mats). I can re-use them (less waste! especially since silicone-coated parchment paper is harder to recycle) and they fit perfectly in my baking trays.
Tessa Arias does warn that using these instead of parchment paper will increase spreading.
We did indeed find that the type of paper/mat below the cookies can impact spreading. Interestingly though, we found the opposite of what was stated in the book! Our particular silicone baking mats decreased spreading compared to parchment paper. It again shows how small differences can make an impact. We might have used a different parchment paper and silicone mat than the author did during testing. So yes, which mats you use is important and it’s worthwhile exchanging them if you’re not getting the spread of cookies you’re looking for!
Impact of resting
The cookie recipe advised to chill the dough at least 24h before baking. I was impatient though and decided to bake some immediately, and some the next day (>12h later, but a little less than 24h). I can’t say I tasted or saw a difference, which doesn’t mean there wasn’t one, I’m not a supertaster.
All in all, small changes can sometimes have quite an impact, whereas others might not be as important. You don’t always know in advance, but the book gives you more than enough ideas on what to change in case the recipe doesn’t turn out the way you expect it to.
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One of my favorite chapters in the book is the ‘cookie customization’ chapter. It gives you tips and tricks for making a chewy, soft, crispy, cakey, thick, or thin. This brownie cookie is clearly an example of a very light and soft cookie. Thanks to the enormous amounts of chocolate (it’s the major ingredient of this cookie) the cookies are both chocolatey and light (which isn’t easy for chocolate-rich cookies that have a tendency to be heavy).
Thanks to the customization chapter I know that adding extra fat will make the cookies softer (cream cheese is given as an example. Also, I knew from reading that chapter that chilling would help prevent flat cookies, resulting is thick (but not too thick!) cookies. Delicious!
Impact of oven temperature
Of course, I did another experiment with these cookies. This time, I changed the baking temperatures and yet again compared the Silpat vs parchment paper. I got the same parchment paper vs. Silpat results as for the chocolate chip cookies, so here I’ll focus on the effect of temperature.
In hindsight, this might not have been the best cookie to experiment with temperature on. Since these cookies are already very brown and don’t turn browner in the oven, you can’t see any differences. Since I adjusted the baking time (colder was baked for longer), the cookies turned out quite similarly. The difference between the baking mats was bigger than that between temperatures!
Gingersnaps (chewy & crispy)
This is probably one of my favorite recipes, simply because it contains 2 versions: a chewy and a crispy one, putting into practice all the advice given in earlier sections!
In one of the science chapters, Tessa Arias does recommend increasing the granulated sugar content and using more butter (or less flour) to make a crispy cookie. And that’s the main difference between the chewy and crispy gingersnaps (apart from a minor change in baking soda/powder content).
I made both types and did indeed end up with a crispy and a chewy version. Even though I had expected a slight failure since I didn’t have the required molasses, and used a Dutch syrup alternative, it still worked out good!
Experimenting with baking times
One of the recommendations in the book for making a crispy cookie is to increase the oven temperature or increase baking time. The opposite is true as well, a softer cookie could use a lower temperature or less baking time. We decided to put this to the test, focusing on the baking time of the crispy cookies.
We tested both a 12 and 15 minute baking time. As expected, the longer baking time resulted in a crisper cookie, but, it did almost burn the cookie.
This is where I decided to have a look at another favorite chapter of mine, chapter 4 ‘cookie troubleshooting’. This chapter is similar to the cookie customization one, but, it focuses on things gone wrong with your cookie. It has tips and advice on how to resolve flat, uneven, crumbly, burnt, bland, greasy, and more cookie issues. Of course, the tip for burnt cookies was to reduce the baking time. Which I did, giving a perfectly crisp (not burnt) gingersnap.
Dulce de Leche cookies
Last, but not least, I made dulce de leche cookies. No experiments, nothing, just the cookies and they turned out great. They might have been the most delicious of the bunch. Soft, milky, sweet, rich, delicious and the perfect snack to re-read the book after having experimented with it.
Did I learn something new? For sure, yes. I might have known a lot of the cookie science facts already, putting them all together in one place really helps to see the bigger cookie science picture. Also, I never really realized that the acidity of cocoa powder should be taken into account when choosing between baking soda and baking powder.
Could the book contain even more tips and tricks? Sure, it could, but it might start to become overwhelming and its conciseness is one of the book’s strengths. It is 100% scientifically correct? No (e.g. most chocolate chips do not contain hydrogenated oils, otherwise they wouldn’t be allowed to be called chocolate chips), but almost nothing is perfect. It’s good enough for the goal it’s trying to achieve and for those looking for an accessible book, not a complicated textbook.
Overall evaluation of the book
I very much enjoyed reading the book and baking some of its recipes. The recipes were good (and delicious), but it’s the cookie science chapters that set this book apart from others. It doesn’t just give you the recipes, it gives you the tools to make them and develop your own if you’d wanted to!
Of course, there’s not a single book that’s perfect, nor one that’s suitable for every single person. A few things to consider before deciding whether this book is the best fit for you:
- This book focuses on so-called drop cookies. Cookies that you ‘drop’ onto your baking surface in a heap. The recipes do contain a few others types of recipes (e.g. sugar cookies), but the explanations and analysis of cookies do focus on drop cookies.
- It’s written from a North American mindset, which of course makes sense seeing how the author lives in the USA. However, some ingredients may be a little harder to get in other regions or have different names (his is especially true for chocolates). Or, you may just prefer different types of cookies (though using her guidance, you might just be able to tweak the recipes in such a way to suit your personal needs). Also, are cookie scoops an American thing? Don’t think I’d be able to get one here? (I just use a spoon, works fine as well.)
- Almost all recipes contain flour, butter, sugar. If you’re following a gluten-free, dairy-free, or sugar-free diet. This book is not the one for you.
We think this book is a great addition to our cookbook collection. So to end, a few other aspects that made us smile:
- It’s dedicated to a specific topic. If I want to make cookies, I know I’ll have to grab this book. (It’s what I find a major disadvantage with books such as Cook’s Science, they cover so many random topics that I wouldn’t know when to look into the book).
- It’s very well designed. Design isn’t everything, but it sure helps make this book a great read. Each and every recipe contains very clear photos (which makes choosing which recipe to make a lot easier).
- All recipes are given in weight measurements (alongside the volumetric ones)! A great plus for an American cookbook, love it. It also makes it a lot easier to downscale the recipes. I made 1/2 batches for each of them since the original batch sizes were way too big for me.
You can buy the cookbook on the Handle the Heat website.