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What is the Secret to Soft (Mrs-Fields-like) Cookies?

 What is the secret to thick, cake-like, soft cookies, à la Mrs. Field? Mine seem to spread in the oven. Is it the flour? eggs? shortening (butter vs. margarine vs. Crisco)? Please help me feed my fussy cookie monster.

 The biggest part of the answer has to do with the shortening you use, although there are a few mechanical steps you can take to keep your cookies from spreading and becoming crisp. If you use all butter, which has a very low melting point, the cookies will spread out rapidly in the oven before they have a chance to set up. This is exaggerated if the butter is quite soft before you start mixing it. Using all shortening, with its much higher melting point, holds the cookie shape intact much better, but it doesn’t do much for the flavor. Shirley Corriher, food scientist and author of Cookwise (Canada, UK), finds a compromise in a mix of half butter and half butter-flavored Crisco (a brand of solid vegetable shortening), but you lose some of the loft. She also says that "margarines have all the disadvantages of butter without its flavor advantage."

There are other steps you can take. Using cake flour instead of all-purpose flour tends to keep the cookie from spreading. Using baking powder instead of baking soda makes the dough slightly acidic, which also inhibits spreading (but remember that baking soda is four times as potent as baking powder, so increase the amount proportionately).

On the mechanical front, there are several things you can do to keep the cookies from spreading and becoming crispy.

  • Once it’s mixed thoroughly, put the dough into the refrigerator to set for a while. The cold dough won’t spread nearly as much before it begins to set up in the oven.
  • Use a small ice-cream scoop to shape round cookies for the baking sheet. The higher and rounder they are, the less they’ll spread.
  • Don’t put the dough on a hot baking sheet — allow it to cool after it comes out of the oven or invest in a fleet of cookie sheets. On a hot sheet, the dough will begin to spread before you even get it into the oven, and you’ve lost part of the battle.

Many people have come across the phony story and recipe to Mrs. Field’s Chocolate Chip Cookie, which we won’t bother repeating here. But Todd Wilbur, who has made something of a career out of recreating junk-food, Taco-Bell, and International-House-of-Pancake recipes and compiling them into cookbooks, swears he came up with Mrs. Field’s recipe on his own. The recipe, along with those for McDonald’s Egg McMuffin, Aunt Jemima Maple Syrup, Hostess Twinkies, and other can't-live-without-'em specialties, appears in Top Secret Recipes (Canada, UK). We don't think it's a very close match, but maybe you'll have better results.

You can decide for yourself whether Wilbur has struck gold or missed the mark entirely. The differences between the Wilbur/Mrs. Field recipe and the standard Toll-House Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe — much more brown sugar and less white sugar (although more sugar over all), the addition of a little baking powder, a pinch more flour and a pinch less salt, and 50% more chocolate chips — seem pretty modest from the standpoint of trying to get a softer, loftier cookie. But, for your fussy cookie monster, it may be worth a try: Mrs. Field’s Chocolate Chip Cookies (According to Todd Wilbur)


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