Step 1: Fat & Sugar
Fat is added for flavor and controls how chewy or crunchy the cookie is. More fat = a chewier cookie, less fat = a crunchier cookie. Your options for fat are butter, margarine, shortening, or oil. Since shortening melts at a higher temperature, it is the best choice if you want to keep spreading to a minimum.
Sugar is a sweetener (obviously!) and tenderizer, while controlling how much the cookie spreads. Using white sugar will result in a crispier cookie, while brown sugar will help retain moisture, making cookies chewier. Adding sugar increases the spread of a cookie, so cookies with less sugar will be puffier. Ever notice how sugar cookies spread like crazy?!
Step 2: Flour, a Rising Agent, and a Binding Agent
The rising agent or leavener most commonly used is either baking soda or baking powder. If you use baking soda, your recipe must include another acidic ingredient, like sour cream, lemon juice, or buttermilk. On the other hand, baking powder has its own built-in acid. Baking soda increases browning and spreading, resulting in a flatter cookie. Baking powder will give you a puffier cookie.
Binding agents are the liquid in the recipe that hold the cookie together. Examples of binding agents are eggs, milk, honey, and fruit juice. Cookies with more eggs will rise more and spread less. If you want a crispier cookie, you can replace a whole egg with just an egg white. Or, if you want a chewier cookie, you can replace a whole egg with just an egg yolk.
Once you have these basic rules down, you can start to tinker with recipes to make them more to your taste. Like I did! See Part 2 of The Great Sugar Cookie Experiment to see my results or head straight to My Favorite Sugar Cookie Recipe and start baking!
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