Good oaty flavor
Why does the man on the Quaker oatmeal package look so smug? Maybe it’s because he’s the cunning perpetrator of a wildly successful cookie con. The evidence is anecdotal but persuasive: When I asked several friends to share their favorite family recipe for oatmeal cookies, many produced (often unbeknownst to them) the recipe from the Quaker Oatmeal website, Quaker’s Best Oatmeal Cookies. The guy on the canister has apparently cornered the market, but do his cookies really deserve all the love?
The recipe goes like this: Use a mixer to cream the butter and sugar and then add an egg and some vanilla. Stir in some flour, leavening, salt (oddly optional in this recipe), spices (a generous amount), and old-fashioned rolled oats, and then spoon the mixture onto baking sheets. As they bake, the cookies fill the house with the heady scents of butter and cinnamon. One bite of a cooled cookie, though, and the problems were apparent: The Quaker standby was crumbly at the edges and dry and cakey in the middle. Plus, the abundant spices overpowered the subtle flavor of the oats. I wanted a cookie with a crispy edge; a dense, chewy middle; and true oaty flavor. I was confident I could attain these goals and, in doing so, topple the oatmeal cookie kingpin. But I wasn’t above using his recipe as a starting point.
I planned to make the salt mandatory instead of optional and to tone down the spices, but other than that I saw no reason to change the key ingredients in the Quaker recipe at this point—they each played a role—so I turned my attention to the ingredient proportions. Most of those seemed OK, too. Only one, the 2½ sticks of butter, stood out as scandalously extravagant. The only cookie I know that has such a high proportion of butter to flour is shortbread, and that was definitely not the texture I was after. Instead, I placed a more reasonable 1½ sticks of softened butter in the mixer bowl. The brown sugar, granulated sugar, egg, vanilla, flour, and baking soda amounts all remained the same. But because I wanted just a hint of spice, I cut the cinnamon back to a mere ¼ teaspoon and eliminated the nutmeg altogether.
All was going well until it was time to add the oats. The mixture was simply too dry to accommodate all of them; I ended up with something that resembled crumble topping more than it did cookie dough.
How Oats Work In Cookies
Because oats are a starch like flour, you might think they would behave the same way in cookie dough. In some ways, they do. Just as with flour, the more oats in the dough, the thicker the resulting cookie. However, flour limits a cookie’s spread by soaking up moisture. Oats, on the other hand, don’t have time to absorb much free water and instead limit the spread of the dough by acting as physical barriers. In effect, oats behave more like solid mix-ins such as nuts, remaining suspended and discrete in dough rather than being an integral part of it.
I abandoned that batch and started over, keeping the butter to 1½ sticks but reducing the flour to 1 cup. This worked better: The cookies weren’t as dry, and with less flour in the mix, the flavor of the oats stood out more.
Unfortunately, these cookies tasted a bit tinny. They also seemed rather lean, and the cakey texture remained. The metallic flavor, I knew, was coming from the baking soda—a full teaspoon was too much for the reduced amount of flour, especially now that there wasn’t as much spice to hide behind. The excess soda might have been contributing to the cakey texture, too, but I suspected something else was at play.
The whole point of creaming butter and sugar when baking is to seed the softened butter with millions of tiny air bubbles. When the alkaline leavener reacts with acidic ingredients in the dough to produce carbon dioxide, the gas inflates the air bubbles, producing a light texture. If I wanted flatter, less cakey cookies, I probably didn’t need—or want—the mixer. But combining the butter and sugar by hand sounded like a chore. Then it occurred to me: If I wasn’t whipping air into it, there was no need for the butter to be solid. Instead, I melted it. Eliminating the creaming step made the recipe easier and, along with cutting the baking soda amount in half, produced cookies that were flatter and denser in a good way. They were still a bit lean, but I didn’t want to increase the butter because of the textural issues, so I’d need to enrich them in another way. And they still weren’t as chewy as I wanted.
No Mixer? No Need
A lot of oatmeal cookie recipes, including Quaker’s Best Oatmeal Cookies, call for using a mixer, but we realized that hauling one out was not only unnecessary but even counterproductive. Mixers are great for incorporating air into cake batters, but that’s exactly what you don’t want for a dense, chewy oatmeal cookie. So we skipped the mixer and simply stirred our dough together in a bowl. And since we didn’t need to whip air into the butter, there was no reason for it to stay in solid form. Melting it made for easier mixing and also gave us the chance to brown it for a flavor boost that enhanced the oaty flavor.
Luckily, I had some experience with making baked goods chewy, having developed our recipe for Chewy Brownies. The key lies in the chemistry of fats. Both saturated fats (such as butter) and unsaturated fats (such as vegetable oil) consist of long chains of carbon atoms strung together with hydrogen atoms attached to them. The carbon chains in saturated fats have the maximum number of hydrogen atoms attached, so they can pack together more closely into a solid like butter. Unsaturated fats have fewer hydrogen atoms attached, so the chains pack more loosely and thus remain fluid, like vegetable oil. The right combination of loosely and tightly packed chains will produce the ideal chewy texture. When developing my brownie recipe, I learned that 3 parts unsaturated fat to 1 part saturated fat was the magic ratio.
Would the same hold true for my oatmeal cookies? With 12 tablespoons of butter (which is mostly saturated fat) and 1 egg, the fat in my recipe was currently 35 percent unsaturated and 65 percent saturated. For my next batch of cookies, I switched out 8 tablespoons of butter for ½ cup of vegetable oil. I also added an extra egg yolk for richness. Now the cookies had 71 percent unsaturated fat and 29 percent saturated, which was much closer to that 3:1 ideal.
For a Chewy Cookie, Cut the (Saturated) Fat
When our cookies were coming out cakey and tender rather than dense and chewy, we knew to look at the fat—specifically, the types of fat we were using and their proportion to each other. More saturated fat (e.g., butter) will produce baked goods with a tender texture, while more unsaturated fat (e.g., vegetable oil) leads to a chewier baked good. We were using all butter up to this point, so swapping in vegetable oil for some of that butter (and adding another egg yolk) gave us a ratio of about 3 parts unsaturated fat to 1 part saturated—and cookies that met our chewy, dense ideal.
So how were they? Crispy on the edges and chewy in the middle, the texture was at last spot-on. But with so much of the butter replaced by neutral-tasting vegetable oil, they were a bit bland and boring. The recipe would need a few more tweaks.
If I had only 4 tablespoons of butter to work with, I was determined to get as much flavor out of it as I could, so I cooked it in a skillet until it was fragrant and the milk solids had turned a dark golden brown before transferring it to the mixing bowl. And rather than increasing the amount of cinnamon, I added the ¼ teaspoon to the warm browned butter to let it bloom, making its flavor rounder and more complex. Correct seasoning is every bit as important in sweets as it is in savory dishes; for my last adjustment, I bumped up the salt to ¾ teaspoon.
The three tweaks were, in combination, surprisingly effective. My cookies now had not only the right texture but also a rich, toasty flavor: buttery, sweet oats with a subtle spice background. A small handful of raisins stirred into the last batch of dough added pops of bright flavor and reinforced the cookies’ chew. Knowing that they’re a controversial addition, I kept them optional in the recipe.
The Quaker guy no longer has the best recipe, so I guess I’ll have to come up with another reason for his smug expression now. Maybe it’s the hat.