Baking Cookies: What the hell is going on here?

As part of my job as a cook in a retirement home, I have to come up with some sort of “sweet treats” for the residents between breakfast and lunch, and between lunch and dinner. I usually bake some mini muffins for the morning break, and some cookies for the afternoon.

The problem is that I’m not a baker. “Cook” and “baker” are two different professions/skill sets, and I am unequipped in the “baker” department. So while I know what to do to correct problems with meals (entrees, etc.), I’m at a complete loss as to how to correct baking failures. The only “baking” I’ve done in a restaurant has involved using prepared mixes that are formulated for baking in a restaurant environment, i.e. Krusteaz buttermilk biscuit mix, Baker’s Choice basic muffin mix, etc.

My attempts at baking cookies from scratch are what’s giving me trouble. I have the Joy of Cooking cookbook, which has some excellent cookie recipes. I’ve gotten tired of serving the chocolate chip cookies, so I decided to try the Joy of Cooking snickerdoodles recipe today. I remember my mother baking snickerdoodles when I was a kid, and I liked those cookies (her recipe came from the Better Homes & Gardens cookbook, though, probably a 1960s-70s edition).

So I whipped up a batch of snickerdoodles, following the recipe exactly*. I’ve already discovered that baking scratch cookies in a commercial convection oven can be hit or miss, especially when using a recipe that was designed for cooking at home in a conventional oven. Fortunately, we have a conventional oven here (in addition to two convection ovens), and I decided to use that oven to bake my cookies.

Complete failure. The cookies, which should have ended up being about 1/4" thick and 3" in diameter ended up about 1/16" thick and 5" across :mad:

I checked the oven with my own, accurate oven thermometer (I don’t rely on employer-provided thermometers — employers are notoriously cheap). The temp was correct.

The only explanation I have is that I used *margarine instead of the butter the recipe called for. I would rather use butter, but this being a retirement home I’m forced to use margarine for health reasons.

Experienced bakers out there: Could the margarine-instead-of-butter be the reason these cookies failed?

Alternatively, I suppose it’s possible that I over-mixed the dough at some stage of the process.

I don’t have my cookbook at hand (I keep it at work), but the recipe went something like this (from memory):

In a bowl, whisk together 2 cups flour, 2 tsp cream of tartar, 1 tsp baking soda, and 1/4 tsp salt.

Cream together 1 cup butter and 1-1/2 cups sugar (I did this in our small commercial mixer). Add 2 eggs and continue mixing until well-blended.

Stir in the flour mixture until well-mixed. (I did this in the commercial mixer as well.)

Roll the dough into balls and coat the balls in a sugar-cinnamon mixture, and place on cookie sheets. Bake at 350° for 12-14 minutes.

After 12 minutes in the 350° conventional oven, the “cookies” were the aforementioned flat things. They were still delicious, but not what I wanted.


BTW, I still ended up serving these failed cookies, because I didn’t have time to try something else (had to get dinner ready). I cut them in half and shingled them in a couple concentric rings around the little pedestal serving tray we use for this. The old folks liked them :slight_smile:

It was the margarine. Especially if it was a low calorie version,some of those are over half water.

Lots of cookies want you to chill the dough prior to baking. I’m pretty sure they spread less when you do that.

From here.

I agree that it might be the margarine, and I find your quoted reason for using it to be…weird? These people you are cooking for aren’t going to live a lot longer…let them have butter! Plus I think the health benefits of margarine have been debunked in terms of using chemicals versus a natural product, but I’m prepared to be wrong.

Are you allowed to use shortening? It often works better than butter when baking cookies, and doesn’t have as much cholesterol.

I wonder if increasing the flour (or other dry ingredients) content would compensate for this.

Look at that…you corrected a baking failure. :slight_smile:
Do you have any choice in which margarine you use? Maybe we can find one that works better. Or, alternatively, find some recipes that are designed for margarine.

I’ve baked snicker doodles with margarine and they were fine. I assume you used stick margarine and not the kind that comes in a tub.

The only other thing I can think of is that the commercial mixer was too powerful and the mixtures ended up too well-blended. I do the butter-sugar-egg mixture with a hand mixer but I always do the dry ingredients with by hand.

The little balls should have felt dry to the touch and the only thing sticking to your hands should have been the cinnamon.

Heh. Shortly before she died, my grandmother looked down at her dinner plate one evening (I heard this from my sister), with the carefully measured portions of “doctor-allowed” foods, and said, “How much longer do I have, anyway? This is terrible. I’m going to eat what I want!”

But you might be surprised at how some seniors zero in on something their doctor told them about food. In my restaurant experience, I was always amused/baffled by seniors who didn’t want any “butter”. Dry toast, insisting that I fry their hashbrowns with no “butter”, trying to tell me to fry their eggs with no butter, etc. … and then asking me to pour country gravy over everything. Aside from the fact that almost no restaurants fry things in real butter these days (too damned expensive), they were completely missing the fact that butter was just an example of something to cut out to reduce their fat intake. But the doctor said “butter”, and they zero in on that.

Of course, now we have a resident who is allergic to soy. Guess what our margarine is made out of?

I did think the dough was awfully “wet” for cookies. But it was my first time with the recipe, so for all I knew it was supposed to be like that.

Nope. We get it straight from Sysco, house brand.

Yup, one-pound “bricks” of margarine.

Yeah, like I said, I may have over-mixed. That’s one thing I understand, is that how you mix affects the final product. Using Krusteaz Buttermilk Biscuit Mix for my biscuits, I always came out with wonderful, big, fluffy, moist biscuits. None of my fellow cooks could get the same results, and I always guessed that it came down to how they did the mixing. Aside from stirring the water into the mix, we were all using the same recipe.

Yeah, that’s what I thought, too. But the dough felt too “wet” to me.

My parents only ever bought blue bonnet when I was growing up and I used it as butter in everything and never had a problem. If your cookies spread, that says to me your fat got too warm and room temp is too warm. I would shy away from adding flour because then you’ll likely trade flat cookies for tough cookies.

This is probably cheating, but see if your Sysco or Reinhart rep can get in [these specific cookies](these specific cookies) from J&J Snackfoods. Both vendors private label them either as something else or with their own label so it might take some asking. It might even be better/easier to call up J&J and get SUPC/Item numbers for your district. Be sure you’re clear that you’re looking for the “square cookies”.
These cookies, specially the Dark Chocolate Chunk, are probably the best frozen cookies that you can get for a decent price. They’re small, but only, off the top of my head, about 30 cents a piece. Snap them apart, stick them in your convection oven for a few minutes and you’re done.

We practically built up our catering business based on demand for these cookies. On top of that, even after 10 years we still have to make a bunch of extras just because of how many employees will grab them off the cooling racks.

It’s not the margarine. I grew up on stick margarine based cookies and it was always a one-to-one replacement with no substantial difference.

Here is a snickerdoodle recipe, exactly like yours, but with 2 3/4 C flour instead of 2.

Five stars, 489 reviews. I would try making the same recipe with 2/34 C flour.

It was probably not the margarine, but may have been the leavening. When did you last use that cream of tartar and baking soda? I wish I could have seen and tasted/tested them. I do always like to chill dough if possible. Also, don’t let the dough sit at room temperature for a long time, the leavening will still be “trying” to work and you won’t get the same baking quality.

The best overall tutorial on cookies was an Alton Brown episode titled "Three Chips for Sister Marsha" Bet you could find it online somewhere.

I bake large amounts as I’m a baker in a cafe, so I know about trying to reduce ingredients.

If you can find a used copy of The Betty Crocker Cookie Book" it’s worth it. I think it may even still be in print, it was very popular. Simple and easy to use recipes, with info on ingredients, and it even has a section with a few sized up recipes, for larger amounts of dough.

Here’s a transcript of that AB episode

I was going to suggest AB’s Three Chips ep. It tells what make cookies do what they do. Want flat and crispy? Want chewy? Want puffy? It gives recipes for all three, with the reasons behind them.


Baking is both an art and a science, and some people just can not seem to get the ‘feel’ for it.

And I agree with your grandmother. With my mom [90 years old] we never changed her diet, just did portion control as her appetite diminished, and changed up the plates to smaller plates. Til she had to be moved to a care facility this past January she was eating exactly the same stuff my brother did, and when mrAru and I visited we would make up several lasagnes, meatloaves and other family favorites that could be portioned out and frozen for her. With alzheimers patients keeping to the familiar is advised - sort of like autism spectrum people, we don’t like change.

I have found through 30+ years of working with various diabetic nutritionists that I can eat more or less anything I want, including full fat milk, butter and eggs as long as I use portion control, and my bloodwork and cardiac imaging demonstrates it. It sort of bothers my cardiologist who dies actively check my food diary, bloodwork and imaging that I am fat, do effectively no exercise and have as good bloodwork and imaging as he does, and he does marathons. [now if I could magically drop back to my youthful 135 pounds that I weighed consistantly from high school to 1990 … sigh]*

  • I maintain that in addition to my years of undiagnosed hyperparthyroidism, from somewhere in late 1989 to about 1991, when I gained from 135 to 300 without changing my diet or exercise level, my thyroid went toes up for a while but the Navy Hospitals refusal to properly test and diagniose me fucked my metabolism up, putting my body at a 300 pound set point. Thankfully I never did the yoyo dieting crap. No idea what the hell happened, but I bet my body does not recognize the ‘average’ numbers as correct for my body. I keep wondering if mrAru’s synthroid would do anything benenficial for me.

Cooking for Engineers has the Nestlé toll house cookie recipe. Here’s what it says about flour:

This agrees with what Mithril said, and goes with my thoughts upon initial reading of the OP that there was too much margarine for the amount of flour. But as CfE says, ‘several of the tasters actually preferred this style of cookie.’ The old folks liked the ‘failed’ batch, so they were a real-world success. Go ahead and try adding more flour. You can use the same recipe you have, and then add more flour until you get to the consistency of what you think cookie dough should be.

I find I get better results if I make sure the cooking surface is preheated, as well as the oven. It sets the bottom of the cookie quickly, reducing spread. I use a baking stone, but you could try staging your cookies on parchment paper (as Alton recommends) while preheating your cookie sheets(s), then slide the paper with the cookies into place.

Also, I heard an interesting comment on America’s Test Kitchen once. Different flours have different compositions. King Arthur brand, for instance, is higher protein than conventional all purpose flour.

Many classic recipes assume an old fashion flour. I assume you get a generic Sysco flour? I’d hope that would work just fine, but wanted to bring it up just in case.

I also don’t know what the impact on cookies would be, although I did find an article that says higher protein would make cookies darker and flatter. Maybe **Baker **or someone else knows.

This. Real butter is (per Federal regs) a minimum of 80% butterfat; “vegetable oil spread” (most of what you’ll see in a dairy case; “real” margarine has to hit the 80% standard) is whatever is marked on the package, usually in the 50%-60% range.

The recipe adjustment is to calculate how much shortening will give you the fat-content equivalent of butter, and reduce added liquid by whatever extra amount the (not quite) margarine has.

Formula: divide the (butter-based) fat-content figure by the fat-percentage figure of the butter-substitute


1 cup butter has 6.4 oz fat (0.8 * 8 oz). It would take about 1 1/3 cups of (60%) spread (6.4 / 0.6 = 10 2/3 oz) to get to that amount of fat. The spread would also have about 2 oz (4 tbsp) of extra water ((80%-60%) * 10 2/3 oz), which you would have to subtract from the liquid in the recipe.