Jeremy Snyder loves a good chocolate chip cookie.
The Albany resident and father of two describes the chocolate chip cookie as "absolutely my favorite food ever." He's been baking them since his childhood and has amassed a huge pile of chocolate chip cookie recipes.
So maybe it isn't a surprise that he and his family took on the methodical task of unearthing the perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe -- the chocolate chip cookie that towers above all others. The apex of sweet, chocolat-y, ooey-gooey on the inside, and crisp on the outside.
It took over a month, a lot of research, and the assistance of some 40 volunteers -- but they got there. Or darn close.
Jeremy, Jeremy, manager of efficiency programs at RPI's Lighting
Research Center, loves science -- particularly communicating science. He also loves working with his kids. So a few years ago he started a company, Science in a Nutshell to combine the two. Jeremy creates videos that help communicate ideas about science. "I saw it as a path to really work together with my kids and explore new things, because every time I start a new project I have to learn about what the science -- what the project is really about. There's a saying that if you can't explain something well it means that your really don't understand it yourself well enough . So I really have to understand what the project is about before I can communicate it to people. I really saw that as a way to explore new topics with my kids when they get older -- and even now."
Let's just say that by now, Jeremy understands a lot about chocolate chip cookies.
How it started
It all began when Jeremy was sifting through his vast collection of chocolate chip cookie recipes, wondering which was the best. "Around the same time I was looking at this pile of recipes, I saw this video of the Geissbuhler family. What they had done was, as a family, attached this video camera in this capsule to a weather balloon and gotten it up into space and taken video from outer space. There was this father and the kids, and it was really inspiring. And I just said if this family can take video from outer space we can figure out the best chocolate chip cookie recipe."
So, with the help of his his wife, Elana Marton, and their two children, 10-year-old Maia and 7-year-old Albie, Jeremy began a month of research.
They started by sifting through piles of chocolate chip cookie recipes. They selected 11 recipes from various sources: cookbooks, magazines, newspapers, and the internet, focusing on recipes that claimed to be the "best" or "perfect" or that they had reason to believe would make very good cookies.
"While we tried to capture a variety of recipes, it was the most subjective part of the project. If somebody were to come up to me and say, 'You didn't test my aunt Edna's recipe and it won the state fair,' that would be a fair point. We didn't test every possible recipe in the world so we can't claim it's the best in the world. But I think we got a good representation, and among those it was fair."
They worked to to minimize the variables between recipes.
"I come from a science and R&D background, so for me it was sort of second nature to design an experiment and minimize variables, but it was fun to work with the kids. For example, some friends of ours volunteered to bake some cookies and bring them to the party, so we talked about that and what could go wrong and what could be different about that batch of cookies."
They worked out a whole set of procedures for the baking and another set of procedures for the tasting party.
"It wasn't a science project, but we used these kinds of methodologies and techniques to try and keep everything even. It was all baked in our kitchen. All the ingredients were fresh and purchased one week before -- which is important for baking powder or baking soda because that's a chemical reaction going on there. We scaled each recipe to introduce the same mass of dough so we ended up with the same amount of each cookie. I thought it would influence people if they saw a big plate of one cookie but only a few of another."
Jeremy and his family even took a trip to Whitman, Massachusetts, where Ruth Wakefield is said to have invented the chocolate chip cookie at the Toll House Inn, and met with a historian who worked for Wakefield. They visited the spot where the Toll House was located -- and were disappointed to find that a Wendy's now stands where Ruth Wakefield's famous accidental kitchen discovery occurred.
They even discovered why a Toll House cookie seems so much flatter than other chocolate chip cookies. "The recipe developed by Ruth Wakefield seems a little flat -- it spreads out on the baking sheet compared to other recipes that tend to mound up more. I read that when she developed that recipe, the wheat used back then was developed from a different wheat species. So now, when we buy wheat from the supermarket, it's actually different wheat. So if we want to experience the cookies the way she did in th 30s we actually have to use a different type of flour or a different amount of flour."
Baking and tasting
Baking day went better than Jeremy expected. The day before the tasting party the family baked 11 batches specifically as directed by each recipe, and purchased three bakery brands and three store brands.
"The kids were there for almost the entire day. There was a lot of prep work -- chopping nuts, measuring and forming the cookies."
About 40 people were invited to taste the cookies the next day.
"We labeled each cookie with a number so the names of each recipe wouldn't influence people. We were worried that if people came in and just tasted each cookie starting with number 1 and going to 17, by the time they got to number 17 they'd be absolutely sick of chocolate chip cookies and give number 17 a much lower rating. So we printed out a bunch of tasting sheets and each one had number 1 though 17 in a different order so people would be tasting all 17 in a random order."
Everyone at the party was asked to rate each cookie on a scale of 1-10. Then they averaged the rating for all the adults and the rating for all the kids. The adults were also asked which cookie they would want so they could try making it at home.
"So when we looked at the average ratings for the adults there were two cookies that ended up with a higher average rating than the others by a pretty good margin ... those cookies I would group together as the winners."
The science of a chocolate chip cookie
As it turns out -- the two winning cookies have something interesting in common: not so much ingredients, but process.
"I got to thinking about why those two cookies were so popular and well liked and I realized that both of them had an extra step included in the baking. The Bake Wise cookie included roasting pecans and the Cook's Illustrated cookie included browning butter. I realized that both of those drive this set of chemical reactions called the Maillard reaction -- which is what typically creates the browning of foods. It also creates a lot of flavor compounds.
"These cookies just tasted richer and more complex than the other cookies. And I think that, the adults at least, really like a cookie with complex flavor -- just like with wine. We don't like a simple one-note wine, we like a complete flavor. And I think the same thing was going on with the cookies."
"Baking is a science. The top rated cookie from Bake Wise was written by Shirley Corriher -- she's a food scientist so she approaches all the baking with science. The Cooks Illustrated recipe was developed by Charles Kelsey -- and Cook's Illustrated uses a scientific approach. I talked to Kelsey on the phone and he spent literally four months working on that recipe. He spent a huge amount of time at, I think it was the Radcliff culinary library, doing tons of research. So I think, to me, that is applied science."
Deliciously applied science.
Crunching the data
So Jeremy and his family found two perfect (or close to perfect) chocolate chip cookie recipes. But they learned a few other things as well.
After examining the data for different correlations -- average rated score vs. baking temperature, mass of salt, cost of ingredients, etc, Jeremy noticed something pretty interesting. "The one thing that really popped out as a very strong correlation was the average rated score vs. the year the recipe was published."
The later a recipe was published, the better it seemed to score. According to Jeremy, there are two ways to interpret that. "One way to look at it is that our tastes change, so any recipe that was developed and popularized more recently is going to be more in tune with our current taste -- just as we would probably give Bruce Springsteen a higher rating than Bach -- even thought they're both great. But another interpretation is that we're actually getting better at making chocolate chip cookies. We're figuring it out over time, just like it took Charles Kelsey four months in a library to figure out how to get a richer flavor out of a chocolate chip cookie.
Based on the second theory, Jeremy identified a trend in the data: "At this rate, I saw it's going to hit a perfect cookie in the year 2040." (laughs) "I'm really looking forward to finding out what the perfect chocolate chip cookie tastes like."
One possibly surprising finding: the kids who sampled the cookies preferred the store-bought cookies to the homemade ones. "The children liked the complete opposite cookies as the adults. They liked a sweeter, simpler cookie -- the bakery and store-bought cookies. So I think what we figured out is if you want to make kids happy with cookies you can just save yourself time and buy them.
Has the experience changed anything for Jeremy and his family? The way they work together or how they look at problems? "I guess in a concrete sense it changed which recipe we use when we make cookies. Though we still have to make the original Toll House. I think the project gave the kids an appreciation of how science can be applied." He says it reinforces how the scientific method can be used to solve all kinds of real world questions.
What's next for the Snyder family? The perfect cupcake? The perfect pie? They're not sure yet. "We probably won't do another tasting -- that was kind of a means to an end. I don't know if it will involve food, but there will be another project."
Inside Images: Copyright 2011 Science in a Nutshell Productions. All Rights Reserved
We'd really like you to take part in the conversation here at All Over Albany. But we do have a few rules here. Don't worry, they're easy. The first: be kind. The second: treat everyone else with the same respect you'd like to see in return. Cool? Great, post away. Comments are moderated so it might take a little while for your comment to show up. Thanks for being patient.