Jeremy Snyder's search for the perfect chocolate chip cookie

cookie project jeremy snyder

Jeremy Snyder with his favorite food

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.

The process

cookie project jeremy and albie in kitchenThey 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."

A pilgrimage

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.

The best

jeremy snyder cooks illustrated chocolate chip cookie
The cookie from the Cook's Illustrated recipe. (The flower was used as reference from cookie to cookie.)

"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."

+ Cook's Illustrated: This recipe by Charles Kelsey was in the May 2009 edition of Cook's Illustrated.

+ Bake Wise: This recipe is from food scientist Shirley Corriher's cookbook Bake Wise.

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."

Kids

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.

What's next?

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

Comments

This sounds like lots of fun but as Jeremy says it's applied science not pure research. Now that they've got two winners I hope they will go further and refine what they like about those recipes to make an even better recipe of their own.

This is the approach Cook's Illustrated takes in their test kitchen by the way... would be interested to see compare their recipe which you can read about here: http://www.cooksillustrated.com/recipes/detail.asp?docid=19364

This story made me smile throughout the whole thing. How cool!

I was at the tasting party and know how much fun it was. I knew Jeremy and his family put a lot of work into this project, but I didn't realize the science of chocolate chip cookies.

He raises an excellent point about the flour. I used to use Hodgson's Mills pastry flour, as it was milled differently from all-purpose flour and gave different results. But I don't find it in the grocery stores anymore. Anyone have ideas for a better-performing, perhaps local, flour?

Ah, when I saw this I immediately thought how much I love the Cook's Illustrated recipe and then it was mentioned. How cool! Love, love, love that recipe. Embarrassingly enough, I ate two of them for breakfast this morning hahaha. Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc recipe is my other fav though I could see kids not liking it as much as the chocolate is not sweet.

I think now Jeremy should get really science-y and create his own recipe combining his favorite components of each of the best cookies. And then he should share that ultimate recipe :)

We were one of the testing families - this was so much fun! Thank you Jeremy and Elana for including us in this great experiment.

If there are future trials, I can think of a few new volunteers who'd be willing to help :-D

I tried the Cook's Illustrated recipe yesterday, to bring for Thanksgiving, and... well they are gone now :) It certainly is longer to make (but fun), they tasted good but I'm probably not good enough a cook to bring their full potential.

Jeremy did a talk about his cookies at TedX Albany that was enjoyed by all. I think I'm going to have to bake some cookies now that I have the recipe...

Can you share with us the recipes for the runners-up? Like if we want to make a super good chocolate chip cookie, but don't want to toast pecans or brown butter?
Thanks!

Alas, it looks like the Cook's Illustrated site has gone behind a paywall... (or is it just me?)

Glad I printed that recipe out when I tried it - it was amazing!

To me, the Cooks recipe tasted ambrosial right from the oven, but they had a weird texture once they'd cooled off. Here's an alternate link for that recipe: http://www.kneadysweetie.com/2011/05/perfect-chocolate-chip-cookies.html.

The other recipe was good, but I always pre-toast pecans, so it didn't seem novel. In honor of All Over Albany, here's a:

Pecan Chocolate Chip Cookie Mash-up

2 sticks butter, room temp. (1 cup)
2 cups pecans, chopped fine in food processor or blender
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar (or washed raw cane sugar for extra crunch)
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
2 1/4 cup flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
12 oz package semi-sweet chocolate chips

Melt one stick of butter in a medium saucepan on med-high heat, stirring constantly. When foamy and starting to brown (2-4 min), add chopped nuts and stir until toasty (2 to 4 min more). Remove from heat and transfer into a heat-proof bowl to cool to room temp.

In a separate bowl, cream remaining soft butter with sugars, then beat in eggs and vanilla. Gradually add salt, soda and flour. Mix in chocolate chips and cooled buttery nuts.

Bake at 375 deg., 9-11 min Makes about 3 dozen.

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