With holiday baking season just getting started, I wanted to kick things off with a recipe for chocolate chip cookies that I've been working on for a few months. While the qualities that make for the best chocolate chip cookie are a wildly subjective matter, I do believe I've come up with a better way of making this childhood favorite, that helps accommodate all sorts of cookie lovers with its flexibility. Ohh... and for those who care about such things, these happen to be plant-based.
Before I delve into the cookie, let me just say that I'm an unapologetic omnivore and will probably never completely cut animal products out of my diet. That being said, I do tend to eat a mostly plant-based diet on a day to day basis. There are many reasons for this, but first and foremost, I like vegetables.
So why don't I do more vegetable dishes on No Recipes you ask? Well, this site is about teaching techniques that will make you question every recipe you ever read, with the thought "Can I make this better?" Given that most of the vegetable dishes I "cook" don't involve much more than washing and perhaps blanching, my everyday meals wouldn't make for much of a lesson. That's why the meals that end up on here tend to be the ones involving meat or seafood.
Aside from being a food blogger, I also work as a private chef and culinary trainer, and some of my clients have made the choice to become vegan. For them, I enjoy the challenge of creating plant-based alternatives to the foods they love. It's both a cerebral and creative pursuit that involves finding suitable plant-based substitutes that mimic the flavor, texture and chemistry of the original ingredients they replace.
These chocolate chip cookies are one of those foods that I spent months perfecting, which is why I'm so excited to share them with you now.
So how did I do it? The most obvious things that need to be substituted to make a vegan-friendly cookie are the butter, sugar and eggs, but I ended up rethinking the cookie in general and came up with some novel solutions, including one that solves a long-standing beef(no pun intended) I had with chocolate chip cookies.
For the butter, I decided to use coconut oil, because it's the closest thing to butter without resorting to frankenoils like margarine. The problem is, coconut oil doesn't have the cheese-like dairy flavor that butter has. This is where nutritional yeast comes in. I've talked about the wonders of nutritional yeast in the past, so I'll save you the details, but when added to these cookies, it gives them a buttery flavor that rivals the real thing.
For the sugar, it was simply a matter of swapping non-vegan processed sugars for a raw sugar. I used coconut sugar, because I love the deep caramel flavor it has, but evaporated cane juice, or a true brown sugar like Kokutou or Muscovado will work fine as well.
In a cookie, eggs not only help bind the ingredients together, they also help leaven them as they bake. To that end, I added soy milk as a binder and increased the amount of baking soda a tad to make up for the loss of the eggs.
These are all simple enough substitutions, but I wanted to push this a little further and see if I couldn't make it even better. To that end, I started to think about the texture of a cookie. Personally, I like my chocolate chip cookies crunchy around the edges and chewy in the center.
The texture of a cookie, is largely dependant on the baking time. If you shorten the baking time, the cookies will end up fudgy in the center like a brownie (how some people like it). By lengthening the time in the oven, the cookies will end up completely crunchy (how others like it). Since I like mine in-between these two extremes, I bake mine in for 9 minutes in a calibrated convection oven. Because ovens can vary widely in temperature and heat circulation, you may need to make these a couple of times before you find the perfect level of doneness for you and your oven.
It's not just the baking time that influences the texture though. The type of flour you use plays a big role as well. After testing a bunch of flours (as well as combinations), I liked the texture of cookies made with bread flour the best. The higher gluten content in bread flour gives these cookies an almost caramel-like chew. For your reference, here are some other flours I've tried: all-purpose flour makes the cookies more tender and cakey, whole wheat flour makes the cookies drier and more crumbly, gluten-free AP flour makes cookies that are more delicate and crumbly. I also tried substituting 20% (by weight) oatmeal in with various flours and found that it lent a more interesting texture(chewy and fibrous), which helped out the cookies made with whole wheat and gluten-free flours.
Texture improved, I had some pretty awesome vegan chocolate chip cookies that most people would not be able to distinguish from ones made with butter and eggs. But in the process of testing, I ate dozens of cookies and couldn't help but feel a pang of guilt at just how unhealthy they were. Cookies are made with a ton of fat and sugar, and it's this fat and sugar that makes it a cookie and not a thin flat cake. Feeling like there had to be a way to make these a little less unhealthy, I went back to the drawing board and did some more testing.
For the fat, I tested batches, cutting out 2 tablespoons of fat at a time from the original 3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons. I managed to get the coconut oil down a total of 6 tablespoons, before the cookie started to get dry. At this level you don't miss the extra fat in a freshly baked cookie. It does tend to go stale a bit faster than the cookies with more fat, but these are so good, you probably won't have them hanging around that long anyway. The other minor side effect of the tinkering is that these cookies won't spread quite as much in the oven, so you need to shape the dough into roughly the size and thickness you want your cookies to be.
As for cutting back the sugar, I tend to find most chocolate chip cookies far too sweet, which is why I'm always tempted to cut back on the sugar. But based on past experience, I know that cookies quickly become cakey when you cut out too much sugar. For this challenge, I came up with the solution while trying to solve a different problem. Vegan chocolate is almost impossible to find outside the US, but there is a chocolate product with no milk that's available almost anywhere: unsweetened chocolate (a.k.a. 100% chocolate).
Because the cookie itself is so sweet, there's no need to use sweetened chocolate, and since unsweetened chocolate is 100% cacao, it's able to pack the most potent chocolate flavor possible into your cookie, giving you a striking contrast between the bitter earthy chocolate and the sweet creamy cookie. This, more than anything, is what I love about this cookie, because it's ultra chocolatey, while deftly avoiding the cloying sweetness that usually requires gallons of milk to wash down. Some people may find unsweetened chocolate a little too intense when the cookies are warm, but a few minutes in the freezer will set the chocolate, taming the acidity and bitterness.
By now, you've either stopped reading or you're totally sold on these cookies, but let me give you one last reason to like them. Because the dough doesn't contain any eggs, you can eat the raw dough by the spoonful without ever having to worry about salmonella.
- Heat your oven to 375 degrees F (190 C) and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
- Whisk the flour and baking soda together in a medium bowl to combine evenly and set aside.
- Add the coconut oil, coconut sugar, nutritional yeast, salt, vanilla extract and soy milk to a food processor and process until the mixture is smooth and shiny.
- Add the flour mixture and process until just combined.
- Turn the dough out into a bowl and stir in the chocolate chunks.
- Use a spoon to scoop a ball of dough and roll it between your hands to get it round. Place the ball on the parchment-lined cookie sheet and then press it flat. The size and thickness of the cookie won't change much, so be sure to get it about the thickness you want the final cookie to be.
- Put the cookies in the oven. For a cookie that's fudgy in the center, bake until the cookie is set around the edges, but is still a bit wet in the center (6-8 minutes). For a cookie that's crunchy around the edges and chewy in the center, bake until the sides and middle are set, but the middle is still soft to the touch (8-10 minutes). For a completely crunchy cookie, bake until the middle is firm (10-12 minutes).
- When the cookies are done, remove them from the oven and let the cookies cool completely. Once they're room temperature you can set the chocolate and make them easier to get off the parchment paper by placing the pans in the freezer for a few minutes.