Cornstarch Is The Secret To Soft And Chewy Cookies – Here's Why

Chewy Molasses Cookies

Caitlin Bensel; Food Styling: Torie Cox

If you enjoy your cookies soft and chewy, chances are likely the recipe contains a common ingredient that serves a very specific purpose. No, it’s not granulated sugar, nor the butter. It’s not the egg, all-purpose flour, or even the vanilla extract. The simple, yet oh-so-necessary component is cornstarch.

That’s right, the flavorless thickening agent used for soups, stews, and curries is also the secret weapon for baked goods that boast a silky-smooth mouthfeel. “Cornstarch is a game changer for cookie baking,” confirms Brian Hart Hoffman, editor in chief of Bake from Scratch. “You can count on [it for] a softer and more tender crumb.” 

“A bonus benefit is it prevents the cookie from spreading too much while baking,” he adds, noting that a more compact, thick cookie typically yields a chewier outcome.  But incorporating cornstarch isn’t the only tip to make a cookie more palatable. Read on for alternatives, as well as the chemistry behind the softness-enhancing superstar. 

How Cornstarch Makes Cookies Chewy

The science is simple: According to the flour authorities over at Bob’s Red Mill, cornstarch can help “soften the rigid proteins of the flour, resulting in a light and chewy dessert.”  “The cornstarch complements the flour in absorbing the liquids, but won’t develop gluten structure like the flour will,” stresses Hoffman. “The result is added tenderness with more structure.” You don’t need much of the ingredient to notice significant changes in your favorite recipe. Add a teaspoon or two to your dry ingredient mix and it will drastically change the texture. It’s also fun to experiment until you get the exact finish you desire. 

How To Make Cookies Chewy Without Cornstarch

If you don’t have cornstarch on hand, there are a few alternative steps you can take to produce the cookie of your dreams.

  • Go heavy on brown sugar. It has more moisture than its granulated counterpart, which means the cookie comes out less crispy. Unsurprisingly, more liquid retention guarantees a softer bite. 
  • Choose margarine or shortening instead of butter. Not only are margarine and shortening typically made from 100 percent fat (which retains more moisture), but they also have higher melting points. This means your cookies won’t spread as much while baking and a more compact, thicker cookie will equal a chewier one. The opposite, a thinner cookie, is likely crispy since there is less dough volume. It will bake quicker, more uniformly, and without the hot and gooey inside. 
  • Use baking powder instead of baking soda. This follows the same rule as margarine and shortening. If you use baking powder instead of soda, the cookies won’t spread as much due to higher acid levels. 
  • Rest your dough. Whether it’s chocolate chip, sugar, or oatmeal raisin, place the dough ball in the refrigerator for at least an hour, wrapped in plastic wrap. The longer you let it rest, the chewier its cookies will be. This is because the liquid content in your cookies will actually evaporate. And while this may sound like it would create a dryer, more crumbly cookie, the higher sugar content (especially brown) will actually make them chewier. 
  • Shorten baking time. Reduce the baking time by a few minutes to produce what will appear to be a half-baked, doughy middle. This will dry and set once removed from the oven, but because it didn’t cook through fully, it will lead to a much softer inside.
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