It's no secret that flour is one of the essential building blocks of a great cookie. Simply put, it gives the cookie structure. Look closer, and you'll notice that it's also responsible for that signature shape and classic texture of a well-made chocolate chip cookie. There's variability, of course, and playing around with this key ingredient can make your cookies chewy, crispy, cakey, or extremely soft.
Most people stick to what they know best: all-purpose flour. It's ubiquitous and lets the flavors of the other ingredients shine. But don't discount the benefits of nutty whole wheat pastry flour or a superfine cake flour.
"Flour is very important," says Anna McGorman, director of culinary operations for Milk Bar. Her ideal flour for making chocolate chip cookies? A combination of cake flour and all-purpose flour. "I like all-purpose flour combined with cake flour," says McGorman. "I feel it provides a good internal structure and support for the larger chocolate chips I like to use while not being too dense."
To better understand how flour can affect chocolate chip cookies — and why chefs like McGorman like to blend two different kinds together — we decided to test five batches of cookies and compare them in a side-by-side taste test. We stuck to five of the most popular varieties and combinations of flours that professional bakers swear by, keeping all other variables constant. We used the classic Nestlé Toll House cookie formula as our base recipe and simply swapped out the flour, keeping the quantity the same.
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Here are the five flours we tested and how they affected the cookie:
The Science / What We're Expecting: All-purpose flour (aka plain or AP flour) is the gold standard for baking. If a recipe calls for "flour," you can safely assume that all-purpose flour is what it's referring to.
The flour, milled from a combination of hard and soft wheat varieties with their bran and germs removed, has a moderate amount of protein — about 10–12%. Bleached all-purpose flour (the specific variety we tested), however, uses bleaching agents to speed up the flour's aging process. While some people claim that bleached flour carries less flavor and gives baked goods a slightly softer texture as compared to unbleached flour, the two are often used interchangeably for relatively similar results.
The mix of hard and soft wheat essentially allows AP flour to be the most versatile. While it might not be the optimal solution, it's sure to give you a cookie you can rely on.
The Test: Use 100% bleached all-purpose flour in the cookie recipe. (This is what is called for in the control recipe.)
The Results: Exactly as you would expect. A solid cookie with a soft-yet-crisp texture that is reminiscent of childhood. It is crispy on the outside and just slightly chewy in the middle. Good, but nothing to rave about.
Overall Rating: 8/10
The Science / What We're Expecting: Pastry flour has a reputation. It's known for, well, exactly what you think it might be known for: producing light pastries. The type that flakes apart or builds melt-in-your-mouth pie crusts and moist pound cakes with delicate crumbs.
With a protein content that falls around 8–9%, just between AP and cake flour, pastry flour is made wholly from soft wheat and left unbleached. Therefore, while the aging process happens naturally and the unbleached flour lends a distinctive taste, the relatively low protein content ensures that mixing the dough will not result in the high gluten development that could lead to a tough cookie (no pun intended). For this test, we used a whole wheat pastry flour, which seemed to be the most commercially available version of pastry flour.
The Test: Swap the 100% bleached all-purpose flour, originally in the recipe, for 100% whole wheat pastry flour. All other variables kept as-is.
The Results: Much softer cookies — cakey without being overly aerated. The edges of the cookies, although brown, were not crispy at all. The problem is that they were absolutely hideous, with an inconsistent texture. This is most likely due to the fact that the flour was whole wheat — so the texture was a bit gritty. Despite how soft they were, we just can't endorse this. I mean, just look at them...
Overall Rating: 2/10
The Science / What We're Expecting: Ok yes, we know. This sounds ridiculous. After all, you probably only buy bread flour when you're baking bread. And unless you're Martha Stewart or Ina Garten, it's safe to say that rarely happens.
Not too long ago, though, people came across quite the revelation: replace all that AP flour with bread flour and suddenly you've got the chewiest cookie you could ever imagine. SO chewy, in fact, that Alton Brown adapted it to his recipe called (you guessed it) "The Chewy."
Why does this happen? Well, bread flour carries the highest protein content — about 12–14% — of all the flours. Not only does this make for better volume, but the proteins in the flour work alongside the moisture from the eggs and butter to develop a gluten network that is almost unforgivably chewy. If that isn't reason enough, Jacques Torres' endorsement of bread flour in your cookies should mean it's worth a try. For science, of course.
The Test: Swap the 100% bleached all-purpose flour, originally in the recipe, for 100% bread flour. All other variables kept as-is.
The Results: Very, very chewy. The cookies were pliable, not at all crisp, and toothsome from edge to edge. They were similar to grocery store–style chocolate chip cookies that never seem to dry out despite how old they are. The cookies, however, did not spread out very much and remained mounded. If you absolutely love chewy cookies, this is perfect. But for most people, we would argue that these cookies were almost too chewy.
Overall Rating: 7/10
The Science / What We're Expecting: We talked about pastry flour earlier, and if you missed it, it's a truly glorious thing. (Ahem, when it's not whole wheat...) Cake flour isn't much different, but don't be fooled — it's not the same. Cake flour takes tenderness to the next level: With only about 5–8% protein content, using cake flour in your cookies could result in an almost too-soft texture.
To be honest, you'd be hard-pressed to find a cookie that's made from 100% cake flour, and here's why: The flour is chlorinated. No, we don't mean "drenched in a swimming pool." This simply means that the flour is bleached even further to weaken any remaining gluten that it contains. As a result, the flour can absorb more liquid and sugar than it usually does, leading to a product that's far more moist than most.
Cake is comforting, but cookies require a certain sturdiness that you're just not going to get by subbing out your entire flour base with cake flour. By combining cake flour and AP flour in equal parts, you're (hopefully) getting the best of both worlds.
The Test: Replace half of the all-purpose flour with cake flour, resulting in a 50/50 mix of cake flour and AP flour. All other variables kept as-is.
The Results: Fairly similar to using 100% all-purpose flour, only slightly more delicate and less brown. The edges of the cookies were not as crispy as ones made with pure AP flour, and it made for a more consistent texture throughout the entire cookie. The insides were delicate and light without being overly aerated, and they had the tiniest bit of chew to them. Definitely one of the more successful flour tests.
Overall Rating: 8/10
The Science / What We're Expecting: Gluten, gluten, gluten — at least that's what this combination might seem like because we're not balancing the bread flour with its virtual opposite: cake or pastry flour. Of course, recipes in the past have done just that, relying on the mix of high-protein with low-protein to create a cookie that's chewy without being tough, and moist without disintegrating. But we're not here to explore tried-and-tested variants; oh no.
Oftentimes, unbleached AP flour has been used in place of bread flour to create a product that's relatively satisfactory if not just downright good. Then again, these cases have examined bread flour in its natural environment: bread. This round is truly anyone's game.
The Test: Replace half of the all-purpose flour with bread flour, resulting in a 50/50 mix of cake flour and AP flour. All other variables kept as-is.
The Results: Very chewy without being too chewy: the solution to the 100% bread flour conundrum. They were toothsome without feeling artificially chewy, a tad bit browner, and had pleasantly crisp edges with a soft center. Out of all the flour combinations, this was one of our favorites.
Overall Rating: 8/10
The Biggest Takeaways:
What We Learned: Unsurprisingly, the type of flour you use has a significant impact on not only the cookies' structure, but their flavor, color, and texture as well.
The Biggest Takeaways: When it comes to picking out which flour you should use to make your chocolate chip cookies, keep these things in mind:
1. Flour is flavor: And it's important to remember this as you consider which type you should be using. Whole wheat varieties lend a strong nutty flavor, while bleached AP varieties are rather mild.
2. There is such a thing as too chewy: And the 100% bread flour cookie is proof. It tasted artificially chewy and didn't have enough variation in texture to keep it interesting.
3. Skip the whole wheat flour: It's too strong of a flavor and adds a gritty texture to your cookie. We can see this working in some cookie recipes, but not for our purposes.
4. Using a combination of flours instead of just one gives you more control: Mixing high-protein flours (like bread) with low-protein flours (like cake or pastry) can help you achieve a texture you desire.