Monday, May 23, 2011

The Creaming Method: Mixer vs. Spoon

If you've read some of my earlier posts, you'll know that I frequently lament my inability to use my electric mixer for dairy products. As a result of this limitation, I am unable to make any cookies that require the creaming method when mixing butter and sugar. I've managed to select recipes in the past that avoid this problem, such as the Chocolate Chip Cookies I made which uses melted butter instead.

But recently, I received two competing comments on posts about the creaming method. First, an anonymous commenter (later revealed to be my mother) wrote on my Girl Scout Thin Mints post: "I think it is time to get a mixer!" Then, another anonymous commenter (later revealed to be the mother of a friend of mine) wrote on my Molasses Spice Cookies post: "Wooden Spoon! One of the best implements used by bakers for generations. With a little elbow grease, it creams butter and sugar perfectly." So I had a challenge on my hands: Could a wooden spoon cream butter and sugar as well as an electric mixer? I decided to find out.

Before I began the baking, I did some research on the creaming method. This involved reading Shirley Corriher's Cookwise and watching a couple of episodes of Good Eats. Essentially, the creaming method combines fat (usually butter) and sugar together, usually at a quick speed. This has a few effects: First, it adds air to the butter/sugar mixture, resulting in a lighter final product. Second, the impact of the sugar slamming into the butter creates small pockets, which expand during baking, contributing an airy texture to the product as well. Finally, those same pockets allow other ingredients to become more evenly incorporated throughout the dough, so there aren't random pockets of concentrated ingredients.

Conventional wisdom has told me that only an electric mixer has the power and speed to cream butter and sugar effectively. Creaming by hand means that there is insufficient velocity to make the pockets in the fat that are essential to a good cookie. Therefore, the hypothesis of my experiment was this: Cookies that use an electric mixer for creaming are better than cookies creamed by hand. Now, because I was using the electric mixer for part of this experiment, I needed to use dairy-free margarine in my recipe. I found a recipe for a chocolate chip cookie that called for 1/2 cup of margarine, which was also helpful as 1/2 cup is the same as a stick, so I wouldn't need to do extra measuring.

First was the electric mixer method. To start, I pulled out a stick of margarine from the fridge and put it on a table to soften for 30 minutes. While I waited, I turned the oven on to 350 degrees. Then, I measured out my flour and baking soda. The recipe was written volumetrically, not by weight, so I wrote down the weight of everything so I could precisely duplicate the recipe when I switched to the other method. Therefore, the 1 1/8 cup of flour I used became 159 grams and the 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda became 3 grams. I didn't measure the "pinch of salt" because it was too small to measure by weight. In lieu of a sifter, I put the dry ingredients into a bowl and stirred them up with a whisk.

Once the 30 minutes were up, I put the stick of margarine into the bowl of my mixer. I poured out 1/4 cup of white sugar (45 grams) and 1/2 cup of packed brown sugar (96 grams) and put it in the bowl with the margarine. I stuck the paddle attachment on the mixer and let it run for a few minutes until the margarine/sugar mixture looked light and fluffy.

In a plastic cup, I combined the egg and the vanilla before pouring it into the mixing bowl. A minute later, I added the flour/baking soda/salt mixture in batches until everything was combined. Finally, I measured out a cup of my favorite chocolate chips (170 grams) and stirred it in. When everything came together, I started portioning the dough, where I made a mistake. The recipe calls for "heaping teaspoons" of dough, but I read it as "heaping tablespoons." Oops. But larger cookies aren't the worst thing in the world, right? As long as I was consistent, the experiment was still valid. Besides, I was weighing every dough blob to keep the cookies about the same size amongst themselves, so everything was good.

Nine 44-47 gram balls of dough later, I had my first batch of cookies in the oven. I rotated the sheet after five minutes, then checked on them again five minutes later. The centers of the cookies looked undercooked, but the edges were defined and somewhat set, so I pulled them out of the oven anyway. Once I had the parchment paper off the baking sheet and onto the cooling rack, I ran the sheet under cold water so the next batch wouldn't start cooking from the heat of the pan (as they did in the Chocolate Chip Cookies). I portioned out the remaining eight cookies, and repeated the baking process. When they were all out of the oven, I put them on the rack to cool. I separated the first half from the second to account for the slight difference in oven temperature between the two, which I expected would come up again later. You'll notice there's only 16 cookies below in the picture when I made 17. That's because I ate one. Sue me.

On the left, the first batch. On the right, the second.

Then it was time for the wooden spoon method. I repeated the starting steps from before (leaving the margarine out for 30 minutes; "sifting" together the flour, baking soda, and salt; measuring out the two types of sugar), taking care to keep the weight of everything the same from the electric mixer method. But once I was ready to cream the margarine/sugar by hand, I wasn't sure how to go about doing it. Put it all in a bowl and stir the spoon around as fast as possible? Stab the margarine with the spoon, roll it in the sugar, and stab it again?

Thankfully, The Joy Of Cooking came to my rescue. It describes a method for creaming by hand: "Mash the butter against the side of the bowl with a wooden spoon, using a rocking and sliding motion and keeping the butter in a limited area of the bowl...Scrape the mass together as necessary and repeat...until the butter is softened. Add the sugar gradually and work the butter and sugar together until the mixture is light in color and texture." Sounds easy enough.

I used the metal mixing bowl again to make sure that the bowl material wouldn't be a factor. I grabbed the wooden spoon and mashed away at that margarine like there was no tomorrow. Unfortunately, I had failed to take into account the fact that the metal mixing bowl was tall and narrow, so I didn't have a very good angle from which to attack the margarine. It became some sort of awkward grapple with the bowl and spoon that at one point resulted in using my left hand, although I'm a righty. After mashing the margarine around a bit, I dumped all the sugar in at once and kept mashing. Yes, I know that the instructions from Joy Of Cooking says to add it gradually, but I added the sugar all at once with the electric mixer so I did it here too. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of mashing, sliding, and scraping I ended up with this:

Doesn't look too bad, right? In fact, here's a comparison picture between the two creamings:

Left: Electric mixer. Right: Wooden spoon.

The two look pretty similar, though the electric mixer method spread the margarine all around the bowl, while using the spoon kept it in one place. In fact, I thought that the wooden spoon version was lighter and fluffier. Again, as before, I mixed the vanilla and egg together then mixed it with the margarine/sugar using the spoon. Finally, I added the flour/baking soda/salt mixture and the chocolate chips and mixed it all together with the spoon. It did become apparent that the dough was somewhat stiff and not so easy to stir with a spoon, but I was dedicated to the method.

Once the dough was done, I made the cookies exactly the same way I did the first time: Nine cookies on the first sheet, eight cookies the second time, cooling the sheet down in between batches. These are the finished cookies:

First batch on the left, second on the right

And just for a visual comparison, here are the two different trays of cookies. As you can see, there's nothing visually that stands out as different between these two cookie versions.

Top: Electric mixer cookies. Bottom: Wooden spoon cookies.

Now that the baking was over, it was time for the taste testing. I got a hold of a bunch of friends and asked them to try out some cookies for me. I labeled the cookies "M" (for mixer) and "S" (for spoon), gave them one of each, and asked for some freeform comments.

Most of the comments on the M cookies were positive. Many noted that their cookie was "not too sweet" and was "light" or "airy." A few described it as "smooth." Two tasters noted that the margarine came through really strong, leaving a noticeable fat flavor in their mouths. On the other hand, the S cookies were not as well received. One taster described the texture as "mealy." A few tasters described different dominant flavors: ranging from vanilla to salt to just plain cookie dough. Also, the S cookies were described as denser than the M cookies. In the end, four of the tasters preferred the M cookies, two preferred the S cookies, and one really didn't care.

The flavor imbalance of the S cookies was not that surprising. Remember, creaming helps the remaining ingredients combine evenly throughout the dough because of the pockets in the fat. Without adequate creaming, ingredients will be concentrated in some cookies while nearly absent in others made from the same dough. Also, S cookies would be denser than their M counterparts because less air was beaten into the fat and sugar.

That's just the freeform comments. What about hard numbers? I asked everyone to rate the cookies on flavor and texture from one to five, where one was the worst and five was the best. The results? M cookies had an average taste score of 3.21 compared to S's average of 3.07. M cookies had an average texture score of 3.43 compared to S's average of 3.07. Clearly, the M cookies were the victors in this battle.

But just how significant was that victory? While everyone had a preferred cookie, no one thought that the other cookie was so bad they wouldn't eat it again. In fact, the remaining cookies went pretty quickly; I only had a few left by the end of the day. I think the takeaway is that an electric mixer makes much better cookies than using a wooden spoon, but the spoon can certainly make a serviceable cookie.

That being said, I think I'm going to end up springing for an electric mixer. Because I hold to the philosophy that if you're going to make something, you should make it the best way you can. And it's clear to me that the best way to make a cookie is with an electric mixer.

[Got any other experiments you'd be interested in reading about? I've got a few more lined up in the future, including: oil vs. melted butter, how to replace egg whites in recipes, and gluten free substitutes. But if you've got ideas, leave a comment below or send me an e-mail at]


  1. Interesting. And really not surprising, for the reasons you mentioned. I do everything with an electric mixer, either hand-held or stand. I remember as a kid, my mother hand-beating egg whites with a fork until they were stiff. Since a bout with carpal tunnel a few years ago, I can't use my hands that way.

    In fact, once you get that electric mixer, try this: bread. One with the mixer & dough hook, and one by hand.

  2. I don't have an electric mixer, but I use a fork to cream butter and sugar, pretty much in the same manner you described with the wooden spoon. I also tend to mix the dough with my hands before forming the cookies, which probably adds air to the mix as well. I've never gotten any complaints about my cookies, except for the few times when I tried multitasking while they were baking and they were a tad overcooked. *L*

  3. I would love to hear the results of the oil vs. melted butter experiment, when you get to it. I always try to use oil instead of butter because it's not as unhealthy, but I'm not sure how it affects the final product.