What Makes Sugar Cookies Puff Up?

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Science plays an important role in baking. The way that ingredients react to heat, or to each other, determines the final flavor, texture and appearance of baked goods. When it comes to sugar cookies, there are many different recipes to choose from, some of which produce cookies with a puffed-up, cracked sugar top and others that produce a much flatter cookie. Understanding the role of a few key ingredients can help you choose the sugar cookie recipe that is right for you.

Chemical Leavening Agents

  • Recipes that call for baking soda or baking powder are more likely to puff up than other recipes. Both baking soda and baking powder produce carbon dioxide gas when they are dissolved, which causes baked goods to rise. Baking soda reacts when it comes into contact with acidic ingredients like honey or brown sugar, while baking powder reacts to both liquids and heat. Baking powder is double-acting and will produce carbon dioxide gas twice during the baking process, both when it is dissolved into a liquid and when the item is baked.

Creamed Butter

  • Many sugar cookie recipes instruct you to cream the butter. The process of creaming butter incorporates air into the mixture by trapping air bubbles between the butter and sugar. The longer you cream the butter, the more air bubbles you will incorporate into your dough and the puffier your final product will be.

Eggs

  • Eggs can also be a contributing factor in the rise of baked goods. Eggs provide both water and structure-building proteins to the dough. As the dough is heated and cooked, the water from the eggs turns to steam. Steam is a very effective leavening agent because it expands to occupy significantly more space than the water did originally. As the dough continues to bake and water is converted into steam, the proteins in the eggs also begin to coagulate, providing stability for the overall structure and allowing baked goods to maintain their rise.

Oven Temperature

  • The temperature at which you bake an item can have a significant impact on its rise. As dough bakes, solid fats like butter begin to melt and produce steam, forcing the baked goods to expand. Baking at lower temperatures typically produces more leavening because the steam is created around the same time that the structure of the baked goods is stabilized by the coagulation of egg and gluten proteins. This allows the baked goods to better hold their puffed-up shape.

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References

  • On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen; Harold McGee
  • Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes; Harold McGee
  • How Baking Works: Exploring the Fundamentals of Baking Science; Paula Figoni
  • Photo Credit Martin Poole/Digital Vision/Getty Images
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