Mysteries from the Test Kitchen: Cookie Spreading

November 17, 2015

Today, we're trying our hand at a couple of vintage recipes, the first being the best cookie recipe published in Gourmet magazine in 1954.

The South Carolina Benne Wafers call for dropping the dough (light on flour, heavy on sesame seeds) onto a buttered baking sheet by the teaspoon.

On a Silpat versus on a buttered baking sheet.

But when Test Kitchen Manager Allison Buford tried the recipe as written, the cookies flattened, spreading into one blobby mass. Not so pretty (or practical).

Next, she tried the same dough on a Silpat-lined baking sheet. And voilà: beautiful rounds, just like the image in the book.

So what happened here? Allison hypothesizes that the Silpat offers additional traction, allowing the dough to hold its shape. When the cookies are on the buttered sheet, it's like they're skating on a slippery rink, slip-sliding all around.

Is this a testament to the power of Silpat? The need to tamper with old recipes? The triumph of perseverance? Or is it simply a cookie miracle?

Share your hypothesis with us in the comments below! And stay tuned for the full recipe in December.


arcane54 February 26, 2017
I have a full quart of benne wafer crumbs just waiting for a good idea. Mine were a delicious fail and I'm glad to know it wasn't (all) my doing. Silpat it is!
Kim February 26, 2017
When I use non-stick Reynolds Wrap on my cookie sheet it provides a good surface for the cookies to grasp and significantly reduces any spreading. They retain their shape much better and turn out beautifully. Plus they're easy to remove. Win/Win.
Linda D. February 26, 2017
You said the cookie dough was chilled. How long was it chilled for? I find that if I chill cookie dough overnight, it allows the salt and baking soda reaction to fully take place and the cookies come out fluffier and less flat. Also, if the baking soda has gone off, it will result in a flat cookie that overspreads rather than rises.
Blonddee November 22, 2015
I think it has to do with the fact the silpat is thicker/denser and cookies cooked from top down as opposed to cookie sheet where the heat from the metal allows cookie to cook from the bottom up...a hotter surface, melting the shortening more.
Megan W. November 21, 2015
Margarine was really popular then and a lot of old cookbooks and recipes I have use margarine and butter interchangeably and the results are different depending on which you use. Whenever I've made old cookie recipes (especially ones passed down) I've had to mess with the amount of flour, the temperature, or what kind of surface I bake them on (foil, parchment paper, or Silpats) to get them right.
Cristin P. November 21, 2015
So many interesting and plausible hypotheses. I agree with a lot of the comments—maybe the ingredients in the 1950's differ enough now to create a different outcome. Also, was the dough in the exact same state both times?
Author Comment
Sarah J. November 21, 2015
Same exact dough, yes! Both were chilled before being baked.
Cristin P. November 21, 2015
Excellent. I can't wait to find out what the theory is! :)
Monica T. November 21, 2015
If the recipe is from 1954, wouldn't you have to do things all 1954 like? What kind of baking sheets were they using? How was the butter back then? I know cheese has suffered through time, the butter probably has too.
PhillipBrandon November 21, 2015
Surely this recipe predates Silpats, though. If we take this recipe at its word and assume that at some point it did work as written, on a buttered baking sheet, we have to ask, "what's changed?" <br />Is the make up of our flour much different? Does modern butter contain a higher water percentage? Were baking sheets in the mid '50s heavier, have more thermal mass? <br />I'm not especially surprised that the silpat version spread less, that's been my experience with baking on them usually. I attribute it to the insulation as others have mentioned. The bottom layer of your dough doesn't melt out from underneath the setting cookie as quickly.
Saslyter November 17, 2015
I am thinking that the SILPat is working as an insulating property and keeping the cookie from overheating to quickly before it set.
Hillary R. November 20, 2015
Yes, I've always found that the cookie spread has A LOT to do with temperature--dough temperature, tray temperature. A well-chilled dough on a well-lined cookie sheet seems to spread the least, bar none.
Tante C. November 21, 2015
I agree, this is the secret to truly beautiful cookies.
Iolanthe November 17, 2015
I don't understand how we can hypothesize without being able to see the recipe. Is there a link to it that I missed?
Author Comment
Sarah J. November 17, 2015
We haven't published or written about the recipe yet (next month!), but here it is on The Wednesday Chef for your reference:
md November 17, 2015
I think actually the opposite of the hypothesis. The butter is acting similarly to how flouring the sides of a ramekin helps a souffle climb - it provides a medium for the cookie dough to move through, where the silpat is actually *too* smooth for the cookies to move (similar to how tires don't spin unless there's friction from the treads/road).
Author Comment
Sarah J. November 17, 2015
A-ha! That's very interesting!! Two sides of the same coin.