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I'm absolutely indiscriminate about good cookies. Snappy, chewy, sandy, crispy—whatever it is, I'll take two. I like making macarons, and florentines, and Oreos, and fussy cookies that take all day. I don't mind busting out a cloth cover to painstakingly roll out my aunt Donna's pepparkakor, and it's no bother to keep raw cane sugar on hand for absurdly perfect gingersnaps.
And yet, I find myself making oatmeal cookies more than any other. When I'm at home, everything else seems like Schrödinger's cookie: an interesting possibility. But oatmeal cookies are so real I can smell them, and once I've got that butterscotch-y aroma in mind, I can taste them. Warm and soft and chewy and crisp around the edges.
When it gets to the point that I'm fantasizing about imaginary cookies, I'm halfway to the kitchen.
The wild and unpredictable onset of my craving has taught me a lot about oatmeal cookies, because it makes me impatient. On the one hand, it's helped me develop a one-bowl recipe that comes together as quickly as I can scale the ingredients. On the other, it's shown me that certain corners refuse to be cut.
The first is melted butter, and little baby Goldilocks has to have things just right. Too cool, and the grainy dough refuses to spread. Too hot, and it's an oily mess that oozes in a puddle (though said puddle is tasty, all butterscotch-y and crisp). But when the butter is warm and fluid, about 105°F (41°C), give or take five degrees, everything's perfect.
Sugar dissolves a bit in the warmth, while rolled oats and flour soak up the water, making a dough that's smooth and easy to handle. The cookies themselves bake up chewy and crisp, though the first tray has always looked more irregular than the second, which never bothered me at all. I figured it had something to do with dough temperature, and the urgency of my cravings cared nothing for aesthetics. So far as I was concerned, it was a cook's treat: those funky, unpresentable bits that are always scarfed while you stand at the stove. I kept the uglies for myself and sent the beauties to friends and neighbors.
Most of the time.
Eventually, my oatmeal cookie addiction got the better of me, and I stole a bite from the second tray. A light shone all around, and I basked in the glory of revelation: It wasn't the dough temperature, it was the oats!
Whether old-fashioned or thick-cut, rolled oats are made by roasting and steaming whole oat groats, then sending them through a roller. (Obscure knowledge bomb—instant oats are made the same way, but with steel-cut oats.) Anyhow, steam does something interesting: It pre-gelatinizes the starch, making rolled oats soluble in cold water.
That lets them swell up with moisture from the dough, and when grains swell, they soften. So the oats in the second batch get tenderer, the dough gets thicker, and everyone but me gets a better cookie. Oh, the irony of my impatience!
Since then, I've learned that perfect oatmeal cookies are worth the wait. Twenty-five minutes (roughly the time that passes between adding the oats and getting my second tray in the oven) of resting time is enough to see a distinct improvement; 45 is even better. After an hour, the baking soda starts to lose its strength, but you still won't notice any negative effect on your cookies until about the 90-minute mark. Holding the dough overnight is out of the question.
That's okay, though. You'll be making them again soon enough.
PS: Swap out traditional raisins for tart dried cranberries or cherries. They balance out the sweetness of the cookies so much better.
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