The thing about baking is that the precise instructions can be off-putting for freewheeling cooks who like to improvise. The strict amounts, proper technique and exact temperatures may feel too restrictive or daunting to newcomers. Author Michael Ohene wants to change all that — and has spent years gathering data to free people from the tyranny of the set-in-stone cookie recipe.
Through his extensive research (and many, many spreadsheets), Ohene has come up with the formula, and written the book Big Data, Yummy Cookies, which he says can help take some of the fear out of baking. The book “allows people to customize recipes without risk of failure,” Ohene told me.
Ohene, who is an electrical engineer by day, began this journey by trying out lots of different chocolate chip cookie recipes. He kept precise records detailing the amounts and types of ingredients, and how those factors impacted the final result. Based on those numbers, Ohene would determine if the recipe “succeeded” or “failed” (by his estimation) in creating a delicious cookie.
With a broad understanding of what ingredient combinations work best, Ohene set out to make his grand unifying cooking equation. Just a heads up: This gets complicated and may transport you back to high school algebra class, but stay with me.
The building blocks of Ohene’s formula are values and quantities. Through his experimentation, Ohene assigned numerical values to each ingredient: the wetter the ingredient, the lower its value. It’s odd at first to think of egg = (number), but Dohene came to his numerical equivalents through lots of trial and error. “I had a bunch of recipes in a spreadsheet, and I used interpolation. I tested for a few points to show a pattern,” Ohene said.
Here are a few examples of the values he’s assigned:
Flour = 1
Butter = .5
Egg = .16
Once you have the value for your ingredients, you need to factor in the quantities you will use. Continuing with our example:
2 cups of flour
.75 cups of butter
Now you assemble everything. The formula for making great chocolate chip cookies is adding up all the quantities of wet ingredients times their value, divided by the dry ingredients to get your wet over dry ratio. So for our limited example, that is:
(1 egg (.16) + 1 egg (.16) + (.75 cups x butter (.5))) ÷ (1 cup of flour (1) + 1 cup of flour (1))
(.16 + .16 + .375 )÷ (1 + 1)
Which then boils down to:
.695/2 = .3475
That final answer, .3475, is what Ohene calls the “moistness value.” And through his years of tests, he concludes that as long as you get a value between .273 and .35, you’ll get a good cookie. Anything outside that range is too wet or too dry, and not acceptable to Ohene.
With his formula and the acceptable end result range established, Ohene wrote the book Big Data, Yummy Cookies. In it, he provides basic recipes for various chocolate chip cookies (classic, oatmeal, etc.), but like any good mathematician, goes on to provide constants and the variables you can alter and experiment with.
Ohene has done all the math for people if they want to change up the recipe as well. For example: if you use 2.5 cups of flour, what are the minimum, moderate and maximum amounts of white sugar you can use to still achieve a result in that perfect cookie range. He’s basically creating bowling alley guardrails for your baking, giving readers a wide path to experiment — but still achieve a good result.
“I want to change the way people think about baking,” Ohene said. “It’s like when you had your standard music, and then there was jazz. It took the standard format and then would swing the melody and the tempo based off their feeling. That’s what I want to do with baking.” He continued “You don’t have to read a (recipe) book and be locked in to it.”
When asked if he still likes cookies after all these years of research, Ohene responded “That’s a good question,” and then he paused for a long time. “Right now, since exploring all different types, I would just enjoy a bittersweet chocolate chip cookie.”
On a final, more self-promotional note, I learned about Ohene at our last Spoon Meetup, where we discussed the future of recipes, which goes to show you that good things can happen when you attend! Our next meet up is on The Future of Meat in Seattle on May 24th. If you come, make sure to find me and talk to me about your interesting project.