I’ve always admired cooks who could whip up something delicious without a recipe, using whatever they happen to have on hand. Baking can be tough with this kind of approach, since the chemistry needs to be more or less correct or your pastry won’t come out right. Cookies are relatively straightforward, though, so if you follow a few simple cookie guidelines you should come up with something extremely edible.
Start With a Sugar Slurry
Add liquid very carefully. You’re trying to create a thick, stirrable liquid, but just barely. If you get a thin liquid by accident, go back and add more sugar. You will just have to pay for your mistake by eating more cookies later.
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In general, your liquid should be part oil (vegetable oil or melted butter) and part not-oil (water, milk, juice, or a combination, with an egg or two thrown in if you want). Oil helps make the cookies rich and chewy, while other liquid is necessary to help the sugar dissolve. Perfecting these proportions is one of the biggest challenges of making cookies without a recipe.
Salt your slurry, particularly if you didn’t use salted butter. Your mixture should taste, well, a little buttery. You should probably be able to taste salt, but just slightly. Add any other liquid or paste ingredients you like, such as flavored extracts or nut butters.
Give it Some Body
Add flour to your sugar soup. White flour is a convenient standard, with a classic taste. Whole wheat flour is generally ok too, but will definitely make for a denser cookie with a grainier taste. A combination of the two is one way to strike some sort of balance between tasty and ever so slightly healthy.
Other flours can be incorporated, but may not hold together as well as wheat, since they lack the sticky gluten found in wheat. Generally it’s best to use mostly white or whole wheat flour, adding a smaller amount of other grains for variety if you like. Cornmeal is tasty, with a crumbly texture, and whole oats, while not technically flour, can also be added to a moist dough at this stage.
Make a smallish pile of flour on top of your sugar mixture. Add a spoonful of baking powder (not soda, or you may end up with a funny taste) to the top of your flour pile, and a heaping spoonful of cornstarch if you didn’t use any eggs–these will help your cookies rise and hold together, respectively. Also add any additional powdered ingredients, like cocoa, now.
Gently mix the top of the flour pile with your fingers, so you don’t end up with clumps of baking powder or corn starch. Then, stir the entire flour pile into the sugar. Check the texture. Add flour until the dough becomes thick enough to form into a ball.
Stir in any chunky ingredients, like chocolate chips, raisins, or nut pieces, gradually at this point. Add as many as you want, or as many as the batter can hold. If you add too many, they’ll eventually start falling out of the dough ball and you’ll know it’s time to give up and bake your cookies.
Bake Your Cookies
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees fahrenheit. Rub a thin layer of oil or butter over your cookie sheet to help prevent sticking. Place spoonfuls or small balls of dough on the sheet, with at least an inch of space around each cookie, since most recipes flatten and expand while baking.
Bake your cookies for about ten minutes, or until they’re ever so slightly browned but not burnt. Judging the doneness of cookies is a bit tough, since even finished cookies are often extremely soft when they come out of the oven and firm up to an edible consistency while cooling. If in doubt, go ahead and take them out. The worst case scenario is slightly doughy cookies, which is definitely better than the alternative.
When they’re cool enough to eat, organize a taste test. Make notes on your successes and failures, and your next batch of no-recipe cookies should be even more exciting.
Variation: Cookie Cutter Cookies
If you want to roll out your cookies, you’ll need a stiff, smooth dough. Add plenty of flour (until the dough is barely sticky anymore) and no oats or other chunky ingredients. Chilling the dough, especially if it has butter in it, can sometimes make it less sticky. On the other hand, if your chilled dough is too hard, let it come to room temperature.
Dust a clean table or countertop with flour, to prevent sticking. Use a floured rolling pin to roll your dough into a thin, hopefully even sheet. Cut out shapes with cookie cutters and carefully transfer them to your cookie sheet with a spatula. Watch them even more carefully in the oven (you may want to check after just a few minutes), since thin cookies burn very easily.
Ingredients to Consider
Half the fun of no-recipe cookies is the freedom to add whatever you want. Here are some ideas:
chocolate chips, peanut butter chips, butterscotch chips, white chocolate chips, pecans, walnuts, peanuts, peanut butter, other nut butters, marshmallows, molasses, coconut flakes, raisins, dried cherries, chopped fresh fruit, jam, granola, other cereals, candy, pieces of other cookies, vanilla extract, mint extract, almond extract, other extracts, lemon zest, grated carrots or zucchini, canned pumpkin, malt powder, wheat germ.
You can also top cookies in all sorts of interesting ways, including drizzling with melted chocolate or other chips, frosting once they’re cool, or attaching a chunk of something (like a whole pecan) before or after baking.
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