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I am not much of a cook, but about this time every year, I pull out a favorite family recipe for cookies. My grandmother made these cookies for me when I was a child, and when I got older she wrote their recipe down for me.

There is one aspect of the recipe that I have never understood: it has me mix 2 tsp of baking soda into 2 tsp of milk.

All the other dry ingredients (flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, etc.) get mixed together separate from the wet stuff. But the baking soda? No: it has to be added to the milk to form a tiny little bit of wet paste, and then somehow I'm supposed to alternate between adding the flour mixture and this tiny little bit of soda+milk paste into the wet mixture. I cannot understand how such a tiny little bit of wet paste could possibly get evenly distributed throughout the batter mixture, using this method.

My usual approach is to ignore that part of the recipe, and just mix the baking soda with the dry components, and the milk with the wet components. [EDIT: or sometimes, I make the paste as described, then add that to the wet.] There doesn't seem to be any negative results from violating this instruction, and yet I am haunted every year by this non-understood detail of the recipe.

Can I buy a clue? My grandmother is no longer around to ask. :(

[EDIT] After reading the answers so far, I'm reasonably convinced that the purpose of pre-mixing the baking soda (base) into milk (very slightly acid) is to increase the amount of leavening that occurs. These cookies are nearly cake-like in texture, intentionally. But the reasoning behind the alternating is still a bit of a mystery.

  • ... Was mine really the 50,000th question here? Score! :) – Ryan V. Bissell Nov 23 '14 at 21:49
  • No, we only have a bit under 11 000 questions currently. What made you think it's 50 000? – rumtscho Nov 24 '14 at 10:10
  • The number in the URL. – Ryan V. Bissell Nov 24 '14 at 17:55
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Mixing it with milk (or liquid in general) is probably just to remove clumps. It clumps easily, especially when things aren't perfectly airtight (probably more common in your grandmother's time), and mixing in a small amount of liquid is an easy way to make sure it all breaks up.

I'm less sure about the alternating. It is pretty common to alternate wet and dry as a way of getting things evenly mixed and avoiding lumps, so it's possible it's a variation on that. The paste might be too thick to easily mix into the wet, but also wet enough that it'd tend to stay as a lump if you mix it straight into the dry, so alternating wet-dry-paste might get you more even mixing? But if you're able to mix the paste smoothly into the wet, it's completely fine to just do that.

  • Regarding your second paragraph: I have never observed any problems thoroughly mixing the paste directly into the wet. But I could very easily imagine such clumping problems occurring if I had already added some of the dry... which is precisely why I've always looked askance at that particular detail of the recipe. :) – Ryan V. Bissell Nov 23 '14 at 17:56
  • Also, regarding the clumping while in storage due to moisture: I think if that was the sole worry, the recipe could simply suggest that the reader break up the clumps. :) – Ryan V. Bissell Nov 23 '14 at 18:02
  • @Ryan Mixing in a little liquid can be the easiest way to break them up, though. Sometimes it's hard to physically crush them up fully while dry. Might just be lack of explanation! – Cascabel Nov 23 '14 at 19:43
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Lactic acid is prevalent in sour milk products. Addition of a base such as baking soda would tend to neutralize that acid. So your grandmother's thinking was probably to get ahead of the game a bit by adding the base ingredient to the fresh milk, that is, with the idea in mind that it would keep the milk from souring and from changing the flavor of the cookies.

If so, there's definitely merit to her thinking. Trace amounts of milk dispersed over a large area would be obviously easy to spoil, not as an aggregate (such as in 2 tsp) but as occasional, small clusters of molecules appearing here and there throughout the dough, especially when heat is first applied.

Depending on what else in the way of process is in the recipe, the addition of baking soda may have had yet another purpose such as mitigating against an undesired amount of leavening. But dual purpose or otherwise, it can definitely be said to have had the effect of keeping flavor signatures toward the sweet side of the spectrum.

Sounds like your grandmother definitely knew what she was doing. And thank you for the tide of warm images your story imparts.

  • I'm not sure why someone else down-voted your answer; I think yours added value, even though I believe I'm about to accept Jefromi's. There are online variants of this recipe that also have the baking soda pre-added to milk, and in the same proportions. The only detail lacking in the online versions is the alternating of this 4-ish tsp of pasty fluid with the dry ingredients. – Ryan V. Bissell Nov 23 '14 at 17:46
  • Also: I can't understand how adding sodium bicarbonate would 'mitigate against unwanted leavening'. In fact, adding it to milk (pH 6.7) would tend to increase leavening. (These cookies are, intentionally, somewhat cake-like.) Maybe that's the point of the pre-mix! – Ryan V. Bissell Nov 23 '14 at 18:06
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    So yes, it would be tantamount to shifting the balance [of the baking powder] toward the base side. If however to argue that this would not likely alter the leavening process, this all the more supports the likelihood that the intent was to counter the souring of the milk, that is, without interfering with any other processes. Either way you go, it works. The idea that a dual purpose may bear out was simply all the more speculative. I would not hope to be as engaged on the subject as you understandably are, but enough to reach as far as possible on your behalf. Thus the not simple answer. – Tom Raywood Nov 23 '14 at 18:58
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    I don't really see how milk is going to go sour during the process of making cookies - it takes time. And even if it did, the acid is just the byproduct. The problem is bacteria breaking things down into lactic acid (and possibly producing other nasty byproducts). And I agree about leavening - adding baking soda won't decrease leavening, and even if it did, that wouldn't explain why it's mixed into milk. – Cascabel Nov 23 '14 at 19:43
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    While my conception of things may be off, Jefromi, (as that doesn't not happen), it may also be that given a bit more time to gestate over you might come to agree that while, no, a familiar aggregate of milk such as a tsp or a cup would indeed take some time to sour, independent clusters of milk molecules (therefore not in aggregate) are entirely open to the full force of whatever else may act upon them -- which is very different from having the entry point be only the surface of the milk -- as here there's nothing but surface. As to the effect a base has on leavening, it counters it, yes? – Tom Raywood Nov 23 '14 at 21:01

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