The start of a new decade brings exciting, new possibilities and opportunities. And because I’m always thinking about food, when January first came around, I started wondering what culinary trends and recipes the 2020s might usher in. Reflecting on the new decade's potential for food-related improvements also made me want to explore how recipes have changed and evolved over time. I decided to examine the transformation of the oatmeal raisin cookie (the best and maybe most underrated of all cookies) over the past hundred years. I looked at a recipe from Good Housekeeping's Book of Menus, Recipes and Household Discoveries, the most popular cookbook of the 1920s, and compared it to an Ina Garten recipe from just a few years ago. I wanted to share everything I learned about how oatmeal raisin cookies have changed with you so that, now, you can join me in comparing the two recipes.

Step 1: Creaming the Fat and the Sugar

Allie Blank
Allie Blank

Both recipes start the same way: by asking you to mix the fat and the sugar until they’re light and fluffy. But Good Housekeeping calls for a mix of shortening and margarine while Ina Garten opts for butter. It turns out this difference is pretty significant: butter tends to impart a richer flavor than shortening, and it can sometimes lead to crispier, flatter cookies.

Perhaps to offset butter’s not-so-great effects on cookie texture (while keeping butter's delicious flavor), Ina Garten also throws in an extra cup of brown sugar, which adds moisture, as well as  a molasses-y flavor. Her additional cup of sugar makes her cookies sweeter, especially because she uses a ratio of two cups of sugar to one cup of fat.

(A caveat is that Good Housekeeping may not have been aiming for super sweet cookies because, circa the 1920s, oatmeal cookies were considered a health food. In that case, even oatmeal raisin cookies' reputation has changed over time. After all, do we still see them as a healthy sweet?)

Steps 2 and 3: Adding Eggs and Leaveners

Allie Blank

In both recipes, the next step is adding the eggs. Ina Garten has you add the eggs one at a time, which helps emulsify the batter and incorporate the eggs. Good Housekeeping asks you to beat the eggs and then add them both at once, but some people treat pre-mixing eggs and adding eggs one-at-a-time as almost interchangeable when it comes to incorporation. Yet, because of the fats and sugars, the doughs still looked pretty different.

In her recipe, Ina Garten uses baking powder, which reacts on its own to produce carbon dioxide, and carbon dioxide helps the cookies rise and creates those little pockets that make cookies delicious and fluffy.

Baking soda, on the other hand, needs to react with an acid to produce carbon dioxide. Good Housekeeping has you mix it with vinegar before adding it to the dough (which creates the bubbly eruption you might remember from school volcano science experiments). Still, by having you mix them separately before adding them to the batter, the bubbles form instantly and then go away, which would lead to a flatter cookie. So maybe Good Housekeeping was just using the baking soda for help with browning?

Step 4: Dry Ingredients

Allie Blank

Both recipes also ask you to mix the dry ingredients into the dough near the end of the cookie-making process (although Good Housekeeping has you add the oats first). The ingredients themselves are basically identical: sift together flour, cinnamon, and salt. The only real difference is that Ina Garten calls for twice as much salt as Good Housekeeping, and salt brings out and enhances flavors.  

Step 5: Mix-ins

Allie Blank

I chose Ina Garten's recipe in part because she uses the same mix-ins as Good HousekeepingL oats, raisins, and pecans. But Ina Garten adds way more of them (the same amount of raisins, one-and-a-half times as many oats, and three times as many pecans as Good Housekeeping's recipe). As a result, when it comes to mix-ins and their textures and flavors, her cookies have a lot more going on.

Step 6: Baking

Allie Blank

Ina Garten asks you to drop the cookies on a baking sheet with a spoon or an ice cream scoop and then press them down lightly with damp hands. In contrast, Good Housekeeping has you roll out and cut the dough, which seems unusual for oatmeal raisin cookies, especially since the dough wasn't really spreadable or cut-out-able (when I had made it, although there definitely could have been some user error). Theoretically, however, rolling and cutting the dough should give you more control over cookie shape but often leads to a thinner cookie given that the dough starts out flat. Good Housekeeping might have wanted you to roll out the cookies before baking because cookies with shortening often spread less in the oven than cookies with butter.

The roll-and-cut-out method was also more difficult and time-consuming than just dropping the dough on the pan, and the stand mixer definitely made creaming easier, so when making these, I was thinking maybe oatmeal raisin cookies have changed over time to become easier on the baker, especially as technology has advanced.

The Finished Products

Allie Blank

Ina Garten's cookies ended up being crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, buttery, sweet, and delicious. Especially next to Ina Garten's oatmeal raisin cookies, Good Housekeeping's cookies seemed a bit unexciting. They were chewy and bland and just about every negative thing you hear about 'healthy' oatmeal raisin cookies from people who don't like them. Maybe it's my blinding love for oatmeal raisin cookies, but when people say that they hate them, I think they might be picturing the old bland version when, in reality, modern recipes have so much to offer (like butter, brown sugar, salt, better leavening, and extra mix-ins that lead to delicious tastes and textures).

In addition to all that, modern recipes can also accommodate different diets, like these gluten-free, vegan oatmeal raisin cookies. There have also been tons of creative spin-offs like  blueberry coconut oatmeal cookies or oatmeal trail mix cookies. In just about every way, it seems like oatmeal raisin cookies have changed over the past century to become an all-around better-tasting and more versatile dessert, especially for modern tastebuds. Here's hoping the 2020s see even more cookie improvements.