Sweet Research and the Joy of Cooking Just Enough

Sweet Research and The Joy of Cooking Just Enough

“The calories and portion sizes of classic recipes may reflect prevailing tastes and norms. Yet, they may also establish or reinforce exaggerated norms in other settings…”

-Brian Wansink and Collin R. Payne, “The Joy of Cooking Too Much: 70 Years of Calories Increases in Classic Recipes”

In their research article originally published in Annals of Internal Medicine, Brian Wansink and Collin Payne analyze the calorie increases across 18 recipes printed in both the 1936 and 2006 editions of The Joy of Cooking. Using a variety of methods that I barely understand, Wansink and Payne tracked both ingredient changes and serving size adjustments for their analysis. These researchers did a lot of statistical analyses, made some impressive charts, and seemed very intent on telling me that “P<0.001,” though I have no idea what that means. In this highly formal and informative article, Wansink and Payne conclude that “the mean average calorie density in 18 classic recipes has increased 35.2% per serving over the past 70 years” (121). 

…So I understand that eating too many calories is bad. And my hometown actually received a shout-out on the TV series Parks and Recreation for our history with high obesity levels. But I simply could not find a way to relate to or really care about Wansink and Payne’s article the first time I read it. This response had much more to do with my utter disregard for numbers than for their abilities as researchers and writers. But still, for all their talk about recipes, Wansink and Payne did not mention a single specific food in this article. I don’t even know which “classic foods” have become unhealthier. Why should I care about anonymous recipes in The Joy of Cooking? The only cookbook I use is a recipe collection from my roommate’s grandma. And Pinterest.

Thus, in an attempt to find a way to care more about this actually important research (and not relive my high school days of being thwarted by complicated math), I decided to do my own experiment. I searched online for old and new recipes for the same dish and used a calorie counting website to determine the amount of calories per serving based on ingredients and portion sizes. Before my endeavors start to sound too much like the bland, ambiguous research I am trying to avoid, I should let you know that I decided to make sugar cookies.

cookie plate

I realize the potential irony in my choosing to make cookies in response to an article about unhealthy caloric increases. However, Wansink and Payne do not try to make the case that the types of recipes included in The Joy of Cooking have become unhealthier, but rather that the content of the reprinted recipes has increased in calories. Also, cookies are fun. And years of math-induced stress eating have taught me that sugar is the best way to fight statistics and percentages.

After an intimidating and fruitless expedition through the website version of The Joy of Cooking, I scoured Google and (of course) Pinterest for two distantly related sugar cookie recipes. I ended up finding one in what appears to be the food section of the Chicago Daily Tribune from 1936. The other comes from a small food blog posted in 2012.

I noticed immediately that the 2012 recipe had more butter than its 1936 predecessor. And more sugar. That math I can understand. However, defying all conventional wisdom, I crafted a hopeful hypothesis in which this obvious increase in calories over the span of 76 years did not necessarily create a better cookie.

Calculating cups of butter from a stick labeled with tablespoons was almost enough math to end my scientific endeavors. And wrist deep in impossibly sticky 1936 batter, I experienced even more serious doubts about my experiment. However, my efforts were rewarded when this thick, goopy mess rose into perfect, cake-like cookies. Similarly, I witnessed the cold, heavy block of 2012 dough transform into dense and chewy golden circles.

Many rounds of taste tests with my focus group of ecstatic roommates revealed that the 1936 cookies were in fact just as good, if not better, than the 2012 specimen.

cookie side by side

These two recipes create cookies with very different textures (Left- 2012, Right- 1936)

The older recipe creates a much lighter, more subtly sweet cookie. Its contrast with the thick and powerfully sugary 2012 cookie (more difficult both to eat and cook) perfectly illustrates Wansink and Payne’s point about the unnecessary calorie increase in modern recipes. Translating these numbers into crumbly cookies that I ate still warm from the oven, with sugar all over my clothes and the wrappers from five sticks of butter on my counter, adds weight (both physically and metaphorically) to Wansink and Payne’s research. I can now agree with their claim that “the serving size and calorie composition of classic recipes need to be downsized to counteract growing waistlines” (121). The ingredients we choose to put in our foods both reflect and affect our culture in powerful ways.

I have included both recipes for your own scientific endeavors. Each recipe makes about 32 cookies.

1936 Recipe– 94 calories per cookie


2/3 cup butter

1 cup sugar

2 eggs

1/3 cup milk

½ teaspoon vanilla

2 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt


1. Cream butter and sugar together until well blended (but not over blended)

2. Add beaten eggs, milk, and vanilla

3. In a separate bowl, mix flour, baking powder, and salt, then add to wet ingredients

4. Dough will be very sticky, use a cookie dough scooper to form balls and place on lightly greased cookie sheet

5. Bake at 375 for 12 minutes

cookie dough

2012 Recipe– 147 calories per cookie


1 1/2 cup salted butter

1 1/2 cup Granulated Sugar

2 Eggs

1 1/2 teaspoon Vanilla

3 1/2 cups Flour

1 teaspoon Baking Powder

1/2 teaspoon Salt


1. Cream butter and sugar together

2. Add eggs and vanilla and mix well

3. In a separate bowl, mix dry ingredients then slowly add to wet ingredients, mix well but don’t over beat

4. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and chill for 3 hours, then let thaw for 20 minutes before rolling or baking

5. Roll dough on well floured surface and cut into desired shapes, for smaller cookies simply roll into 1-inch balls and flatten slightly on baking sheet

6. Bake at 350 for 10-15 minutes (depending on size of cookies)

––By Taylor Sheeran

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