News & Politics

The Great Chocolate-Chip Cookie Tasting

We tasted 101 chocolate-chip cookies -- from bakeries, supermarkets, everywhere -- to find the very best.

Philip Merrill, the late publisher of The Washingtonian, loved chocolate-chip cookies. Back in the 1980s, not long after he came to the magazine, we did a tasting of chocolate-chip cookies that he talked about for years.

We had a Girl Scout troop do the tasting, and finishing last were the cookies from Giant Food.

After the results were published, Phil got a call from Izzy Cohen, then the head of Giant Food. Phil expected a complaint—“How dare you say that about our cookies?”—but what Izzy said was, “We’re going to improve our cookies.”

Phil thought that showed why Izzy was one of the city’s smartest, most successful businessmen. There’s a problem? Let’s not complain; let’s fix it.

Phil liked to talk to young journalists about what makes a magazine work. One of his favorite lines: “Remember that if you rate something like chocolate-chip cookies, you better do it really well. If readers find they can’t trust us on chocolate-chip cookies, they won’t trust us on anything else.”

Phil died on June 10, and at his memorial service, the celebration of his life, his family served ice cream and chocolate-chip cookies to more than 1,000 of Phil’s friends and many of the city’s leaders.

In his memory, here is the best tasting of chocolate-chip cookies ever done in Washington.

What makes chocolate-chip cookies so special? They are the quintessential American cookie. And everyone has an opinion about them. Thin and crisp, thick and gooey, flat and chewy—each has its own fan club, and we tasted them all.

To find the best chocolate-chip cookies, we tasted 101 varieties—from local bakeries, delis, diners, coffee shops, specialty markets, and supermarkets. We also sampled cookies from national chains and online sources all over the country.

We turned up some great ones—and some not worth a glass of milk. The best were golden brown and buttery with a hint of brown sugar and a trace of saltiness, the edges crisp, the center slightly chewy, the chocolate divine. The worst? They ranged from the woefully underbaked to the toothachingly sweet. There were surprises. Many visions of cookie perfection fell short when it came time to dig in. And some stellar reputations took a hit. Here are the winners and losers.

Best Overall

Marvelous Market, stores in DC, Maryland, and Virginia; . $1.49 each. (Beware Dupont Circle location—cookies are inconsistent.)

Gorgeous to look at, this is a cookie born of quality ingredients—good butter, good chocolate—and talent. At once sweet, salty, crispy, and chewy, it won us over with its complex balance of flavors. Unlike many others, it was cooked all the way through.

Best With a Chewy Center

Baked & Wired, 1052 Thomas Jefferson St., NW; 202-333-2500. $1 each.

This classic cookie—two inches across rather than the increasingly typical supersize version—has a homey, made-by-Mom look with crisp edges, high-quality chocolate chunks, a salty edge, and an underbaked cookie-dough center that some love and some don’t.

Best From a Coffee Shop

Mocha Hut, 1301 U St., NW, 202-667-0616; 4706 14th St., NW, 202-829-6200. $1.25 each.

A chocolate-lover’s cookie with good-quality chunks and plenty of them. It’s a more human-size cookie than most, not a behemoth, and has an appealingly bumpy surface and crisp edges.

Best Designer Cookie

Neiman Marcus, stores in DC and Virginia; $18 for a 17.6-ounce can.

You’d expect an elegant cookie from this high-end retailer, but these also have terrific flavor. Exceptionally buttery, loaded with good-quality chocolate chips, crisp all the way through, and with an undercurrent of mocha courtesy of the espresso powder used in the recipe. One caveat: They’re so brittle that quite a few cookies in the can were broken.

Best for Lovers of Cookie Dough

Reeves Bakery, 1306 G St., NW; 202-628-6350. 75 cents each.

Crispy on the edges and full of good-quality chocolate, these cookies had a grainy center that was almost like eating cookie dough.

Best From a National Chain

Panera Bread, stores in Maryland and Virginia; $1.29 each.

Looked and tasted almost homemade. Chewy in the center, crisp around the perimeter, with loads of tiny melt-in-the-mouth chips and a buttery finish.

Best From Online

Zabar’s Chocolate Chip Cookies, 800-697-6301, $19.95 a pound.

You could take these cookies from the famed New York deli/gourmet market to a party and pass them off as your own. Crisp—and reminiscent of home-baked Toll House cookies—these pack a lot of great brown-sugar and chocolate flavor in a small cookie.

Runner-up: Eleni’s Cookies, $25 for a gift tin of 24.

An ultra-crisp (perhaps a tad overbaked) cookie for those who like the sweetness and crunch of brown sugar. Appealingly small.

Best Packaged Cookie

Keebler Chips Deluxe, area Giant and Safeway stores and other supermarkets and convenience stores. $3.89 for package of 26.

With chips in every bite and a good, buttery flavor, this bag cookie easily bested all other popular supermarket brands.

Best Gourmet Packaged Supermarket Cookie

Brent & Sam’s, area Giant and Whole Foods stores. $3.30 for seven.

Big, high-quality chocolate chips and a wonderful sweet-salty balance make these crisp, delicate cookies special. Perfect with a glass of milk.

Just the Right Size for Kids

Abigail’s Cookies, Whole Foods Market, $3.99 for 84 cookies.

These bite-size cookies taste a lot like animal crackers with chips in them. They’re sweet and simple and small enough that you can let little ones eat five or six.

G Value, Giant stores, $1.29 for package of 20.

This Giant brand of mini-chocolate-chip cookies is more sugary than Abigail’s but better than Famous Amos, the outfit that started the whole mini-cookie craze.

Could Have Been Contenders

Open City, 2331 Calvert St., NW; 202-332-2331. $2 each.

Big, the color of molasses, and fully baked, these cookies were true to Toll House, but the chocolate wasn’t as good as in others.

Nickell’s & Sheffler, 1028 King St., Alexandria; 703-549-5545. 80 cents each.

The jolt of orange flavor added a pleasing note for some, but the cookie purists weren’t happy.

Unmet Expectations

Bread Line. Chef/owner Mark Furstenberg’s heart may be in his bread and his fabulous mascarpone-filled Oreo/whoopie pie, but it’s not in his chocolate-chip cookie.

Dean & DeLuca and Balducci’s. Both the in-house bakery cookies and the packaged cookies at these specialty markets were not special at all.

Dove. There’s a lot going on in this new supermarket cookie from the company of Dove Bar fame—semisweet chips, a slick of milk chocolate on the bottom—but they’re oddly tasteless.

Whole Foods. The in-house bakery cookies were forgettable, and the packaged wheat-free and egg-free varieties were inedible: They smelled like glue and tasted like vitamins.

Chips Ahoy. For so many years the gold standard of supermarket cookies, they’re way behind the pack now.

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Petworth.