Flour, sugar, eggs, vanilla, butter and chocolate.

Chocolate chip cookies rarely veer from that humble, well-trod recipe printed on the backs of countless bags of morsels. Why, then, are they all so different?

Sarah Botcher, the pastry chef and owner of Black Walnut Bakery in Minneapolis, calls the chocolate chip cookie "a benchmark of the quality and integrity of a bakery." She says the choice of ingredients and the flavors that come through provide insight into a baker's priorities and values.

"Does the cookie taste original, and slightly unique while still maintaining the essence of a classic chocolate chip cookie? Would you go back for another? Another important question, is it a freshly baked cookie? If so, you may have found a good bakery."

There are variations on ingredients, of course. Brown sugar vs. white. Milk chocolate vs. dark chocolate. A blend of flours vs. all-purpose. And mix-ins: to nut, or not to nut?

You could also say love plays a role, as it does in most comfort foods. Reaching deep into the most primal chocolate chip cookie memories, it tends to matter who was baking (grandma, babysitter, new neighbor) — and why (skinned knee, a lunchbox surprise, just because).

No one in my family baked. The first time I remember tasting homemade chocolate chip cookies was around second grade. I'd go to a friend's house every day after school and wait for my parents to get home from work. My friend's mom always kept an orange Tupperware on the counter filled with cookies. Full on Monday, the supply dwindled as the week went on. They were small and really hard; burnt on the edges, and not in a good way. But those cookies had something I couldn't name. Was it the taste of real butter? (This was the margarine-schmeared '80s, after all.) Or, to a lonely latchkey kid, was it simply the feeling of being taken care of?

That was the flavor I sought as I tasted my way through dozens of chocolate chip cookies in search of the Twin Cities' ultimate. For months, anytime I spotted one on a menu or in a pastry case, I'd buy it and bring it home where I'd weigh, measure and photograph it before taking a bite. And it never got old. Every cookie had its own unique character: the giant diner cookie and the petite butter-bomb, the thin-and-crispy and the gooey dough ball. They all followed that deceivingly complex road map — flour, sugar, eggs, vanilla, butter, chocolate — and came out of the oven a complete original.

You'll know which is your favorite. It's the one that feeds your soul with something extra, something that isn't necessary for survival. Only joy.

Grab a glass of milk: Here are my 15 favorite chocolate chip cookies in the Twin Cities.

Alma Cafe/Alma Provisions

Why use one chocolate when you can use three? Alma pastry chef Jessica Vostinar combines semisweet chips and chopped milk chocolate along with the textural surprise of cacao nibs. Melty pockets of milk chocolate balance the semisweet chips and the bitterness of the cocoa, and the nibs give the cookie an unusual-but-good grittiness, like you're munching on espresso beans. This petite cookie, with its sturdy edges, is a great coffee dunker. You can also buy packs of refrigerated dough to make them at home.

$1.50; 528 University Av. SE., Mpls., 612-379-4909, almampls.com; 812 W. 46th St. Mpls., 612-895-1251, almaprovisions.com

Angel Food Bakery

Anyone who's snuck a bite from a refrigerated tube of raw cookie dough should love these little treats. At around 1.5 ounces, they're the smallest of the bunch, but there's still plenty of gooey, almost underbaked middle. "I'm not a fan of the thick, floury cookies," said Angel Food owner and pastry chef Katy Gerdes. She achieves a chewy edge and flat, doughy center by having a higher ratio of butter and brown sugar to flour. And, there's a "top secret" trick to getting the texture right — baking frozen dough balls directly from the freezer. It took copious testing to nail it. "I believe cookies are simple in premise and hard to perfect," Gerdes said.

$1.50; 8100 Minnetonka Blvd., St. Louis Park, angelfoodmn.com

Black Walnut Bakery

With pools of chocolate swirling on the surface and a near-caramelized bottom, these cookies might look too sophisticated, but they taste like a buttery childhood classic. Black Walnut owner and pastry chef Sarah Botcher credits the "essential ingredients" and opts for only the highest quality. "Grassy, creamy, fresh" high-fat cultured butter, 72% dark chocolate from Venezuela, a mix of brown and white sugars for chewiness, and "a perfect supporting role ingredient" of rolled oats, which absorb moisture and help give it a chewy, "nubby" texture that's pure pleasure.

$2.65; 3157 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., 612-353-6552, blackwalnutbakery.com

Bread & Chocolate

These cookies taste classic because they are; this coffee shop has been turning out luscious bakes on Grand Avenue in St. Paul for 40 years. Like the "soft batch" selections in the cookie aisle at the grocery store, only much purer, Bread & Chocolate's cookies are so pliant you can see where the dough folded in on itself as it baked. Chocolate chunks are big and not too bitter. It's the homiest cookie on this list.

$2.25; 867 Grand Av., St. Paul, 651-228-1017, breadandchocolatebakery.com

Butter Bakery Cafe

Thin and blond, sweet and familiar, this cookie is recognizable for a reason: It's served at venues all over Minneapolis — Jungle Theater, Children's Theatre Company, South High music events. The prominence of butter (premium Hope Creamery) and a drier crumble evoke tinned Danish butter cookies, while the chocolate is restrained — just mini chips freckled throughout the dough. "We certainly lean more toward the butter than the chocolate for these cookies," said owner Dan Swenson-Klatt. When he was opening the bakery, he got into a "philosophical discussion" with his then-head baker Amy Kovacs about whose family recipe was better. Hers won. "I willingly conceded," Swenson-Klatt said.

$1.50; Butter Bakery Cafe, 3700 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., 612-521-7401, butterbakerycafe.com


This crunchy, flaky masterpiece has the unexpected addition of rolled oats, which give it a nice chew in the middle. It's a "secret homage" to pastry chef Ngia Xiong's "all-time favorite" cookie, the oatmeal raisin. "Turns out I like [oatmeal raisin], but no one around me does," she said, eyes rolling. There are no raisins here, just two kinds of chocolate, including hand-pounded chunks of dark chocolate and lighter chocolate chips. Brown butter gives the cookie "nutty, toasty notes" that lend an almost-burnt smokiness (without actually burning, of course), and a topping of Maldon sea salt balances the sweetness and dials up that brown-butteriness.

$3; 2412 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., 612-452-9785; 1414 NE. Quincy St., Mpls., 612-345-5527, centrompls.com

Edwards Dessert Kitchen

There are many desserts to choose from at this sweets-focused restaurant, but don't overlook this gorgeous cookie, with its crunchy edges and puddles of melted 55% dark chocolate in the middle. Here's a shocker: It happens to be gluten-free. Executive pastry chef Jasmine Weiser uses a house blend of brown rice flour, potato starch and oat flour, "which gives our cookie a satisfying chew" you don't usually get with GF treats. Another surprise? Weiser bakes with salted butter, "to balance the sweetness and add a salty, savory note." With a bit of sweet and salty, crunchy and chewy in every bite, it's one harmonious cookie.

$5.50; 200 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 612-800-0335, edwardsdessertkitchen.com

Grocer's Table

It took me a while to come around to this monster-sized cookie, whose heft — almost 6 ounces — was intimidating. I'm happy to be a convert. "THE chocolate chip cookie," as it's named, is inspired by owner Lindsay Pohlad's "favorite cookie in the world" from the iconic Levain Bakery, with which she shared a block at one point in New York City. Tons of big chocolate chips are held together by the barest minimum of dough, which is part all-purpose and part cake flour and "a good portion" of brown sugar. A generous sprinkling of Maldon sea salt glimmers on top, balancing the sweetness within. The whole thing is fired at 400 degrees, giving it a crispy exterior and gooey middle. "They are by far our number one seller in the bakery and seem to make people smile, which makes me happy," Pohlad said.

$5; 326 Broadway Av. S., Wayzata, 952-466-6100, thegrocerstablemn.com

Honey & Rye Bakehouse

For some cookies, the setting is as important as the ingredients. That setting, for me, is the darling Alliance Française cafe, which is supplied by Honey & Rye. And the ingredient of note? Hope Creamery butter, which comes through in every bite. "There is no shortage of butter in these cookies," said owner Anne Andrus. "I like to say it's very 'butter forward.'" Her trick is to melt the butter first. It's faster to make, for one thing, and it ensures a chewy (vs. fluffy) cookie, with ultra-crisp edges. "Feels like the best of both worlds." Andrus also amps up the chewiness with extra egg yolks. "No secret ingredients," she said, "just good ones."

$2.50; 4501 Excelsior Blvd., St. Louis Park, 612-844-2555; Le Cafè @ Alliance Française, 227 Colfax Av. N., Mpls., 612-332-0436; honey-and-rye.com

The Lynhall

Small enough to hold in the palm of your hand, this mighty cookie woos with a gooey middle that's loaded with chocolate. Pastry chef Jeremy Intille's mix has more brown sugar than white, which keeps the cookie soft hours after baking, and "kind of gives that illusion of brown butter — that toasted, nutty flavor without having to add nuts into the cookie." Another trick is combining two kinds of Valrhona chocolate: 64% dark, and 34% milk chocolate that's actually been roasted at a low temperature, "so all those milk solids start to get all this roasty hazelnut flavor." Sounds fancy, but it's just a well-balanced cookie that Intille notices kids and adults like equally. "Some bites are maybe a little darker, some might be milkier, and some you just get that blissful bite." Tip: Ask at the counter for some cookie dough to bake at home.

$3; 2640 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls., and 3945 Market St., Edina; 612-870-2640, thelynhall.com

Mother Dough Bakery

So fluffy that it's practically a cake, this enormous cookie filled a workday void; David and Eli Fhima's two Mother Dough bakeries happened to open in the Star Tribune's office building mid-pandemic. But what could have been a run-of-the-mill skyway snack turned out to be as artful as any of Fhima's fine French pastries displayed alongside it. There's more cookie than chips, for those who prefer their chocolate dialed down and brown sugary dough dialed way up. With a diameter the size of an average smartphone screen, this is the biggest cookie to make the list.

$3.85; 225 S. 6th St., Mpls., main level and skyway level, 612-354-2025, motherdoughbakery.com

Rise Bagel Co.

"The Cookie" is on the brunch menu at this North Loop bagelry, right after a bacon, egg and cheese, and it makes sense; it's practically a meal. Not just because of its bulk (around 5 ounces) but because the balance of flavors goes beyond sweet and savory, almost into umami territory. A nutty, smoky scent hits you before you even bite in; it's from the brownest brown butter that gets a boost from sea salt sprinkled on top. And at nearly an inch thick at its center, the cookie's moist and fudgy interior is swimming with callets — wide chocolate drops designed for melting right into the dough. It's a showstopper.

$3.75; 530 N. 3rd St., Mpls., 612-354-3349, risebagel.com


There's always a predicament with Rustica cookies: how to choose between the iconic bittersweet chocolate or "rustic" chocolate chip? What a fortunate problem to have. Though I used to be a bittersweet chocolate die-hard, I've more recently become smitten with the thin, chewy and butter-forward chocolate chip. The small bits of bittersweet chocolate don't overwhelm that bronzed disk of dough, whose overall taste is more caramel than anything else. It's solid.

$2.50; 3220 W. Lake St., Mpls., 612-822-1119; 200 Southdale Center, Edina, 952-417-6199; rusticabakery.com

Sebastian Joe's

This soft, saucer-sized cookie would make a killer ice cream sandwich. That's what I kept thinking as I ate it, only to realize there are no new ideas: These lightly baked and still doughy cookies are already the house-made vessels for Sebastian Joe's ice cream. But it's time they were promoted from supporting cast to solo star. These treats were designed for the kind of people who intentionally take their cookies out of the oven a couple minutes early.

$2.90; 4321 Upton Av. S., Mpls., 612-926-7916; 1007 W. Franklin Av., Mpls., 612-870-0065; sebastianjoesicecream.com

Yum Kitchen and Bakery

For those whose homemade cookie memories veer crispy, this one's for you. Owner Patti Soskin has kept the same thin, well-done cookie on the menu since she opened Yum 17 years ago. She landed on the perfect recipe after tinkering with the classic version from Toll House, changing it up by adding lots of little chocolate chips (each batch has 21 pounds of chips, a number that astounds her), and banging the cookie sheet on the counter when it comes out of the oven so you can see the ripples gather at the lacy edges. And they're always served fresh. "Is there anything better than a warm chocolate chip cookie?" Soskin asked.

$2.50; 164 N. Snelling Av., St. Paul, 651-615-1230; 4000 Minnetonka Blvd., St. Louis Park, 952-922-4000; 6001 Shady Oak Road, Minnetonka, 952-933-6001; yumkitchen.com