Shortbread for Santa, Hanukkah sweets, New Year's treats—whatever traditions you hold dear, cookies are key at holiday time. With these few simple pointers on measuring, mixing (not too much!), size, and more, you can make this the year for mastering the art of cookie baking. Read on for eight essential lessons to take you from basic ingredients to crave-worthy cookies ready for a thick swirl of frosting or a double dip in dark chocolate—great for gifting or gobbling.
1. Invest in a Digital Scale
When it comes to measuring ingredients such as flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt, baking is a science that repays precision. If your recipe provides the option of measuring by weight, you'll want to use a digital scale, which ensures amounts will be accurate no matter how level your measuring cup may appear. A decent-quality digital scale costs about $25 and can be purchased online or in a baking supply store.
2. Go Nonstick for Success
While parchment paper is handy for lining baking sheets, consider upgrading to a nonstick silicone mat (Silpat is one widely available brand), which prevents the dough from sticking to the baking sheet and serves as a buffer from the hot pan, preventing the cookie bottoms from scorching. Best of all, silicone mats are reusable and easy to clean. A quick wipe with a warm towel removes any residue, leaving the mat ready for your next dozen.
3. Avoid Overmixing
For tender, moist cookies, stick to the minimum amount of mixing—just until the ingredients are evenly distributed and fully combined. Why? The more you mix a cookie dough that contains flour, the more active the gluten in the flour becomes. Overactive gluten translates to a tougher, chewier texture.
4. Chill First, Roll Second
Dough that's meant to be rolled and cut with cookie cutters is easiest to work with when chilled. Otherwise, the fat (most commonly butter) in the dough will warm quickly, causing the dough to stick to your hands, tools, and work surface. For best results when rolling and cutting, keep the dough wrapped in plastic and chilled in the refrigerator, removing only small portions at a time to work with. After you've cut out your cookies, place them back in the fridge for 30 minutes before baking, if time allows. This way, your cut-out cookies will best maintain their intended shape rather than stretch or spread.
5. Size Matters
Consistency is critical when it comes to the size of your cookies, for one simple reason: Cookies that are the same size will bake in the same amount of time. Mixing up sizes on the same baking sheet inevitably means the smaller cookies will bake faster (read: burn) while the larger ones will be underbaked. This holds true for both cut cookies (the little stars will cook faster than the big gingerbread men) and drop cookies. For drop cookies, you can keep the size consistent by using a small ice cream scoop, melon baller, or measuring spoon (such as a tablespoon) to portion out batter, dipping the scoop in warm water after every few uses to prevent sticking.
6. Avoid Overcrowding
Cookies of all types need ample room on a baking sheet to allow for any spreading while baking. Also keep in mind that as a cookie bakes, it releases steam. And it is this steam that helps cookies retain their moisture. This is why cookies placed in the corners of baking sheets bake faster, and are crispier, than those in the center of a sheet. (The corners of baking sheets reflect heat directly onto the cookies, and because there are fewer cookies surrounding the ones in the corners, corner cookies are exposed to less steam and dry out faster than the rest.)
7. Tinker With the Temperature-to-Time Ratio
The temperature of your oven and the time your cookies spend in the oven directly affect their texture. If you prefer a crispier cookie, decrease the oven temperature and increase the baking time. If you prefer a chewier cookie, increase the oven temperature and decrease the baking time. This second approach will also result in cookies with a softer center. And always remember to rotate your baking sheets halfway through the baking time, as most ovens do not distribute heat evenly.
8. The Key to Cooler Cookies
How and where you set your baked cookies to let cool can make or break your success. After removing cookies from the oven, transfer them to a rack where air can circulate fully. Otherwise, cookies left on a hot baking sheet will continue to bake. Cookies should also be left to cool completely before being frosted or packaged in airtight containers.
Ready to get started? Following these eight simple tips can mean the difference between golden-brown cookies and overly crisp crumbles. The same simple principles apply to every variety of cookie, from classic chocolate chip to spiced gingerbread and every flavor and shape in between. So fire up that oven and ring in the holiday season with a batch of your favorite seasonal sweets!
Victoria Burghi is a chef instructor in the Pastry & Baking Arts program at The Institute of Culinary Education. Prior to joining the faculty at ICE, she was the opening executive pastry chef at Union Square Cafe.