[blockquote size=”full” align=”left|right” byline=”J.R.R. Tolkien”]“The proper ingredients, equipment, storage, and freezing techniques can make or break your cookies. Read on for the low-down on baking secrets.”[/blockquote]
Fats: The type of fat in cookies (oil, butter, margarine) determines the shape and texture of the final product. If a recipe calls for butter, it’s a good idea to use it! If a recipe calls for either butter OR margarine, feel free to use either one, but never use margarine that is less than 70% vegetable oil (like a diet margarine or spread), as these contain too much water. As a general rule, butter and good-quality margarine are fairly interchangeable.
In most cases, fats should be used at room temperature. Allow solid shortening such as butter to stand at room temp for about an hour before using. Soft margarine can be used straight from the fridge.
Using a fat with a sharp melting point, like butter, results in a dough that spreads out as it bakes — the desired result for drop cookies.
Fats that maintain the same consistency through wide temperature ranges, like shortening (such as Crisco), make cookies that don’t spread as much during baking (ideal for cut-out cookies).
Sugar: Again, follow the recipe’s recommendations for sugars. Use light brown sugar, packed firmly into a measuring cup, when brown sugar is called for (unless otherwise specified). Powdered sugar is often referred to as confectioners’ sugar. Superfine sugar, a popular sweetener for cakes, is not as coarse as standard white granulated sugar and dissolves more quickly. If a recipe calls for superfine sugar and you have none, just run regular sugar through a blender or food processor to make it finer.
Sometimes corn syrup or molasses are used for sweeteners; these ingredients also serve to give the final cookie a browner color. Cookies made with brown sugar or honey as sweeteners will soften upon standing, rather than crisp up. Substituting honey for sugar will ensure a dense, moist cookie: When substituting, reduce the amount of honey by one-fourth the amount of sugar called for, and reduce the oven temperature just slightly, as they will brown a tad more quickly.
The best baking pans for cookies are heavy sheets that evenly distribute the heat and don’t buckle. They should be shiny, rather than dark-colored, to avoid overbrowning cookie bottoms.
The insulated cookie sheets on the market (Air Bake, for example) have a cushion of air between layers of metal and ensure even heating with no “hot spots.” They’re great for making sure that cookies don’t get overdone, but sometimes they tend to yield cookies that are paler in color. It can be harder to judge doneness in these situations.
Cookie sheets with a nonstick surface are convenient but may affect the spread of the cookies. Baking on foil or parchment paper is a wonderful alternative that won’t affect the outcome of the cookies. The foil is especially handy when you’re baking bars, and you’d like to remove them quickly (and in one piece!) so that the pan may be reused.
Use jelly roll pans only for bar cookies; the slight lip or edge can prevent other types of cookies from baking evenly. If you find this to be a problem with your cookie sheets, turn them over and bake cookies on the bottom side.
Note: Grease pans only when directed by the recipe; otherwise your cookies may spread too much.
Cookies take very little time to bake and usually require a moderate oven temperature of 350 – 375 degrees (F). They overcook quickly, so they must be timed carefully. It’s better to undercook slightly than overcook them. A good indicator of doneness is browning around the edges. Remember, the cookie will continue to bake on the pan for a period even after it’s been removed from the oven.
When filling multiple pans of cookies, don’t put the dough on hot-from-the-oven cookie sheets. Instead, alternate two sheets and let them cool in between.
If a recipe calls for the dough to be refrigerated before baking, be sure to follow the guidelines. Often this step has a big impact on the outcome of the cookies. Chilled dough reduces the amount of spread the cookies have and helps them to retain their shape.
When removing baked cookies from the pan, don’t wait until they’re too cold or they may become difficult to remove. If this happens, return the pan of cookies to the oven for a minute and remove immediately once they’re warmed.
Let cookies cool on a wire rack thoroughly before storing or packaging.
In general, packing cookies tightly in containers will prevent breakage.
Sealed cookies will remain fresh at room temperature for about three days.
Crisp cookies store better in containers with loose-fitting lids. If they should become soggier than you’d like, re-crisp them by baking them for 3 – 5 minutes at 350 degrees.
Soft cookies should always be stored in a sealed, airtight container.
To prevent moist cookies from drying out, an apple slice or piece of bread may be added to the container.
Bar cookies are best stored in the pan they were baked in, covered with foil or plastic wrap.
Cookies with cream cheese in the frosting or filling need to be stored in the refrigerator.
If the cookies are frosted, wait to frost them until right before they’ll be eaten. Otherwise, the frosting will cause them to stick together during storage and may make the cookies soggy.
Keep cookies with a soft texture separate from cookies with a crisp texture — otherwise they’ll ALL turn soggy!
Most drop, sliced, bar, and shaped cookies freeze very well. Baked cookies keep fresh in the freezer for 3 – 4 weeks.
Layer cookies on wax paper and wrap tightly to freeze.
Thawing is quick and easy: Remove from the freezer and let stand at room temperature for about 15 minutes. Or if you’re really in a hurry (and hungry!), pop them in the microwave for a short time … 20 – 30 seconds or so.
If the result will be frosted or glazed, freeze plain cookies first — then thaw and add the topping.
Most unbaked cookie dough keeps well in the freezer for up to 4 – 6 weeks. Best dough choices: chocolate chip, shortbread, butter, brownie, bar cookies. Bad choices: doughs with a very liquidy batter like madeleines.
The main concern with freezing dough is odor — the dough will absorb the odor of other things in the freezer, affecting the flavor outcome when baked. To avoid this problem (as well as to prevent freezer burn), double-wrap the dough before freezing. To thaw the frozen dough, let it sit in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight — then proceed with the directions in the original recipe.