I’ve been searching cookie recipes this week. Looking for some things that are new and different to add to my list of family favorites. It has not been an easy task. Website recipe reviews aren’t terribly reliable. Have you ever wondered how one person can rate a recipe with five stars and call it “the best ever” and another person can claim it is a one star disaster? I suspect it has a lot to do with what a recipe doesn’t tell you.
Baking is an art. It is also a science. It is a skill you learn at your grandmother’s knee or maybe by reading cookbooks or recipe websites. A recipe assumes that you already know the rules — rules of baking that many people never learn.
Years ago I went to work in a bakery. My new boss was trying, for the first time, to expand his product line of Italian breads and rolls to include some holiday favorites like cookies and sweet breads. He handed me a list of ingredients for banana nut bread and told me to watch as another employee mixed up the first batch. Jimmy was a bread baker and he was very good at it. But he had no idea how to mix a sweet bread batter that didn’t use yeast. He instructed me to mix the ingredients by putting “everything wet” into the mixing bowl first. Water and eggs were followed by butter. Sugar was added at the end with the flour and through every step the mixer was set to high, beating the dickens out of the batter. It was the weirdest baking experience I have ever witnessed.
When Jimmy went back to his Italian bread baking I took over in what was now my side of the kitchen. Ignoring everything Jimmy had tried to teach me, I went about putting the recipe together the way I knew it should be done— by creaming the butter and sugar together at the start and only gently stirring in the flour at the end. When the mixing of my first solo batch was done and my loaves were in the oven, I began my clean up. As I stood at the sink washing measuring cups and mixing bowls my boss came up behind me and with a strange look on his face he asked me,
“WHAT DID YOU DO?!”
I was taken aback. I thought I was done for. Surely he was about to fire me for some stupid blunder I had committed. He led me to the huge convection oven and slid open the door. My loaves of banana nut bread were lined up side by side. They were a golden brown with a nice high peak and a beautiful split running down the center.
“What did you do?” he asked me again.
I was speechless and must have looked totally confused. I was unable to see anything wrong.
“They’ve never looked like that before,” he said grinning from ear to ear. “They are beautiful!”
My boss had only ever seen little, flat, sticky loaves of sweet bread come out of his oven. He was stunned that I could get such a beautiful result using exactly the same recipe that they had been using for weeks. I hadn’t changed a single ingredient. It was the technique that made all of the difference.
Two people using identical recipes will have very different results depending on how they put that recipe together.
Here are some basic techniques that I’ve learned over the years that were published in an article I wrote for Cooking Magazine. These tips might not make your cookies perfect, and they won’t make a bad recipe into a good one. But following them will certainly prevent a total cookie failure and make your results the best they can be.
Preheat the oven like the recipe says. If you don’t, cookies can spread too much before they are set. They can bake unevenly and will even burn on the bottom (or top) before they are baked in the center.
Unless instructed otherwise, bring ingredients to room temperature before you begin baking. When you cream butter and sugar together it adds air bubbles to the mixture. If the butter is too cold, it won’t blend properly and you won’t get as many air bubbles. The same thing goes with eggs. It’s easier to incorporate air when your eggs are at room temperature. Air bubbles expand in the oven and make your resulting baked goods light and fluffy. Cold ingredients mean fewer air bubbles and a heavier product.
Use the best ingredients. Real unsalted butter is going to give you a better result than margarine. Real vanilla will give a better flavor than the imitation stuff. When a recipe calls for eggs, it means large eggs not small or medium sized ones.
Measure properly using the right tools. Use dry measuring cups for dry ingredients and a liquid measuring cup for wet ones. Don’t compact ingredients unless the recipe instructs you to do so.
Learn what baking terms really mean. Many cookie recipes will tell you to cream the butter and sugar together. This is more than just a quick mix. When you cream ingredients you mix them vigorously. It takes time. You’ll know you have beaten it enough when it’s fluffy and no longer feels gritty when you rub a drop between your fingers. “Folding” means to gently stir in an ingredient with a spatula just until blended. Folding is often done when you are adding whipped cream, whipped egg whites or flour.
Mix your dry ingredients together BEFORE you add them to the mixer. You want baking soda, salt, and other ingredients to be completely incorporated throughout the flour.
Don’t over-mix the flour. Once you add the flour to the liquid ingredients in the mixing bowl it begins to form gluten. Over-mixing at this point will result in too much gluten formation and the resulting cookie can be tough. You want to gently mix it only until it is well blended but not a moment longer.
Use only cooled, shiny aluminum cookie sheets. If you drop cookie dough onto hot cookie sheets it will spread too much and your cookies will be flat around the edges. If your cookie sheets are too dark cookies can burn on the bottom. Heavy, shiny pans work the best.
Use parchment paper which will eliminate the need to grease the pan.
Bake one cookie sheet at a time. You need the air in the oven to circulate properly so it’s important not to overload the oven. Bake cookies on the middle rack.
Allow cookies to cool on the cookie sheet for 1-2 minutes before removing them to the cooling rack. This will allow them to hold their shape and prevent them from breaking.
Use a cooling rack which allows air to circulate around the cookie.
Cool completely before storing in an airtight container.