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Baker's secrets

Perfection takes practice, but good techniques can elevate cookies from so-so to spectacular.

Published November 29, 2006

 Video report
Taste editor Janet Keeler shows you how to keep your holiday cookies from burning.

Small changes, big difference
These Peanut Butter-Chocolate Chip cookies were all baked on parchment-lined sheets at 375 degrees, but the pans and the length of cooking varied. The results show the difference these variables make.
[Times photo: Patty Yablonski]
Cookie No. 1: Heavy-gauge, reflective cookie sheet for 9 minutes, cooled on rack.
Cookie No. 2: Heavy-gauge, reflective cookie sheet for 10 minutes, cooled on pan.
Cookies No. 3: Dark-colored cookie sheet for 9 minutes, cooled on rack.

  • Baker's secrets
    Perfection takes practice, but good techniques can elevate cookies from so-so to spectacular.
More Holiday Cookie Recipes
Video Report

How a wee blob of cookie dough survives intense heat is a marvel.

Think about it.

A ball of dough just 1 inch around is placed on a metal sheet, then shoved into a 350-degree, or hotter, oven. Sounds like suicide.

And yet, if tended carefully, that mushy heap becomes a scrumptious treat, so tasty that one cookie turns into two, turns into three. Oh, for a big glass of ice-cold milk.

How cookies bake depends on the baking sheet, the oven temperature and how long they are in the oven. Recipes often give a range of times, such as eight to 10 minutes, to allow for these variables.

But it's up to you to figure those out.

Lesson No. 1

Heavy-gauge aluminum baking sheets with a reflective surface work best. They should be rimless or have narrow rims so that the heat can circulate over the cookies, explains The Joy of Cooking's Christmas Cookies by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker (Scribner, 1996).

A pan with high sides, such as a baking dish or a jelly roll pan, will deflect heat and result in uneven cooking. Plus, the cookies can be difficult to remove.

Dark pans absorb more heat and can cause cookies to burn. If not burned, cookies will be darker on the bottom and drier and crisper even when they are baked for the same amount of time. (See examples below.)

I recommend lining the sheets with parchment paper, which prevents the dough from sticking and makes cleanup easier. Since I started using parchment paper, which is like heavy tissue paper, I have not burned any cookies or scraped dough residue from bakeware.

Lesson No. 2

Oven temperatures vary from appliance to appliance. An oven thermometer will determine whether yours runs high, low or right on. Buy one at the grocery, big box discount store or kitchen supply shop.

People who cook a lot know their ovens. Mine runs close to accurate, but still I watch the first batch of cookies closely. If the recipe gives me a range of 10 to 12 minutes, I set the timer for nine and start peering through the window.

I know if I take the cookies out at 10 minutes, they are likely to be soft and chewy. That's the way I like them. At 12 minutes, they'll be too crisp for me.

And if I answer the phone, they'll be burned.

I let them sit for exactly two minutes to firm, then I transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely. If they cool on the pan, they'll continue to cook, darken and dry even more.

I bake one sheet of cookies at a time, which for people who have convection ovens is a crazy waste of time. Because of the circulating heat, convection ovens can bake several sheets of cookies to perfection all at once.

In my traditional oven, one sheet of cookies turns out beautifully; two don't. I don't want to open the oven and let heat escape while I turn the sheets around or move the top one to the bottom rack and vice versa.

Lesson No. 3

Determining when a particular cookie is done takes experience. The recipe might give you some ideas: "Bake until golden brown" or "When done, the cookies will not look wet anymore."

Bake one sheet and let cool. Do you like the way the bottom of the cookies look? Is the color appealing? Does the cookie have the amount of crisp and snap you desire? Most importantly, how does it taste?

After you answer these questions, adjust the baking time.

Bar cookies take a bigger leap of faith. Often the edges are more crisp and firm than the middle.

To ensure success, use the pan specified in the recipe. A too-big pan will cause the dough to cook quicker and make the cookies thinner. If you use a pan that's too small, more baking time will be needed.

Use the oven rack - top, middle or bottom - that the recipe suggests. If none is specified, use the middle.

Baking cookies, even the slice-and-bake refrigerated varieties from the grocery store, takes practice. Actually, Pillsbury and the like have done the easy part by mixing the dough.

It's up to you and your oven to bake them golden delicious.

[Last modified November 28, 2006, 12:27:22]

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