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Sweet success: 25 tips for perfect cookies

By Janet K. Keeler, Times Travel and Food Editor
Published November 28, 2007


You don't need a culinary degree to make a delicious batch of cookies, but a little knowledge goes a long way toward success.

I was often befuddled in my early cooking-baking days by my failures. Why did my cookies spread so much? Why are they crisp when I want them soft? And, always, my most-used excuse: "But I followed the recipe exactly." Yes, exactly, except for the few things I substituted and the steps I left out.

The most important advice I can give you after all these years of testing and tasting cookies is to study the recipe before you start. Especially the part where it says the dough must be chilled for three hours. That's the one I often missed.

Take the ingredient list seriously. For example, note that the cranberries called for are fresh, not dried. The boozy confections require rum, not rum extract. Don't assume the sort-of-like things you have in the pantry will work.

Do you understand the techniques in the instructions? Do you have the time to make the recipe you've selected?

There's no shame in asking for help from someone at the grocery store, a neighbor or relative, or, heck, even me. I take lots of phone calls and e-mails from people with cooking questions. There are cooking experts at every county's Cooperative Extension who are happy to take your calls. Find their numbers in the county listings in the front of your phone book.

The Internet is also a source of information about cooking and baking. One of my favorite Web sites for helpful instruction is About.com.

The following is a list of tips that I've gathered from past cookie issues and our experiences from testing reader recipes. Some you might already know, but hopefully you'll find a tidbit that will make this year's baking experience the best ever.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at (727) 893-8586 or jkeeler@sptimes.com.

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Equipment

 

- Use heavy-gauge aluminum cookie sheets with a reflective surface. They should be rimless. Dark sheets will make your cookies darker on the bottom and they could burn more easily. Rimmed baking sheets deflect heat and facilitate uneven cooking.

- Ice cream scoops come in several sizes and are perfect for measuring drop cookies uniformly. Look for versions that measure 1 tablespoon and 1 teaspoon.

- Use parchment paper to line cookie sheets. It facilitates even baking, prevents sticking and makes cleanup a snap.

- Cool cookies on wire racks rather than on the baking sheets or plates. Cookies cooled on solid surfaces get mushy on the bottom, and those left to cool on hot baking sheets lose moisture.

- Invest in an offset spatula, which makes it easier to remove cookies from sheet. Also, heat-resistant spatulas are good for scraping mixing bowls and stirring chocolate or butter as it melts.

- Many recipes call for zest of citrus fruits. To save time, use a Microplaner, which shaves off the flavorful colored skin in fine ribbons. Go to www.microplane.com for more information about this piece of equipment.

- If cookies frequently burn in your oven, it may be that the oven thermostat is off. An oven thermometer can verify the temperature.

- Bake bars and squares in greased pans that are at least 1 1/2 inches deep.

- Have two sets of measuring cups and spoons so that you don't have to keep washing and drying. Better yet, get one set of measuring cups for wet ingredients (a glass or plastic pitcherlike vessel that measures at least 2 cups) and one set for dry ingredients (graduated nesting cups with handles).

Ingredients

- Always use unsalted butter, and if a recipe calls for margarine, make sure it's in stick form rather than from a tub. Do not use margarine that's less than 60 percent fat; it has more water in it and will make cookies very soft and perhaps make them spread in the oven.

- To keep cookies from spreading too much, use butter that's just soft enough to cream with sugar, but not so warm that it melts the moment it gets in the oven. Butter is ready when it yields to slight pressure, and depending on the temperature of your house, this could take an hour sitting on the counter.

- Use unsalted nuts in recipes; save the salted versions for snacking and as accompaniments with cocktails.

- Eggs should be at room temperature. Cold eggs can cause melted chocolate to seize or softened butter to firm up unexpectedly, creating tough cookies. To bring eggs to room temperature, set them out on the counter while the oven is preheating.

- In general, use the chocolate that's called for in the recipe. Swapping milk chocolate for semisweet may result in cookies that taste too sweet and lack chocolate flavor.

- When the recipe calls for chocolate that is to be melted, be it white, milk or dark, use baking chocolate that comes in squares, not chips. Chips and morsels are formulated to keep their shape even when exposed to heat.

- After you chop walnuts, place them in a strainer and shake over the sink to remove any papery skin.

Techniques

- Read recipe twice before making your shopping list and preparing. Unless you are an experienced baker, don't experiment unless you've made the recipe once.

- Gather all ingredients before you start. The French call this mise en place (everything in its place), and it makes the whole process much smoother.

- Cool cookie sheets between batches; better yet, buy two or three sheets. Don't grease the cookie sheet unless the recipe calls for it, or cookies may spread and brown too quickly around the edges.

- Chilling the dough before baking and using parchment paper reduce spread in the oven.

- Make cookies the same size and shape so they will finish baking at the same time.

- Lightly oil the cup before measuring syrup, honey and other sticky ingredients and the ingredient will pour out without sticking.

- To make chopping dried fruit easier, coat the blade of a heavy chef's knife with nonstick cooking spray. Or, use kitchen shears to snip the fruit apart.

- Just a drop of moisture can cause melted chocolate to become lumpy. If this should occur, stir in 1 tablespoon of vegetable shortening for every 3 ounces of chocolate. Do not use butter, as it contains water.

- To chill cookie dough quickly, divide it into smaller portions and shape it into discs.

Sources: Times staffers, files and wire services