Cookies are the most frustrating of all desserts to bake! Find out why, and get my cookie baking tips from over 10 years of professional recipe development and thousands of batches of cookies.
you can’t trust a cookie!
Or should I say a cookie recipe? I can make the exact same cookie recipe three times and they’ll come out three different ways. The tiniest variations in ingredients, pans, temperature, etc. can make or break them. But where would our holidays be without scads of delicious homemade cookies to enjoy and share? Nowhere, that’s where. So we have to put up with these temperamental little devils. Today I’m sharing my essential cookie baking tips so we can get the upper hand in the never ending struggle for the perfect batch.
cookie baking tip #1: get the perfect cookie sheet, in multiples!
You might be surprised to hear me say this, but the cookie sheet is one of the top culprits when it comes to cookie fails. The surface a cookie bakes on is super important. If it’s too thin, too insulated, too dark, or whatever, it will have unintended consequences for your cookies. After a lot of trial and error I’ve found that simple shiny stainless steel (non-insulated) baking sheets are the most dependable for cookie baking. And it’s important to have all your cookie sheets the same, so once you’ve got your recipe down, you’ll be able to reproduce those delicious cookies without fail. These are the baking sheets I use for cookies, and we also love them for sheet pan meals like salmon and tuna melts.
cookie baking tip #2: do a test cookie (or two, or three)
I never sacrifice a whole pan of cookies to the oven gods without testing one or two first. It’ll give you a valuable heads up about any issues with your pan, your oven temp, etc. Maybe you need to pop in a few more chocolate chips on the surface of the dough, maybe the upper rack will work better than the lower…maybe you need to chill your dough…you’ll only know this through testing.
cookie baking tip #3: buy the good stuff (butter, vanilla, chocolate, spices…)
A cookie is only as good as its ingredients, so always spring for quality. Cheap butter has added water, which can alter your cookie texture. Cheap vanilla ‘flavoring’ tastes nothing like pure vanilla extract. Fake chocolate is an abomination, and spices, you need to replace them every year… yes it’s expensive, I told you cookies were trouble!
cookie baking tip #4: don’t get a new oven, get a new thermometer!
I can’t stress this enough. Specific temperatures determine whether a cookie is soft and cakey, chewy, or crisp. You need one of these oven thermometers, and, fyi, they never last very long, so I’d have a spare handy, too. You hang it on one of your oven racks and leave it there. And then remember to check it every time you’re about to shove a pan of cookies in there. Every time.
cookie baking tip #5: uber simple cookies are the most reliable
Fancy cookies are tempting, but they’re more prone to errors, and I’ve learned that if you give people options, they almost always go for the classic cookies they know and love. (There’s a reason the day-glo Santa hats are the last to go on the holiday cookie platter.)
simple cookie recipes to try
cookie baking tip #6: do not, I repeat do not, reach for the readymade cookie dough in the supermarket.
Don’t kid yourself. That stuff is such a letdown, and you can smell it a mile away. Nobody (except maybe your 3 year old) likes it and it cheapens the holidays. I used to make store-bought slice and bake cookies with the reindeer in the center with my youngest daughter to save myself a little time, and I STILL regret it. Check the previous tip, above, and bake up something simple instead.
cookie baking tip #7: when you have a winner, stick with it!
When you’ve got a cookie that works for you, stash the recipe where you can always find it so you don’t re-invent the wheel every holiday season. And then consider tweaking it to make it your own (see tip #10.) Before you know it you’ll have five winning cookies! We make my mom’s melting moments every Christmas, and I challenge myself to come up with a new variation each year. My classic shortbread dough had been spun into countless cookie recipes!
cookie baking tip #8: think before you sprinkle!
Last year I ruined an entire batch of frosted sugar cookies with a batch of sprinkles that had gone rancid. Yes, they go rancid! I had no idea. Now I’m a champion sprinkle tester and I buy them new every year from a large supermarket, not a discount home store. But I suggest thinking twice about sprinkles ~ do you really need them? (Even when fresh, they don’t exactly taste that great.) Consider other more natural garnishes like shaved chocolate, powdered sugar, citrus zest, nutmeg, etc.
cookie baking tip #9: room temperature ingredients
You’d never give your baby a bottle straight from the fridge, and your cookie dough is just as finicky. For cookie recipes butter and eggs should be at room temperature. This allows them to integrate properly into a silky batter or dough: butter and eggs trap air as you mix, which in turn expands in the heat of the oven to create that delicious texture we all love in a warm cookie. Room temperature ingredients require less mixing, so you don’t risk over beating your dough. Check my shortcuts for how to quickly bring cold ingredients to room temperature for baking.
Exception: if your cookie recipe calls for melted butter, or browned butter, then go ahead and start with cold, or frozen, butter.
cookie baking tip #10: remember the serenity prayer!
“The serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Yes, you can swap out vanilla for almond extract, you can use milk chocolate instead of dark, but if you’re wanting to use shortening instead of butter, gluten free flour instead of all purpose, or applesauce instead of eggs, your results won’t be the same.
Use common sense ~ swaps within the same immediate family of ingredients are usually fine:
- flavorings and extracts are interchangeable, go ahead and make Russian Tea Cakes with vanilla instead of almond extract.
- salted and unsalted butter: just adjust the salt in the recipe accordingly.
- different types of dried fruit ~ you can use raisins or chopped dates in my Oatmeal Cranberry Cookies, for instance.
- chunky vs smooth peanut butter is just a textural preference.
- You can get great results switching out different types of nuts. How about hazelnuts instead of pistachios in my Pistachio Shortbread Cookies?
- milk, half and half, and non-dairy milks are usually interchangeable.
- citrus flavors: go ahead and make my Lemon Snowball Cookies with tangerine, or lime.
- spices can be swapped freely ~ make Cardamom Crescent Cookies with nutmeg, or cinnamon.
- You can generally substitute melted butter for oil and vice versa, but expect some textural changes.
- all chocolate types are interchangeable so feel free to make white chocolate chunk Soft Batch Chocolate Chip Cookies. Throw in some nuts, too!