By our conservative estimate, we've baked more than 3,500 cookies since 2002. There have been hits and misses, and lots of lessons along the way. The following is our Top 10 list of tips:
1 Don't be intimidated by the number of ingredients. This does not mean the recipe is difficult. Read the recipe carefully and carve out time to master it.
2 Follow the recipe until you are sure what substitutions might do to the final results. In general, use the ingredients called for. That said, almond extract can stand in for lemon flavoring, which can sub for peppermint in a simple cookie. Also, a teaspoon of extract will boost flavor and not throw off the dry-to-wet ratio.
3 Line cookie sheets with parchment paper. It facilitates even baking, prevents sticking and makes cleanup a snap. Wax paper is not the same thing and is not a suitable substitute.
4 Use heavy-gauge aluminum cookie sheets with a reflective surface. Dark sheets will make your cookies darker on the bottom and they could burn more easily.
5 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.
6 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.
7 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 they will spread while baking.
8 Lightly oil the cup before measuring syrup, peanut butter and honey and the ingredients will pour out without sticking.
9 When you have a cookie baking failure, think about how a musician learns to play a song. It is practice that makes perfect; the first run-through is just a get-acquainted step. Don't give up unless you suspect there is something wrong with the recipe.
10 There's no shame in asking for help. Stop someone at the grocery store, pester a relative or call an expert at your county's Cooperative Extension.
Janet K. Keeler and Karen Pryslopski