How easy it is to mess up homemade cookies? Let me count the ways.
In all our years of testing and tasting cookies, I've dumped more botched batches than I'd care to admit. Some doughs spread too much in the oven, making the cookies thinner than dimes. Bar cookies have been super-glued to the bottom of pans despite liberal coatings of nonstick spray. And just an extra minute in the oven has made them go from charmed to charred. Such a disappointment.
But I've also learned a lot about baking cookies, thanks to hands-on experience and the advice of Karen Pryslopski, the main tester for the cookies that have appeared in the annual cookie section over the past few years.
The following 15 tips have bettered my skills. I hope you'll find a tip or two that will edge you toward cookie perfection.
By Janet K. Keeler, Times food and travel editor
Read the recipe twice. Always. Make sure you have all the ingredients and you understand the techniques. Reading through the recipe will alert you to the fact that the dough needs to be chilled for a few hours. That important fact is one I often skimmed over and thwarted my evening baking plans.
The first time baking the recipe, follow the directions and use the ingredients specified. Don't tinker right away. Cookie dough is mixed in stages for a reason. Butter and sugar are creamed together first to add lightness and then to lift the finished cookie.
Use parchment paper — not wax paper! — to protect your cookie sheets and to buffer the dough from the heat. Parchment facilitates even baking.
Use heavy-gauge aluminum cookie sheets with a reflective surface. Dark sheets make cookies darker (and ultimately crisper) on the bottom and the cookies will burn more easily.
If you want soft and chewy cookies, remove them from the oven at the lower baking time. Crisper cookies should stay in for the full baking time.
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 hits the oven. Butter is soft enough when it yields to slight pressure.
Cool baking sheets between batches. Better yet, buy two or three cookie sheets.
Use spray, butter or vegetable shortening to grease cookie sheets. Do not use vegetable oil, which can burn and make cleanup difficult.
Cool cookies on wire racks rather than on solid surfaces, which can make them mushy on the bottom. Cookies left on baking sheets to cool will continue to cook and could burn or harden more than you'd like.
Low-fat butter and margarine will make cookies more cakelike because of their higher water content. This isn't a bad thing, just something you should know and consider.
Make drop, shaped or rolled cookies the same size so that they will bake evenly.
Baking soda and powder are not interchangeable even though they are both leavening agents. Baking soda needs an acid, such as yogurt, buttermilk or citrus juice, to activate it. Baking powder includes the acid. Always use the one called for in the recipe.
Cool cookies completely before rolling in powdered sugar. If they are hot or warm, they will absorb the sugar and it will disappear.
To make chopping sticky ingredients (candied cherries or dried fruit) easier, coat your knife with vegetable spray. Use the same trick with measuring cups for peanut butter and molasses to make them slide right out.
Cookies don't reach their full potential until they've cooled completely. They might fall apart or seem underdone when they are first removed from the oven. Let them cool and then judge if they are to your liking.