The most important advice we can give you after all these years of testing and tasting cookies is to study the recipe before you start. Read it twice to make sure you understand the directions and that you have all the ingredients. It's best to know at the beginning that the dough needs to be chilled for an hour or more before baking. • By our estimate, we've baked nearly 4,000 cookies since 2002. We've had a lot of success, but some failures, too. Learn from our mistakes. Here's what we know about baking great cookies. — Janet K. Keeler and Karen Pryslopski, Times staff
• Set your timer for the lowest amount of cooking time suggested in the recipe, especially for the first batch. Check and then watch carefully if you decide to leave the cookies in the oven for a few minutes more.
• Use heavy-gauge aluminum cookie sheets with a reflective surface. They should be rimless. Dark sheets make cookies darker on the bottom and facilitate burning.
• Ice cream scoops come in several sizes and are perfect for measuring drop cookies uniformly.
• 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.
• 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 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.
• 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.
• 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 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 molasses, honey, peanut butter 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.
• To chill cookie dough quickly, divide it into smaller portions and shape it into discs.
Information from Times files was used in this report.