For those of us who bake a lot, some elements of making cookies are second nature. We know to soften the butter before creaming it with sugar. (And we know what creaming is.) We understand why you don't plop cold dough on a hot cookie sheet. We chill dough when that step is called for, though we don't like it. • But all our understanding of baking comes from experience. I've had failures and still do, especially when I am in a hurry. Burned cookies, left-out ingredients, misread instructions. I've done it all. • This list of 20 tips will help you succeed this holiday season. Some of them you likely already know, but others may be new. My No. 1 tip has nothing really to do with baking. It's about attitude. Have a good time and gather a friend or family member to help. • That's what it's really about. And by the way, creaming is the term used for mixing softened butter and sugar until it makes a soft paste.
1 Read the recipe twice before making your shopping list and preparing. Unless you are an experienced baker, don't experiment with ingredients unless you've made the recipe once.
2 Gather all ingredients before you start. The French call this mise en place (everything in its place), and it makes the process much smoother.
3 Cool cookie sheets between batches; better yet, use 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.
4 Chilling the dough before baking and using parchment paper reduce spread in the oven.
5 Make cookies the same size so they will bake evenly.
6 Lightly oil the cup before measuring syrup, honey and other sticky ingredients and the ingredient will pour out easily.
7 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.
8 Just a drop of moisture can cause melted chocolate to become lumpy, also called seizing. If this should happen, stir in 1 tablespoon of vegetable shortening for every 3 ounces of chocolate. Do not use butter because it contains water.
9 To chill cookie dough quickly, divide it into smaller portions and shape it into discs.
10 Use parchment paper to line cookie sheets. It facilitates even baking, prevents sticking and makes cleanup a snap.
11 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.
12 Ice cream scoops come in several sizes and are perfect for measuring drop cookies uniformly.
13 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 and might overcook.
14 Invest in an angled 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.
15 If cookies frequently burn in your oven, it may be that the oven thermostat is off. An oven thermometer can verify the temperature.
16 Bake bars and squares in greased pans that are at least 1 ½ inches deep.
17 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).
18 Use unsalted butter, and if a recipe calls for margarine, make sure it's in stick form rather than from a tub because that usually has a higher water content. Do not use margarine that's less than 60 percent fat.
19 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 will take at least an hour sitting on the counter. With the air conditioner blasting, you might even be able to leave it overnight.
20 Eggs should be at room temperature. Cold eggs can cause melted chocolate to seize or softened butter to firm up, creating tough cookies. To bring eggs to room temperature, set them out on the counter while the oven is preheating.
Sources: Times staffers, files, Internet and wire services