Recently at church we were doing a service project where we were asked to make cookies. And I was aghast at how many otherwise functional adults found making even 2 dozen cookies to be a daunting task. Cookies are some of the easiest, most versatile, most portable, most tasty snacks ever! And making them really well is easy enough that the extra expense and limited selection of the store is not worth it!
So I decided that the reason that so many people were intimidated MUST be because they haven’t learned good tricks to really up their cookie game. And since I should never have cookies ever, it’s their DUTY to carry on the cookie torch and make them themselves! So I’m compiling tips to help people make awesome cookies easier and more consistently.
- Use fresh, high quality ingredients. I don’t necessarily mean that you had to buy everything this week, but know good shelf life. For ground spices, it’s no more than about 2 years. For white flour, it’s about 6 months (some makers are fresher than others). Butter lasts longer if it’s frozen. Sugar kind of lasts forever, as long as it’s stored well, but the flavor can start to degrade after about 2 years.
- Don’t substitute ingredients unless you REALLY know what you’re doing! For instance, fats are not easily interchangeable–shortening will not cook up the same as butter, and margarine will pretty much ruin anything you put it in because of high water content. Imitation vanilla is gross. “One-to-one” flour or sugar substitutes are rarely truly one-to-one interchanges when baking, so it’s often best to seek out recipes specifically made for those ingredients. Bottom line: when you substitute ingredients, whether by emergency or “I think this will be healthier” or “that ingredient sounds gross or unnecessary,” you are going to impact your recipe, usually for the worse. Very often, ingredients are not there (just) for taste, but for other properties, like moisture balance or tenderness or texture.
- Read the recipe thoroughly before starting any of the prep. How many times have we realized we didn’t have ingredients or equipment necessary, or learned that something had to be chilled for hours before baking? Too many! And it just helps you get an idea of what to expect. So read first!
- Know your oven. Some ovens run a little hot. Some a little cold. That can make or break some cookie recipes, and just adjusting the time doesn’t always help, because higher temps cook faster on the outside (which you sometimes want to make a crispier outside, like on snickerdoodles) and lower temps cook more evenly/thoroughly (which you sometimes want, especially on denser cookies).
- Good equipment helps. From big tools like a stand mixer, to pans, to little tools like cookie scoops, silicone scrapers, parchment paper or silicone mats, cooling racks, and giant cookie spatulas, the tools not only can make the process easier and more efficient, but can also contribute to a better cookie.
- Follow directions. This one I say with only a small grain of salt, because lots of internet ‘cooks’ are actually not very good (either at baking or writing up the recipes or both), so once you get good, there are things that you know you should do that the recipe poster doesn’t. But for the most part, they hopefully knew the basics of what they were talking about. If you want to build your skills, first try more recipes from tried and true sources with test kitchens, like Taste of Home or King Arthur Baking Company. But times, temps, cooling instructions, are all usually more important than they seem.
- Mise en place. This is French for “everything in it’s place,” and in American cooking, it means you prep everything before you get started putting it together. This may seem tedious and unnecessary, but it absolutely WILL help, from avoiding “I was sure I had chocolate chips!” moments to just streamlining the process.
- Some more specific tips:
- Always soften butter or cream cheese for at least a few hours on the counter. If you are a spontaneous baker, then always have at least 2 sticks of butter out for this purpose (you can use those softened sticks for other things, but replace them as you use them). Hard butter or cream cheese doesn’t work as well and microwaving is way too uneven.
- The darker the brown sugar, the richer the cookie. My favorite favorite is muscovado, which is a super dark, natural/less processed brown sugar (most brown sugar is super over processed) that I couldn’t even find in local stores, so I order it from Amazon. You don’t have to go that hard-core, but if you want richer cookies, it’s worth it!
- HAND GRATED NUTMEG. Seriously, this is a game changer! I have a little grinder specifically for nutmeg, but any kind of microplane tool will work. I add this to any recipe with cinnamon, and many vanilla-ish cookies as well.
- You know that step where is says to cream the butter and sugar? Do this for AT LEAST FIVE FULL MINUTES ON HIGH SPEED. No, I’m not kidding. Yes, this can be a pain with a hand mixer. But getting that butter and sugar super fluffy makes a HUGE improvement to the texture of your cookies!
- If you can make or get homemade vanilla, I highly recommend it. It is so much nicer than the store-bought stuff, and you can get some variety in flavors (I use rum to make mine, which gives it a slight butter rum sort of flavor).
Now, if you want some of my favorite equipment, here’s some links (no, they are not affiliate links. I just like supporting places and things I like):
- For easy clean-up and less sticking, you have basically 2 options: parchment paper or silicone mats. Parchment paper is cheaper in the short-term and can sometimes be reused a few times, and is better for some applications (like lining cake pans). It’s also a little easier to clean-up, since you can just throw it away when it’s done! My favorite parchment is always pre-cut, because the rolls curl up and that can be a pain.
- For silicone mats, the original was Silpat, from France, which was expensive, but now you can get silicone mats just about anywhere. They are more durable and stick less than parchment, but they do require clean-up and you probably don’t want to cut them into different sizes! My favorite silicone mat is from King Arthur because it’s not only really well-made, but has tons of cool marks on it to help with distances and sizes and all that.
- Cookie scoops were “new fangled” back in the late 80s when I started being more persnickety in my cookie baking, but I find them absolutely essential now. I have a multitude of sizes, but the tablespoon, jumbo cookie (2 tablespoons), and 1/4 cup scoops are my most used. I like the King Arthur ones best because they’ve been the most durable/least problematic in my experience.
- The Giant Spatula. Not completely necessary, but I seriously get a frisson of glee every time I use it because it doesn’t have a long, unnecessary handle that makes it harder for my bad hands to maneuver, and most importantly: IT GETS 6 STANDARD SIZED COOKIES AT ONCE. Man, I love this thing!
- Yanno how brown sugar gets hard and unusable even when you put it in an airtight container? This little doodad is the best thing. Soak it in water for a half hour or so, dab off the excess water, and plunk it in the container with your brown sugar. Voila. It takes a while (sometimes a day or so), but even here in the desert, I now have nice, pliable brown sugar again. You’re welcome. (and yes, you can buy these elsewhere, but I haven’t tried the others.)
- Why this is the best measuring set ever ever ever: 1) The measurements are imprinted in, not painted, so they never wear off, 2) ALL the good sizes including unusual but handy ones, 3) THE MEASURING SPOONS ACTUALLY FIT IN SPICE JARS, 4) Super durable, and 5) both top rack AND bottom rack dishwasher safe.
- This cookie sheet cooling rack. Note that this is NOT a cookie cooling rack, but it holds the cookie SHEETS. Modern kitchens are (way too) small, so we need space savers. This thing is AWESOME for streamlining the process of making cookies. I put the sheets of prepared cookie dough on the racks, and then switch them out (top to bottom, since the TOP is where I want the hot, finished cookies) extremely quickly & easily. I cannot verify that this is the exact brand I bought, since I got mine from King Arthur years ago and they don’t sell it anymore, but it looks the same. If it is the same, I recommend putting a dishtowel under it because the rubber feet come off way too easily and the metal underneath can scratch surfaces.
- This cookbook is the only cookbook that, as an adult, I just sat down and read. It has some good recipes, yes, but that’s not what made it so useful. It has the most helpful information about ingredients and baking processes EVER, which are SUPER helpful if you’re trying to figure out what substitutions are possible or maybe what you can adjust in a recipe to get a different effect.
Now, after all this, you might be thinking, “but how do I know these are good tips?” Welp, I will mention that the guy who just replaced my car windshield, whom I gave the last of the service project cookies while our conversation devolved into talk about castoreum, said “those were the best oatmeal cookies I’ve ever, ever had.” So. That’s a testimonial.
Now, you want some recipes? Here’s some I particularly like (along with adjustments I made):
- The best peanut butter cookies ever. I will note that it’s really important to use REAL maple syrup here, as it is there for texture, but it doesn’t impact the taste much at all. These are also really good if you throw in a cup or so of semi-sweet chocolate chips (don’t replace the peanut butter chips, just add additional chips).
- The very best snickerdoodles ever. Snickerdoodles are one of my favorite cookies, but I didn’t make them often enough to have a ‘favorite’ recipe, until my sister sent me to this one yesterday as I was prepping for this service project. I will note that the instructions on this recipe are really light, so I will tell you it’s a good idea to cream the sugars and butter for at least 5 minutes, then add the eggs, then add the vanilla. Mix all the dry ingredients together before adding them to the creamed fluffiness. Then, super secret ingredient: I used superfine sugar in the cinnamon sugar mix (it melts better) a good 1/8 to 1/4 tsp of freshly grated nutmeg in the rolling mix, and they were DIVINE.
(don’t you give me that “but Dyany! The carbs!” Carbs for service baking tests don’t count. 😝 )
- Really incredible chocolate chip cookies. My favorite thing about these cookies is that they are HUGE. Use the 1/4 cup cookie scoop I mentioned above to make these. Hat tip to my friend Michelle Wilson for pointing these out ages ago!
- The very best oatmeal cookies ever! Not tough or rough like regular oatmeal cookies, these are incredibly soft and flavorful. It’s probably all the butter and vanilla. 😁
There ya go. Cookie tips. Don’t say I never gave ya nuthin’.