Holiday Cookie Basics

Here are some helpful tips to ensure top-notch, mouth-watering cookies.


Selecting the Right Fat
Choose the best fat for your recipe.

Several types of fat are used in cookie baking. Butter is often used because it gives good baking results and excellent flavor. Salted and unsalted butter may be used interchangeably. If you use unsalted butter for cookie baking, you may want to slightly increase the amount of salt in the recipe. Use the convenient marks on the butter wrapper for measuring.

If you choose to use margarine for cookie baking, use one that contains at least 80 percent vegetable oil. If you can't tell from the front of the margarine package, check the nutrition label. The margarine should have 100 calories per tablespoon. Those margarines with less than 80 percent vegetable oil have a higher water content and can result in tough cookies that spread excessively, stick to the pan, and don't brown as well. Margarines also have convenient measurements on the wrappers.

Shortening is sometimes called for in cookie recipes. Shortening now comes packaged in sticks which are marked with measurements, just like butter or margarine. Shortening also comes in cans. To measure shortening from the can, press it firmly into a dry measuring cup and level the excess off with a straightedge.

Cooking oil is occasionally called for in special recipes. However, don't try to interchange oil for butter, margarine, or shortening.

Eggs

All of the recipes that you will find on our Web site were tested with large eggs. Use fresh eggs for best results.

Leavening

Baking powder and baking soda are both important when making cookies. They are chemical leavening agents that produce carbon dioxide to help cookies rise. Double acting baking powder produces gases in two stages: first, when liquids are added and then during baking. Baking soda creates carbon dioxide instantly when it is mixed with acidic ingredients such as buttermilk, sour cream, or fruit juices.

Any recipe that uses only baking soda as leavening should be baked immediately, before all those bubbles deflate.

Store baking powder and baking soda in a cool, dry place. For best results, replace every 6 months or check the "use by date."

Using the right utensil to correctly measure recipe ingredients is important for consistent results.

Measuring Liquids
Use this type of measuring cup for liquids.

To measure liquid ingredients, such as milk, use a glass or clear plastic measuring cup with a spout plus a rim above the last mark that guards against spilling. Set the liquid measuring cup on a level surface. Then, bend down so your eyes are level with the marking on the cup. For measuring liquid, such as vanilla, in a measuring spoon, fill the spoon to the top, but don't let it spill over.

Measuring Dry Ingredients
Level off a dry measure.

To measure dry ingredients, such as flour and granulated sugar, use nested metal or plastic measuring cups. The top edge of the cups are flat to allow excess dry ingredients to be leveled off. To measure flour, stir flour in the canister to lighten it, then spoon into the cup. Use the straight edge of a metal spatula or knife to level the top. Don't pack the flour into the cup or tap it with the spatula or on the counter to level.

Granulated and powdered sugar are measured the same way as flour. However, to measure brown sugar, press it firmly into a dry measure so it holds the shape of the cup when it's turned out.

Cookie Sheets

Choose cookie sheets with very low sides or no sides at all. The pan should be dull finished and of a heavy-gauge aluminum. Use lighter-colored cookie sheets since dark-colored ones sometimes cause the bottoms of cookies to overbrown. Cookie sheets with a nonstick coating let you skip the greasing step, although the dough might not spread as much, giving you thicker, less crisp cookies. Only grease the cookie sheet when the recipe instructs you to, otherwise the cookies may spread too much and become too flat.

Use rectangular and square cake pans to bake bar cookies and brownies. Other types of cookies won't bake as evenly in a pan with an edge.

Cookie sheets that are insulated often will give you pale cookies with soft centers. If you are making cookies with a large amount of butter, such as sugar cookie cutouts, the butter may melt and leak out before the dough is set. And, if you bake cookies on an insulated cookie sheet long enough to brown them on the bottoms, the rest of the cookie may get too dry.

Mixers
Mixer choices: at left, standard; at right, a handheld model.

Cookie dough may be prepared using either a handheld electric mixer or a standard mixer. Portable (handheld) electric mixers are perfect for light jobs and short mixing periods. If you use a handheld mixer, you may need to stir in the last amount of flour by hand because the dough is too stiff for the mixer to handle easily.

Oven
Use a freestanding oven thermometer to check your oven temperature.

It's a good idea to check your oven temperature occasionally. A temperature that's too low lengthens the baking time, causing cookies to have a coarse texture and be dry. A temperature that's too high will cause cookies to brown too quickly. The oven should be preheated at least 10 minutes before baking cookies.

To check the accuracy of your oven temperature, set the temperature at 350 degrees F and let it heat at least 10 minutes. Place an oven thermometer near the center of the oven. Close the oven door and let it heat at least 5 minutes. If the thermometer registers too high or too low, reduce or increase the setting by the number of degrees difference. If the oven is more than 50 degrees off, have the thermostat adjusted.

Cookie Dough
Many cookies can be frozen for up to 3 months.

Most cookie doughs, except bar cookie batters and meringue-type mixtures, can be refrigerated or frozen before baking.

Just pack your favorite dough into freezer containers or shape slice-and-bake dough into rolls and wrap. Store in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 6 months. Before baking, thaw the frozen dough in the container in the refrigerator. If it is too stiff to work with, let the dough stand at room temperature to soften.

Short-Term Cookie Storage

Be sure to cool cookies completely before you store them. Place the cooled cookies in storage containers with tight-fitting lids or plastic storage bags. Separate layers with sheets of waxed paper. Keep crisp cookies and soft cookies in separate containers. Also, keep spicy cookies separate from delicately flavored ones. Store frosted cookies in a single layer. If you allow the frosting to dry, you can stack them. Just remember to place waxed paper between the layers.

For short-term storage, keep cookies up to 3 days at room temperature. Bar cookies can be kept in their own baking pan with a tight covering of plastic wrap or foil for a time. If a cookie filling or frosting contains cream cheese, sour cream, or yogurt, store the cookies in the refrigerator.

Long-Term Cookie Storage

For longer storage, place completely cooled, unfrosted cookies in bags or containers that are intended for freezer storage. Use a sheet of waxed paper between layers. Seal, label with contents and date, and freeze up to 3 months. Thaw cookies in the container about 15 minutes before serving. If cookies are to be frosted, thaw them before spreading icing.

Cool Your Cookie Sheets

It's important to allow cookie sheets to cool between batches. A hot cookie sheet may cause the cookies to spread too much. And, the cookies may brown too much around the edges. For spritz cookies, it's very important to cool the cookie sheet to room temperature before pressing the dough onto it. If the sheet is warm, the cookie press won't release the dough properly.

Using Spoons
Use tableware, not a measuring spoon, to make drop cookies.

When making drop cookies, use a spoon from your flatware, not measuring spoons. The deeper bowl of a measuring spoon makes the dough difficult to remove. Push the dough off of one spoon with another spoon or a small spatula. For even baking, keep the dough mounds even in size.

Using a Food Scoop
A food scoop is another option.

For evenly shaped, evenly baked drop cookies that are all the same size, use a food scoop. They work like ice cream scoops and come in various sizes. The higher the number, the smaller the scoop.

Removing Bar Cookies from the Pan

To make it easier to remove and cut bar cookies, line the baking pan with foil. Here's a simple tip: Tear off a piece of foil that's large enough to extend over the edges of the pan. Invert the baking pan on the countertop and shape the foil over the baking pan until it fits. Turn the pan upright, then place foil inside, smoothing it to fit inside the pan. If your recipe says to grease the pan, grease the foil lining instead.

Meringue Cookies
Bake meringues on parchment paper.

Here's a simple tip that allows you to easily remove delicate meringue cookies from the cookie sheet: Line your cookie sheet with parchment paper. Use the food-safe parchment paper instead of brown paper grocery bags because they may contain recycled materials. After baking, transfer the meringue cookies to a wire rack for cooling.

Cookie Doneness Test

Check cookies for doneness at the minimum baking time called for in the recipe. A kitchen timer is a helpful reminder. When the cookies are done, remove them from the cookie sheet immediately unless directed otherwise in the recipe. Some cookies are left on the cookie sheet for a specified amount of time to let them set.

Use a spatula to transfer hot cookies to a wire rack for even cooling. Wire racks can be easily cleaned. Let the cookies cool completely before storing.


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