Secrets to Success

Cookie questions? No problem! Here's how to avoid common cooking mistakes.


Here are answers to the most commonly asked cookie-related questions that we have received from cooks across the country.

Q: Do I need to sift the flour when making cookies?

A: Thanks to advances in flour production, for most recipes, it's no longer necessary to sift flour. However, measuring flour accurately is critical to the success of your cookies. Always measure flour with nested metal or plastic cups. Glass or plastic cups with graduated measurements on the sides and spouts are meant for liquids. If you use a liquid measuring cup for flour, you could end up with an extra tablespoon or more per cup. Begin by stirring the flour while it is still in the container. Using a large spoon, gently spoon the flour into the measuring cup and level off the top with the straight edge of a metal spatula. Do not pack the flour into the cup or tap it to level it.

Q: Can I mix cookie dough with a handheld portable mixer, or do I need a stand mixer?

A: Most cookie recipes can be made with a portable mixer although you may need to work a little harder. Most portable mixers are less powerful than stand mixers, so when it comes to adding the last of the flour, you'll need to stir it in with a wooden spoon. Whether you're using a portable or a stand mixer, begin stirring in the flour by hand once the mixer starts to strain.

Q: How long can I store cookies?

A: Store baked cookies for up to 3 days in a tightly covered container. For longer storage, freeze them for up to 3 months. Since cookies are small, they thaw quickly and will be ready to eat in 15 minutes. For best results, freeze cookies unfrosted or unadorned with chocolate chips or drizzles. Frost, dip, or drizzle the cookies after they thaw.

Q: What cookie sheets work best for baking cookies?

A: Look for shiny, heavy gauge cookie sheets with very low or no sides. Avoid dark cookie sheets. They may cause cookie bottoms to overbrown. Use jelly-roll pans (15 x 10 x 1-inch baking pans) only for bar cookies. Other types of cookies will not bake evenly in a pan with an edge. If you must use such a pan, turn it over and bake cookies on the bottom. Insulated cookie sheets tend to yield pale cookies with soft centers. You may have trouble using them for cookies containing a large amount of butter, such as shortbread, because the butter may melt and leak out before the dough is set. Do not bake cookies on insulated cookie sheets long enough to brown on the bottom because the rest of the cookies may become too dry.

Q: Why do my cookies always seem to require an extra minute or two of baking time?

A: First, check your oven with an oven thermometer to be sure it's working correctly. If the thermometer registers lower than the setting, increase the oven temperature accordingly. If the temperature registers the correct temperature, bake the cookies a minute or two longer. You may have used more dough per cookie, creating larger cookies that will take longer to bake.

Q: What makes cookies hard and tough?

A: Cookies become hard when they are overbaked. Check the oven temperature with an oven thermometer and reduce the temperature, if needed. If the temperature is correct, reduce the baking time 1 to 2 minutes. Another reason for hard cookies is overmixing the dough. After adding the flour, mix just until combined. And be sure you've measured the flour correctly. Too much flour causes cookies to be tough.

Q: Why are some of the cookies perfectly done while others are doughy and some are too brown?

A: To ensure even baking, use a cookie sheet that fits in the oven with at least 1 inch to spare all around. Bake only one cookie sheet at a time, and be sure the rack is in the middle of the oven. Be careful to place the cookies on the cookie sheet exactly as specified in the recipe. The spacing has been worked out to allow for spreading of the dough and even airflow around the cookies.

Q: What makes cookies spread too much?

A: Hot cookies sheets may be the cause. Always let cookie sheets cool between batches.

Q: How should I adjust my cookie recipes for baking at a high altitude?

A: Cookie recipes need a little adjustment for high altitude. Increase the oven temperature by 25 degrees F, and decrease the baking time by a minute or two. If further adjustment is necessary, reduce the sugar by just a couple of tablespoons. If a recipe calls for baking powder or baking soda, you may need to reduce the amount by 1/8 teaspoon. Make just one change to the recipe at a time.

Q. Why does it make a difference what kind of fat I use in cookies?

A. Butter is the gold standard for cookie baking and some recipes have scrumptious flavor and correct texture only when butter is sued. In this magazine, we've included those recipes by specifying "butter (no substitutes)." Butter is necessary in most of our recipes for cutouts and slice-and-bake cookies, and in a few other recipes. Our recipes that call for either butter or margarine produce good results with either fat, as long as you use a margarine that contains 80 percent vegetable oil. If the fat percentage is not clear from the front of the box, check the nutrition label; the margarine should have 100 calories per tablespoon. You may have to read a lot of labels until you find one that works. Brands of margarine that contain 80 percent vegetable oil include Land O'Lakes, Mazona, Nucoa, and some store brands. Be aware that these companies also produce lower-fat margarines, so check labels carefully.

Q. Why do so many of our recipes call for nuts?

A. Some people are allergic to nuts and others don't like them. To be honest, we're nuts about nuts. We like the added flavor and chewy texture they give cookies. You're right that we haven't paid enough attention to the needs of bakers who don't like nuts or who have a family member who is allergic or won't touch a cookie containing nuts.

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