There are so many ways for a batch of cookies to go wrong. The little balls of dough spread across the cookie sheet like an oil slick. And by the time the timer dings, a dozen of them have merged into one giant, irregularly-shaped cookie the size of your microwave. Or perhaps the bottoms of your cookies burn to an ominously dark brown and adhere to your cookie sheet for life. Not even a crowbar can sever the bond. It's unnatural.
The point is: Baking isn't easy. Elevating your cookies from barely edible to scrumptious is an oddly difficult experiment in precision and patience. Fortunately, we've enlisted the help of a cookie veteran (and some other sources, too) to provide a few solid tips on how to reach baking perfection. His name is Wally Amos, and you'll recognize him as the man who founded Famous Amos Cookies in 1975, though he has since left that company and formed another in Hawaii -- Chip and Cookie.
You know when you've bitten into the perfect cookie. It crunches ever so slightly. It oozes chocolaty warmth. It tastes buttery and sweet and salty all at the same time. But how do you manufacture these mouth-watering morsels of goodness in your own home? How do you bake perfection? The first tasty tip is on the next page.
Select Quality Ingredients
A delectable cookie is really the sum of its delectable parts. So pay close attention to the ingredients you funnel into your mixing bowl. For example, Mr. Amos insists on butter, not margarine, for quality cookies, and vanilla extract rather an artificial vanilla. In fact, he asserts that vanilla is the cookie's key ingredient -- its soul -- and he prefers that his cookies have the soul of Watkins brand Madagascar Pure Bourbon Vanilla Extract.
Once you've selected the ingredient greats, make them really sing. For example, if you want nuts in your cookies, add them to the batter last -- they'll wind up crunchier. And, if you're chopping up the nuts in a food processor beforehand, toss in a little flour and sugar from the recipe to absorb the nuts' oil. That way they won't clump together [source: Crisco.com].
If you insist on using margarine rather than butter, just make sure it contains enough fat. Check the label on the box to see that it's at least 80 percent vegetable oil or 100 calories per tablespoon. Margarine that's not fat-heavy is water-heavy, which makes for soggy dough that will expand on your cookie sheet into one large amoeba cookie [source: Better Homes and Gardens]. For extra chewy cookies, don't just use softened butter -- use melted butter. Then throw in a couple of egg yolks to increase the fat content and ensure cookie tenderness [source: America's Test Kitchen].
Be Delicate With the Flour
If vanilla is the cookie's soul, then flour is its breath, or what causes the cookie to inflate like a lung once it hits the heat of the oven. What type and how much flour you mix into your batter will ultimately affect your cookies' structure and texture.
Biochemist and cookbook writer Shirley Corriher notes that it's the protein in the flour that grabs moisture and defines the dough's consistency. Higher-protein flour will absorb more moisture, and you'll wind up with drier dough and tougher cookies. Lower-protein flour will result in wet dough and flatter cookies [source: Corriher]. So, for example, Corriher recommends adding one-fourth of a cup more all-purpose flour to the Nestle Toll House chocolate chip cookie recipe than it calls for. This increases the protein content and prevents the dreaded cookie spread.
Flour is a delicate thing, and it needs to be moved and measured carefully. You should stir up the flour a bit before you dip it from your container to your dry measuring cup. Don't heap or pack the flour into the cup. Just spoon it. And when you've filled the measuring cup, scrape the top edge with a spatula or a knife to even it out. Resist the urge to tap the measuring cup on the counter to level out the flour [source: Better Homes and Gardens]. That's not necessary.
Mix it and Measure it Right
"If you're angry, your cookies aren't going to taste good," Amos told HowStuffWorks.com. Why? Because if you stir your cookie dough with the spirit and vigor of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, your dough will liquefy, and what you want for your dough is body. So don't mix your batter too hard for too long; just blend it until it's smooth and creamy. Add any chocolate chips to the batter last and don't stir them too long, either -- you don't want them to turn your batter brown [source: Amos]
Measure your ingredients with care. If you're new to the kitchen, you might not realize that there are two types of measuring devices -- liquid measuring cups and dry measuring cups. A liquid measuring cup is usually glass or plastic with a handle and a spout. A dry measuring cup is usually metal or plastic with straight edges [source: America's Test Kitchen]. This is important: If you use the wrong type of measuring cup for your ingredients, your measurements will be inaccurate. For example, if you measure your flour in a liquid measuring cup, you're likely to add a whole extra tablespoon to your batter, which, believe it or not, can derail your entire baking project [source: Better Homes and Gardens].
Chill, Then Heat
After you've patiently blended peace, good will and your cookie ingredients with the electric mixer, you're probably ready to ball up that batter and throw it on the cookie sheet. But don't do it. A little trick in the subculture of cookie baking is to chill the cookie dough before you bake it. This will give your batter more body and your cookies more rise [source: Amos]. When you leave the batter in the fridge overnight, the proteins and the starch in the dough soaks up more of the liquid, which dries out the dough to result in a fuller, more delicious cookie [source: NPR].
You don't always have to chill the batter overnight, however. An hour in the fridge or 20 minutes in the freezer will suffice. If you're using margarine instead of butter in your cookies, you should always freeze the dough for at least 20 minutes before baking [source: Better Homes and Gardens]. If you're not in the mood to bake that day or even the next, you can leave your batter in the refrigerator for two to three days before baking and in the freezer for up to three months. You don't even need to thaw the frozen cookie dough before you pop it in the oven [source: Cooking Light].
While the dough is chilling, preheat the oven for at least 15 to 20 minutes [source: America's Test Kitchen]. Light-colored and very thick metal cookie sheets that don't have sides are best [source: Better Homes and Gardens]. It's a good idea to rotate the cookie sheet halfway through baking to ensure even heating.
Cool Down and Store Tight
In the words of Wally Amos, "You have to watch your cookies." You can't just pop them in the oven and then go clean your bathtub. Knowing just when to pull those suckers out of the heat can be a tough call to make. Amos prefers his cookies golden brown, so he reaches for the oven mitt when they heat up to that tone. But perfect cookie doneness is a subjective matter. Some cookbooks and magazines advise bakers to take cookies out of the oven when only the edges are brown. Others advise people to take the cookies out well before they look done and allow them to cook on the sheet outside the oven for 10 minutes [source: America's Test Kitchen]. If you don't trust the hot cookie sheet to continue baking your cookies post-oven, then you should do what Amos does and remove your cookies from the sheet to a cooling rack after about two to three minutes.
A perfect cookie is most perfect hot out of the oven, of course. But if you store your cookies right, you can hang onto that goodness for days. Follow these cookie storage tips:
- Store them in an airtight container.
- Don't put them into storage before they cool. Otherwise, condensation will collect and the cookies will become soggy.
- Don't combine different kinds of cookies in one container. The chewier cookies will steal moisture from the crispier ones.
- Stick an apple wedge in the container with your chewy cookies to keep them soft.
[source: Cooking Light]
Before you get your dough chilling and your oven heating up, get more sweet tips and tricks on the next page.
HowStuffWorks looks at some great British Baking terms — and some American ones as well.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- "America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook." Cooks Illustrated. 2006.
- Amos, Wally. Founder of Chip and Cookie. Interview.
- "Baking Tips." Bon Appetit. (June 19, 2009)http://www.bonappetit.com/tipstools/tips/2008/04/baking_time_tip
- "Chemist Divulges How to Bake the Perfect Cookie." All Things Considered. National Public Radio. (June 19, 2009)http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=98275947
- "Cookie-baking Tips." Better Homes and Gardens. (June 19, 2009)http://www.bhg.com/recipes/desserts/cookies/cookie-baking-tips/
- "Cookie Storage Strategies." Cooking Light. (June 19, 2009)http://www.cookinglight.com/cooking-101/resources/cookie-storage-strategies-00400000034370/
- "Cooking Tips: Cookies." Crisco.com. (June 19, 2009)http://www.crisco.com/Articles_Tips/Cooking_Tips/Tips_Cookies.aspx
- Corriher, Shirley O. "Bakewise." Confident Cooking Inc. 2008
- "Soft-Baked Chocolate Chip Cookies." MarthaStewart.com. (June 19, 2009)http://www.marthastewart.com/recipe/soft-baked-chocolate-chip-cookies?autonomy_kw=soft%20bake%20chocolate%20chip%20cookies&rsc=header_3