Q. My homemade cookies sometimes become hard and dry after only a few days. Is there any way to make them soft and chewy again once they've become brittle?
A. It's always disappointing to reach into a cookie jar expecting a soft cookie and get a hard disk instead. To prevent this from happening, place completely cooled cookies in an airtight container along with a slice of bread. The moisture from the bread will be absorbed into the sugar from the cookies, allowing the cookies to maintain their original softness for a longer period of time. Be sure to change the slice of bread every 2 or 3 days to prevent the growth of mold.
Q. What is the best kind of butter to use in baking cookies? Can I use margarine or shortening instead?
Many recipes call for "softened butter." Softened butter is butter left at room temperature at least until you can bend it easily in stick form. You'll know it's soft enough if an electric mixer can cream the butter instead of breaking it into bits.
When a recipe calls for butter, use stick butter. If you substitute margarine or oil for butter, chances are you'll end up with flatter cookies, because they can contain more water than butter. If you substitute shortening, chances are your cookies will be more cakelike and won't flatten as much as they should.
Likewise, your cookies will most likely collapse if you substitute a whipped spread for the butter, since spreads contain lots of air.
But if your butter-based cookies are consistently too flat, there are a couple of things to try: First, chill the dough thoroughly before baking. Keep dough cold between batches, and make sure your utensils are cold as well. Transfer dough to sheets quickly. Cookie sheets should be cool when the dough is loaded on so that the cookies don't melt and start "baking" before they're in the oven. Use at least two cookie sheets; one sheet should be off the stove and cooling while the other is in the oven. If cookies are consistently pancake-flat, try substituting shortening for half the butter; again, chill the dough thoroughly before baking.
When making cutout cookies, use only half the dough at a time; keep remaining dough refrigerated.
Sift dry ingredients in a bowl while creaming the butter, sugar, and eggs; this ensures even blending with the wet ingredients. Mix in the dry ingredients just enough for the dough or batter to form to ensure a tender crumb.
Find more cookie hints and tips on the following page.