As your holiday cookie baking goes into high gear, use these tips to maximize your time, resources, and, most importantly, energy. May your baking escapades be peaceful and delicious!
The best way to ensure that your holiday cookie baking is a success is to plan everything out. Make a task list in the order things need to be accomplished to keep yourself on track—especially if you plan to bake multiple recipes. I realize this may seem excessive to some of you. But when your family members keep calling you to update you on their estimated time of arrival or your children keep pulling at your apron asking for a snack or your dog keeps barking at the Christmas tree or your significant other forgot to go to the store to get dinner ingredients or the laundry is still in a pile on the couch with guests on their way or toys are blanketing the floor or … well, you see my point. You know distractions come from everywhere, so a list will help keep you organized.
Make sure you carefully read each recipe all the way through before you start anything. I don’t mean just skim the recipe and decide to put it in the pile to bake. I mean carefully take note of how much time is required to make it, ingredients that may require a specialty-store run, or equipment you may need to borrow from a friend. This is a huge next step in your planning process. Organize your cookie recipes in the order corresponding with your task to-do list. Remember, you may have one recipe chilling while another can mix and go straight into the oven. Make the most of your time by mixing the dough that requires chilling first so when you turn your oven on to start baking, you can bake batch after batch with no lull time in between.
When you’re ready to get started, gather your ingredients (especially those that need to be at room temperature) and the necessary equipment before you begin measuring. If your cookie dough has to chill for a few hours, make sure you make the dough well in advance of when you need to bake the cookies. Depending on the type of recipe it is, skipping a chill step can wreck your cookies—so don’t cut corners. Work smarter, not harder! Once you have everything gathered, then begin measuring and combining ingredients where applicable.
Baking lends itself to errors more easily than cooking because you can’t alter the recipe halfway through baking like you can when cooking a sauce, for example. When baking, you have to make sure to measure liquid ingredients with a liquid-measuring cup and dry ingredients with a corresponding dry-measuring cup or spoon. Seems self-explanatory, but you’d be amazed at how drastically different a cookie recipe can turn out if you accidentally use a dry measuring cup to measure oil, for example. Take care to use the right tool for the job.
Part of troubleshooting recipes can involve specific ingredients or techniques. Don’t worry—we’ve done the food science research for you. Take note how each can affect your cookie recipe:
- Baking soda and baking powder:
When stored properly in a cool, dry place, baking soda will keep its potency for 6–12 months. (For best results, use within 6 months of opening.) If you’re unsure whether your leavening agents will rise to the occasion, mix 1 teaspoon baking powder into 1/2 cup hot water or 1 teaspoon baking soda into 1/2 cup water plus 1/4 teaspoon vinegar. If the mixtures bubble, you’re all clear to begin baking.
With all cookie recipes, make sure butter is soft and at room temperature so it will cream properly with the sugar. For best results, place butter on the counter to soften at least 1 hour before using. A quick test is to press your index finger into the butter. If it gives easily, it’s ready. If you’re in a hurry, stand a stick of butter on its end on a plate, and microwave for 10–15 seconds.
A common question regarding butter is whether to use it rather than oil or margarine in a recipe. First of all, your best bet is to follow the recipe. If a recipe calls for oil, don’t use butter. If it calls for butter, don’t use oil. Try to avoid using margarine, because different brands contain different amounts of water.
Eggs should always be at room temperature before being used in cookie baking. Since the volume of eggs increases at room temperature, it will affect them while beating. Set eggs on the counter for about 30 minutes before using them. If you’re in a hurry, you can place them in a bowl of lukewarm water for about 15 minutes. Don’t try to speed up the process by using hot water—the eggs may start to cook.
It’s important to use clean, dry beaters when beating egg whites. While this step is not very common in cookie baking, some frostings will call for it. Even a speck of grease or egg yolk will keep the eggs from beating to full volume.
Most baking recipes call for large eggs. Make sure to use the size egg called for. The size dictates the volume of the liquid in the egg, and that can affect the way the cookie bakes.
The most commonly used type of flour for cookies is all-purpose flour, but other flours can be used. Cake flour has less gluten than all-purpose flour, which yields a more delicate, tender cookie. All-purpose has a little more gluten but produces perfectly lovely cookies. Stay away from whole-wheat and bread flour—their higher gluten content is great for bread baking, but generally it makes cookies too chewy and dense.
Accurately measuring your flour is an important step to successful cookie baking. To measure properly, scoop a measuring cup into the flour, overfilling slightly, and then use the blade of a knife to scrape across the top of the measuring cup to level. If you’re a serious baker, you know dry ingredients are weighed—so you can use that method as well if you have a kitchen scale.
When it comes to baking, all sugars are not equal. The type of sugar used can promote spread in baked cookies. Regular white granulated sugar is the most commonly used in baking. Its fine crystals make it easy to use.
Brown sugar contains added molasses, which increases its moisture content and gives it a deeper flavor than that of white granulated sugar. You can substitute brown sugar for white sugar, but I recommend sticking to the recipe to guarantee consistent results.
Confectioners’ sugar, also known as powdered sugar, is fine granulated sugar with cornstarch added. It is used for frostings, glazes, and other garnishes and should not be used as a substitute for regular sugar.
Sugar substitutes and artificial sweeteners can be used in baking, but it is not recommended. These have different molecular components than regular sugar, so they cannot be substituted cup for cup. Substituting Splenda for sugar, for example, will cause your cookie to be denser than the recipe intends.
Be careful not to overmix your cookie dough. When flour is combined with wet ingredients, proteins in the flour are activated that help hold the dough together. If the proteins are overactivated, your cookies will turn out tough. To avoid this, stop mixing when no streaks of flour remain in your mixing bowl. If chocolate chips or other add-ins are to be used, stop mixing when just a few streaks of flour remain so you can combine it all without overmixing.
Especially with cut-out cookies, it’s important your cookie keep its shape. A way to assure this is to cut the cookies out, then place the shapes on a cookie sheet and freeze them for 5–10 minutes before baking.