How to Bake the Best Cookies

I’m embarking on a project to bake cookies every day to build a stash for the Christmas holidays – for entertaining, gifting and to create new traditions. I am also hoping to improve and even perfect my baking abilities – It’s a personal goal. I have already started with the first few recipes. I am realizing that I will have to bake one of the batches again as my husband has been pilfering his favorite variety. Another batch I think I would like to make less cake-like – so I have been wondering about that.

So as I bake there are several questions I have been asking myself along the way, about whether I need to follow those recipes exactly, and why do they write the recipes the way they do. Is it just to make me work harder and buy more stuff, or is there logic behind the recipes of the world. What I have found is that there are centuries of kitchen science behind most of these recipes!

My favorite Recipe Books

There are a few questions that I always think about when I am preparing a cookie recipe, and it would be a good idea to investigate the answers to these questions:

Should I Use Salted or Unsalted Butter?

It seems that most chefs use unsalted butter in their cookie recipes and they are kind enough to specify that. You will also notice that there is more salt added in these recipes. As there is no salt in the unsalted butter, the chef adds just the right amount of salt to the recipe to get the flavour just right. When using these types of recipe I try to use Unsalted Butter, if the recipe calls for it. If I do not have Unsalted Butter and I want to prepare the recipe anyway, I reduce the salt!

Unsalted butter on it’s wrapper

When I look at family recipes, or recipes posted on the internet I find that the recipes quite often just say butter. How do we know if they mean salted or unsalted? When I use my own family recipes, I just assume salted. That’s the easiest butter to choose from my supermarket shelves, so I assume it’s salted butter, unless there seems to be more than a pinch of salt in the recipe.

Even the brands of butter that you see on the shelf have varying amounts of salt – just check the sodium levels for yourself – and margarine is generally quite high in sodium, so when I’m changing a cookie recipe to vegan, by switching Vegan margarine for butter I typically reduce the salt! So the varying levels of salt in butter are a problem for professional bakers and chefs because the flavour will not be the same. Using unsalted butter and adding salt allows the salt flavour to be precisely measured!

By the way, remember that salt is a preservative. This means that salted butter typically has a longer shelf life in your refrigerator. Also, if you are using butter to saute in a pan, salted butter will foam more and it burns more easily.

Personally, I am a salt fiend. It’s a problem, I know, but I particularly enjoy the combination of sweet and salty in the same recipe. In a rich flavoured cookie, I don’t typically worry too much about this. However, if I’m baking a light and delicate cookie, I think the salt level matters quite a bit. 

What kind of Cookie Sheet should I use?

Back in the day when I had 4 toddlers running around and an urgent need to produce snacks without the ability to pay attention to detail – I regularly burned my cookies. Once I had more time to pay attention to those little things, I realized that a good cookie sheet makes life so much easier.

I used to use those no-stick pans with raised sides. I have a bunch of them for baking all sorts of other foods, and my husband seems to give me new ones every year for Christmas.

A well used four sided no-stick baking pan next to a well loved one sided cookie sheet

I did not realize that a cookie sheet is different from a baking sheet. A baking sheet typically has four raised sides. A cookie sheet typically has one raised side. This raised side helps you to have something to grab on to (hopefully with your oven mitt) when you put the pan in and out of the oven. When you have four raised sides, the air around the cookies doesn’t circulate as well – so the cookies won’t bake the same way as on a cookie sheet.

One sided cookie sheet in oven without parchment paper

A cookie sheet should also be sturdy enough that it won’t bend of course and cause you to drop the cookies, or warp with heat., and a lighter coloured sheet is the best. Dark coloured pans tend to result in my cookies overcooking – browning or burning.

Insulated cookie sheets may result in cookies undercooked in the centre or underbrowning in general, so I don’t suggest you use these unless your recipe calls for them specifically.

It’s even better to have 2 or 3 good cookie sheets, as recipes typically make more cookies than fit on a sheet! It’s nice to get all your cookie batches scooped out at the same time. There are assorted sizes to cookie pans and baking sheets (26by18, 13by18, 13by9 and 15.5by10.5 – all in inches). You need to know the size of your oven racks – with the door closed to see what works for you. For example, I could fit 2 baking sheets in my old oven side by side, but when doing the same in my new beautiful gas oven – the lips of the pans keep the oven door from fully closing!

Should I use Parchment Paper when Baking Cookies?

Being a frugal baker, I always feel like I’m having to buy something extra when I’m using parchment paper, and isn’t it a little bit wasteful to use all that paper and then throw it away? Well I suppose, but parchment paper is certainly a convenience.

A roll of Parchment Paper for Cookie Baking

Parchment paper is an oven safe paper that is coated with silicone – which makes it grease and water resistant. It is used by professional bakers, and available by the roll. You place the paper in a single layer directly on a cookie sheet and then place the cookie batter on the parchment paper without greasing.

Using parchment paper means you don’t have to grease the pans, and the cookies can be removed more easily from the pans, and then obviously the clean up is much easier. An added bonus is that you can prepare additional batches of cookies on sheets of parchment paper, and then quickly switch a baked batch of cookies on paper off of a sheet taken out of the oven, and replace with the next batch on a fresh paper. Easy-peasey.

So parchment paper is definitely a convenience, but not a must-have!

Do I Need the Butter at Room Temperature When Baking Cookies? Can’t I Just Microwave the Butter?

Most cookie recipes want us to use butter at room temperature, – or softened – and to cream the butter with the sugar. As my butter is in the fridge, it’s not going to be room temperature for a while. It’s tempting just to nuke the butter an mix it with the sugar.

Softened Butter Ready to Mix

Softened or room temperature butter typically means that the butter is no longer cold, and that you can work with the butter – that it is pliable enough to mix with a hand mixer – without it being melted.

The general wisdom is that if you melt the butter, the cookies will turn out to be chewier. If you get the butter to room temperature and cream with sugar as suggested, the cookies will turn out more cake-like. Creaming the butter with sugar (with the mixer) also contributes to the cake-like, fluffier texture, as bubbles or air pockets are introduced into the batter. When the cookies are baked, the air pockets fill with steam, creating that soft, fluffy texture.

Butter and Brown Sugar

If you use melted butter instead, it’s logical that there are less air bubbles in the batter when the mixing occurs, and so the cookies end up less fluffy when baked, therefore chewier!

Well guess what? I love my cookies chewy, but that’s just me!

Can I Substitute Baking Soda for Baking Powder or Cream of Tartar?

Baking soda, baking powder and cream of tartar are leavening ingredients that are called for in some recipes in order to create a lighter, raised texture. When the recipe includes one of these leavening ingredients, carbon dioxide is produced during the baking process, which causes little bubbles to occur in the baked goods.

What’s the difference?

Baking powder contains baking soda. You can substitute baking powder for baking soda (if you have to – but the flavour will be altered) – but not the other way around!

Baking soda is the chemical sodium bicarbonate. Baking powder is baking soda plus cream of tartar, plus something to dry the powder- like corn starch. Baking soda on it’s own requires moisture and another ingredient that is acidic before the leavening – or creation of carbon dioxide takes effect. (Think of that old science fair project of baking soda mixed with vinegar (acidic), making that crazy foaming reaction!) . Acidic ingredients in a recipe might include buttermilk, honey or yogurt for example in order to help the baking soda to leaven the cookie. Without an acidic ingredient in the recipe, baking soda alone won’t do the trick and the cookies won’t rise.

However, if you are using a baking soda and acidic ingredient type of recipe, the chemical reaction occurs as soon as the mixing occurs, so it’s best to bake as soon as possible, or everything may fizzle out – and the cookies will be flat!

Too much baking soda without enough acidic ingredient to react with can also make a recipe taste metallic!

Cream of tartar is the acidifying agent in baking powder. I have always wondered what on earth it is? It’s mysterious isn’t it? It’s a white powder that you can get in the spice section of the supermarket – but what is it? I was amazed to learn that cream of tartar is the residue left behind in wine barrels from wine production. It’s proper name is tartaric acid. More scientifically, it is called potassium bitartrate or potassium hydrogen tartrate. I asked myself – so this chemical is made from scraping the bottom of the barrel? Isn’t that an old expression?

Apparently, cream of tartar crystals may be collected by filtering chilled grape or wine juice, even though it does collect on the bottoms of barrels and wine corks. Cream of tartar then in this crystal form is the acid ingredient that blends with baking soda to make baking powder work as a leavening agent. Baking powder contains the two necessary ingredients sodium bicarbonate and potassium bitartrate that work together to create a leavening chemical reaction in a recipe when combined with moisture.

I had never noticed before that there are single acting or double acting baking powders. Single acting baking powder causes the leavening chemical reaction immediately after mixing – so the baking must occur right away, while double acting baking powder begins the reaction right away – but most of the reaction will occur later as the baking occurs. Most baking powder from the grocery store is now double acting, while single acting powder tends to be used in commercial baking. I had no idea!

Why do I have to Refrigerate the Cookie Dough?

Some recipes require me to refrigerate the cookie dough after I mix it all together, and before I place the cookies on the sheet. Is this important?

My Buttercup yellow Elmira retro Refrigerator

Based upon what we learned about leavening the cookies, we know that if the leavening reaction is occuring using baking soda and an acidic ingredient or single action baking powder – this will lose some of the leavening reaction and make the cookie less cake like.

Generally, when the dough is refrigerated, if butter is used, it becomes colder of course, which makes the cookie spread less during baking. It also allows the flour in the recipe to absorb the liquid – this takes a little time.

Sometimes chilling is recommended for just an hour – to make the dough easier and less sticky to work with when shaping into balls or rounds on a cookie sheet. If the recipe calls for 4 hours of chilling its to allow the fat or liquid to soak in to the flour. When you are chilling overnight – usually that’s just for convenience, to do the work in the morning, but sometimes it’s because another ingredient is used – a liquid honey or oil that takes longer to absorb and harden up. Following the recipe is usually a good idea!

In general longer refrigeration results in more thickening of the dough, less leavening and chewier texture, but can also cause less spreading of the cookie during baking – which can all be a good thing depending on the recipe.

What’s that Convection Button for on my Oven and should I use it?

The Mysterious Convection Button on my Thor Gas Range

I’ve always had an electric even heated oven. It pre-heated nicely and provided a nice even heat for cookie baking. My new oven is gas, and has a convection setting. The gas heat comes from the bottom element of my oven, and when I use the convection setting the air is circulated more evenly around the oven. Things bake faster.

The instructions I have are to pre-heat the oven and to set the oven temperature lower by 25 degrees farenheit for whatever recipe I am baking when activating the convection. When I bake cookies, I always use the convection now following this procedure and use only one raised edge cookie sheets for what has been so far – almost – perfect cookie baking.

Writing this has helped me to explore some questions that I have had in my head for many years and had just made some assumptions about. Sometimes it’s best to think about why we follow some of the rules that we have in recipes. I hope that this helps you as well. Happy baking – And Good Luck!

Please do comment if you have any suggestions or corrections! I’d hate to send any readers astray in the kitchen.

Here is the link to the first cookie recipe: https://gardenlove.food.blog/2019/11/27/shortbread-cookies/

5 thoughts on “How to Bake the Best Cookies

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