From now through the end of December, there will be more cookies baked than any other time of the year. OK, I don't actually have the stats to back it up, but it makes sense right? From Emma Laperruque's Latke Cookies to Dorie Greenspan's World Peace Cookies to basic sugar cookies, Russian Tea Cakes, gingerbread boys and girls, and shortbread, there are so many — and I mean so many — cookie recipes to bake. But in the midst of the holiday hullabaloo, there are bound to be a few errors too. I turned to five pro bakers to find out what the most common cookie mistakes among home bakers are.
1. Not reading the recipe
Are you thinking to yourself, "duh?" I know. I thought the same thing. But Sarah Kieffer, baking blogger and author of the recently published, "100 Cookies: The Baking Book for Every Kitchen," says that more bakers than you'd think (including the pros!) quickly skim a recipe — or don't read it at all. "Cookies often seem like something simple or easy to bake, and often it is assumed that cookie recipe directions are all similar in nature. An example is what I myself did the other day — I glanced over the recipe, threw the butter in the stand mixer bowl and started mixing, only to then realize I was supposed to brown the butter, let it come to room temperature, and then mix it," says Kieffer.
2. Not measuring the ingredients
It sounds really simple — measure your ingredients before baking! But even the most experienced home bakers can mistake a tablespoon for a teaspoon if they're in a rush (been there, done that) or measure ⅓ cup of walnuts, chopped when the recipe calls for ⅓ cup of chopped walnuts (yes, there is a difference!). "It is best to use a scale so that the recipe comes out the same every time. Using a measuring cup can result in a cookie that is too tough or too soft, depending on if you scoop or spoon the flour into the cup," says Zoë François, a pastry chef and host of Zoë Bakes.
3. Not chilling the dough
When you're craving sugar cookies or gingerbread, you want to bake them and eat them stat. But most cookie dough recipes call for some time in the fridge, Even if they don't, it never hurts. One of the biggest baking mistakes home bakers make is not allowing the dough enough time to cool off, or baking it without chilling altogether. "If cookie dough is particularly sticky, wet, or greasy, chilling is ideal because cold dough isn't as likely to over-spread in the oven. The colder the dough, the less the cookies will over-spread into greasy puddles," says Sally McKenney, writer and creator of Sally's Baking Addiction.
Bonus: Chilling makes the cookie taste better! "Chilling the dough allows the various ingredients to absorb into each other, which enhances the texture and flavor," adds François.
4. Misunderstanding room temperature butter
For years, I thought room temperature butter meant that it needed to be super soft to the touch. I'd leave it out on a warm oven for an hour or two before baking my cookies. This is wrong. Don't listen to me. Listen to the pros. "Room temperature butter is cool to the touch — not warm or greasy," says McKenney. But what's the big deal, right? "If butter is too warm, it won't properly cream with the sugar(s) and the cookies may end up over-spreading or deflating," she explains. Lots of things can affect how quickly your butter softens (the type of butter, humidity, and room temperature are the biggest factors), but as a rule of thumb, 30 minutes is about all it takes to get room temperature butter.
5. Scrape, scrape, scrape
Whether you've baked cookies, cake batter, brownies, or muffins before, you know that inevitably, some butter, all-purpose flour, cocoa powder, and even some stray chocolate chips tend to settle and stick to the bottom of the bowl. "Please scrape your mixing bowl! Your cookies will thank you," says Andrea Quillen, Pastry Chef at King Arthur Baking Company.
"When I first started baking I made this mistake often, and found when baking my cookies each pan I made would change — the first pan would result in cookies that were too thick and didn't spread at all, the second pan would almost be perfect, and the last pan would have flat cookies streaked with butter," says Kieffer.
Use a spatula (this one is my favorite) to really get in the dough and reach every last ingredient at the bottom of the bowl.
6. Overworking cookie dough
Quillen says that rolled cookies — particularly gingerbread — tend to be overworked. Think about it: You roll out a portion of dough, cut out Christmas trees or stars, and then knead the dough some more to re-form a ball. Rinse and repeat. Doing so is a necessary part of the process if you don't want any dough to go to waste, but know that it will affect the final product. "The more you work the dough, you'll notice that the color fades each time you roll it out. The final cookie will be a little tougher than your first roll (but still tasty of course)," says Quillen.
The trick to preventing too-tough cookies is not overworking the dough initially in the mixing bowl. "The way to make sure the cookie has enough structure, but isn't tough, is to mix just until everything is combined, but not beyond," adds François.
7. Let's talk oven temperature
There are two major traps home bakers tend to fall into. The first is not knowing your oven temperature. All ovens run a little bit differently, so just because your cookie recipe calls for an oven set to 375℉ and you have adjusted the temperature, doesn't mean that the internal reading is actually 375℉. The solution? Buy an oven thermometer. They're really inexpensive, and wildly useful. "Even if you have a fancy oven, you should still own an oven thermometer," says Dorie Greenspan. Learn your oven's hot spots too to prevent the cookies from baking faster than you'd expect.
The other faux paux that bakers make is opening the oven door repeatedly while something is baking in the oven. I know it's tempting — believe me, I know. You want to know how things are going in there! Has the cake risen properly? Are the cookies done yet? The best way to ensure that your cake rises probably and your cookies become a lovely golden brown is to leave the oven door shut. I was once told that every time you open the oven door, the temperature drops by about 25℉. This means that your oven temperature will constantly fluctuate, causing your baked goods to need even more time in the oven.
8. Using the wrong color baking sheet
Every pro baker I spoke with agreed unanimously that the color and material of a cookie sheet impacts the bake. "Dark-colored pans absorb more heat, which will cause the bottoms of cookies to brown faster," says Kieffer. If you only have dark-colored baking sheets on hand, Kieffer says that you can lower the oven temperature by 25℉ to prevent too much browning. Now, her preferred baking sheet is a medium-weight half sheet pan, like Nordic Ware Gold Nonstick Baking Sheet Sets.
Greenspan likes to line her cookie sheets with parchment paper, which not only makes it easy to clean up, but she also believes that they'll bake more evenly, regardless of the color of the pan (though she does prefer light-colored baking sheets).
9. Not letting your cookies cool thoroughly
Again I know the temptation is real. You want to eat your cookies and you want to do it now. If you try to move the cookies to a cooling rack immediately after they come out of the oven, they'll break. If you try to decorate the cookies with icing before they have fully cooled, the icing will melt and puddle around the cookie. If you try to eat the cookies before they have fully cooled, you'll burn your mouth (it seems worth it but trust me, it's not). Five to seven minutes is all the time they need to cool enough so that you can transfer them to a cooling rack or to taste test; 45 minutes to one hour is what it takes to cool them completely before decorating.
10. Not using cooled cookie sheets
"When you bake in batches, you need to put the dough down on a cool cookie sheet. Otherwise, the baking time will be off and the cookies will start to spread if the sheet is warm," says Greenspan. A good measure is if the sheet is cool to the touch. "If you only have one or two cookie sheets, pre-scoop the dough onto parchment paper. This will save time once the sheet has cooled," she adds.
11. Ignore the "beat until fluffy" rule
In the same realm as overworking the cookie dough, Greenspan says that home bakers tend to overbeat the butter and sugar. "A light, airy, and fluffy texture is better for cakes than cookies," she told me. "The cookies bake for such a short time that you don't want them to rise and then fall. In general, you think of light and foamy batter for cakes and a creamier mixture for cookies." However, you should always, always follow your recipe. So if it calls for a mixture of light, fluffy wet ingredients, do it!
11. Give the cookies some space
Like humans, cookies need a little breathing room. Being packed tight in a room is uncomfortable and the same can be said for cookies on a baking sheet. Greenspan emphasizes the importance of leaving an inch or two of space between each cookie, which will let the air circulate and ensure that they cook evenly.