Cookies are wonderful concoctions of flour, sugar, and a fat—usually butter and eggs. To these basic ingredients, we add fruit, nuts, and flavors. If we start out with compromised ingredients, the cookies from any recipe will be inferior. Sugars
not only sweeten, they add moisture and tenderness to the cookie and help the cookie brown. Always use the type of sugar called for in the recipe. Since superfine sugar melts faster than does granulated, it will create more spread. Brown sugar adds a caramel flavor and more moisture than granulated. Powdered sugar has added cornstarch and makes a firmer, drier cookie.
Measure sugar in measuring units designed for dry ingredients. For white sugar, use a knife to level the top of the measure. Pack brown sugar firmly into the measuring unit.
Always use fresh, soft, brown sugar. Hardened brown sugar will not add enough moisture to the cookie. An old trick to soften brown sugar is to add a slice of bread to the container. Since sugar is hygroscopic, that is it attracts moisture, it will draw the moisture from the bread. In a day or two, the sugar will be soft and you can throw the bread away.
Use good quality, fresh flour. If your bag of flour has been sitting open too long, it may be dry or taste stale.
For a more tender cookie, use pastry four. For a chewier cookie, use bread flour. All-purpose flour is the middle of the road and suitable for most cookies.
Measure flour as you would white sugar, in a dry measure and scrape the top off with the back of a knife. Do not dip the measure into the flour. Flour packs easily and scooped flour results in too much flour for the recipe. Whisk or sift the flour to lighten it and then carefully spoon the flour into the measure.
Nothing tastes like butter. It contributes much of the flavor that we love in cookies, some of the color, and much of the tenderness. Butter acts as a shortening, that is, it “shortens” the gluten strands found in flour and gives the cookie a soft, melt-in-your mouth texture.
Margarine can be substituted for butter. Margarine often has more water than butter and some adjustment to the recipe may be necessary if you substitute margarine for butter.
Shortening can be used in place of butter but the cookie is likely to be very different. A cookie with shortening will have less spread, will tend to be crisper, and will lack that buttery flavor—even if you use butter-flavored shortening.
Eggs add structure and fat to the cookies. The eggs, as they are beaten, create bubbles that make the cookies lighter and the protein in the egg solidifies to create a firmer, higher profile as it bakes.
Always use fresh eggs and use the size of eggs called for in the recipe. Set the eggs on the counter for thirty minutes before using—warmer eggs will make a lighter cookie.
Fruits and Nuts
Where would we be without raisin cookies or those nut-filled cookies?
Nuts become rancid easily. The smaller the nut pieces, the quicker they will spoil. Always taste the nuts before using them in the recipe. If they taste even slightly rancid, discard them. Rancid nuts may be unhealthy. Store your nuts in the refrigerator, or better yet, the freezer.
To enhance the flavor of nuts, consider toasting them. Place them one layer thick on a baking sheet and bake at 300 degrees. The type and size of the nuts will determine the baking time, anywhere from three minutes to ten minutes. Determine when the nuts are toasted by both fragrance and color. Always let the nuts cool and reabsorb the oils before mixing them into the batter.
Dry fruit becomes hard as it ages. Steam raisins and other dried fruit by pouring boiling water to just cover them and let stand until plump—the length of time will be a factor of the freshness and type of fruit. Pat them dry on paper towels. Kids who turn their noses up at raisin cookies may change their minds if they experience cookies with plumped raisins.
The wonderful world of spices was designed for cookies. Use the best spices that you can buy, keep them covered, use them while they are fresh. There is a world of difference between quality spices and inexpensive spices.
Buy the best cinnamon that you can find. Taste-test your cinnamon for quality. Good cinnamon will taste sweet and have almost a citrus flavor. Cheap cinnamon will be astringent and bitter. Good quality cinnamon will make a marvelous difference in your baking.
Most cookies use a two stage method of mixing. The sugars and fats are creamed together with eggs added and beat into the creamed mixture. The dry ingredients are added to the creamed mixture.
To ensure that leavenings and spices are evenly distributed in the batter, mix all dry ingredients together thoroughly before combining the dry mixture with the creamed mixture. Do so with either a whisk or by sifting the ingredients together.
Fold any fruit and nuts gently into the batter stirring no more than necessary to keep the batter light and airy.
The greatest cookie fault is over baking. If your cookies tend to be dry or tough, reduce the baking. When done and hot on the cookie sheet, most cookies appear to be under baked. It’s better to under bake than to over bake.
Always bake the cookies on the middle shelf—the lower shelf is too close to the heating element and will over bake the bottom of the cookies. If you bake more than one sheet a time, either switch the lower sheet with the upper sheet part way through the baking or place on sheet on top of another sheet to insulate the bottom of the pan.
Learn how your oven bakes. If experience tells you that your oven bakes faster than called for in most recipes, lower the heat by 25 degrees. Better yet, use an ovenproof thermometer to test the heat in your oven.
If you have a lot of cookies to bake and a limited number of baking pans, consider lining the pans with sheets of foil or parchment paper. You can load the foil or parchment paper with cookie dough while the sheets are on the counter. As soon as the cookies come from the oven, slide the sheets from the pans and set the pans aside to cool. Remove the cookies from the parchment paper or foil to cool on wire racks. As soon as the pans are cool, load them again with sheets of cookies. Never place cookie dough on warm pans as it will increase the spread of the cookies and affect cooking time.
If you haven’t discovered the convenience of freezing cookie dough, the next time that you bake cookies, try freezing part of your dough. For refrigerator-type cookies, form the dough into logs and freeze so that the dough can be sliced when almost thawed. For other cookies, wrap the dough in plastic and press as much air from the wrap as possible then place the wrapped dough inside a plastic bag to freeze.
Most cookie dough can be kept in the freezer compartment of the refrigerator for up to three months and in a freezer for up to six months. (The freezing compartment of your refrigerator is not as cold as a freezer.)
Most baked cookies freeze well. The exception is chocolate glazed cookies; freezing often creates a white frost on the chocolate. Freeze each type separately—never freeze crisp and chewy cookies together. Freeze delicate cookies on a baking sheet before wrapping them individually and storing them in containers.
Freezing Bar Cookies
Most bar cookies freeze particularly well. There are two ways to freeze bar cookies: wrap them individually or wrap and freeze the whole cake after it has cooled completely.
Bar cookies should last for months in a freezer (not the freezer section of your refrigerator). We have frozen Hermits in a Bar for six months with no noticeable loss of quality.
All cookies that have been frozen can benefit from refreshing. Spread them on a baking sheet and stick them in an oven heated to 325 degrees for three to eight minutes depending on the thickness of the cookies. They are done when they start to smell fresh-baked.
Even if the cookies have not been frozen, consider refreshing them before serving. Fresh from the oven, cookies that are several days old taste as if they were just baked.
If soft or chewy cookies become hard or stale in the cookie jar, add a slice of bread. By the next day, the moisture will have migrated to the sugar-rich cookies making them soft and moist again.
Most of us have loved ones across the country that we would like to share cookies with. There are two keys to successfully shipping cookies: wrap them individually in plastic and ship them in small containers. For more delicate cookies, nestle them in Styrofoam shipping pieces or ordinary popcorn. Lower fat cookies last longer so are better for shipping long distances.