Baking School Day 17: Cookies

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

The Kitchn’s Baking School Day 17: A master class in cookies.
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What’s there not to love about cookies? They come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, flavors, and textures. Plus, you can pop one, two, or a half-dozen in your mouth whenever you please! Cookies are fun, playful, and approachable. No matter your skill level, nearly everyone can make at least one type of cookie.

But don’t stop at the ones you know. In today’s lesson we look at the humble, lovable cookie and how to get precisely the texture you want — crispy, crunchy, chewy, or cakey. Come along as we go down the rabbit hole of cookie obsession!

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

The Wonderful World of Cookies

Before we dive into the nuts and bolts of building the perfect cookie recipe, let’s take a look at some of the major types of cookies. While it would take days to cover every cookie out there, here is a brief look at some of the most popular ones.

European Butter Cookies

Characteristic of types like almond horns, checkerboard cookies, shortbread, tea cookies, sablées, chocolate-filled or jam-topped spritz cookies, and crescent cookies, these cookies are tender, sandy, buttery, and sometimes made with almond paste. These are often the cookies found wrapped in tissue and packed in metal tins around the holidays.

Adorned with simple things, like chocolate glaze or almonds, these types of cookies tend to be not-as-sweet, petite, and more modest than a chocolate chip cookie the size of your head, a delicate florentine cookie, or something dripping in caramel and covered in sprinkles.

American-Style Drop Cookies

When someone says the word “cookie,” how many of us have visions of the jumbo chocolate chip variety? Think: white chocolate macadamia nut, oatmeal raisin, snickerdoodle, and peanut butter cookies — these types of cookies are easy to make, and produce chewy, indulgent results.

They tend to be much softer than other biscuits found throughout the world. The dough typically comes together in a mixing bowl, gets dolloped onto a cookie sheet, and finds its way into our bellies after just 10 to 15 minutes in the oven. These cookies are also great for making ice cream sandwiches.

Get Your Step-by-Step Baking Lesson:
How To Make Chocolate Chip Cookies from Scratch

Piped Cookies

Indicated by their the name, these types of cookies are piped onto baking sheets before being baked. They include meringues, spritz cookies, strassburger cookies, and the shells for French macarons.

Bar Cookies

Bar cookies consist usually of a batter that has been poured or pressed into a rectangular pan and then cut into squares or bars. These may be layered with other ingredients (think: lemon and jam crumble bars) or be as simple as a brownie. These types of cookies may also be known as “tray bakes.”

Refrigerator or Icebox Cookies

The dough for these cookies comes together, then is rolled into a log. From there, the dough is chilled long enough for it to be cleanly sliced into round, uniform cookies, then baked. Think: butter cookies, sugar cookies, and sablées. For extra crunch and flair, try rolling the log of dough in sanding sugar or chopped nuts before slicing!

Rolled-Out Cookies

As their names implies, the cookie dough for these cookies is rolled out, then cut into shapes. Think: holiday sugar cookies, gingerbread, and even homemade graham crackers.

Pastry-Like Cookies

The opposite of drop cookies, these more-delicate cookies require their own set of rules. For something special, try making tuiles, florentines, French macarons, or palmiers!

Specialty Cookies

As mentioned, there are so many cookies out there! Here are few others worth checking out: rugelach, Mexican wedding cookies, thumbprints, madeleines, biscotti, and macaroons.

Get Your Step-by-Step Baking Lesson:
How To Make Crunchy Biscotti Cookies

How to Build Your Perfect Cookie

For the sake of developing and altering your own cookie recipes, let’s talk a bit more about texture and how to adapt a base recipe to your own liking.

Some cookies are crisp, while other are soft and cake-like. Eggs, sugar, butter, and flour, as well as the shape of the cookie, help determine the final texture. Here’s a study in how to get the kind of cookie you want to eat.

Chewy Cookies

Usually chewy cookies have a higher moisture content. How do you make this happen? Here are a few ways:

  • More eggs. Depending on the cookie, this moisture may come in the form of eggs.
  • More brown sugar. Using a high ratio of brown sugar will attract and absorb moisture for chewier cookies.
  • High-gluten flour. For a chewy cookie, it is best to use a high-gluten flour (all-purpose, bread flour, or a combination of the two) to help develop structure.
  • Mix by hand, not with a mixer. For denser or chewier cookies, mix the batter by hand instead of creaming the butter and sugar together with an electric mixer or use melted butter.

Crisp Cookies

The cookies must be high in both fat and sugar. As opposed to chewy cookies, the moisture content should be low.

  • Keep cookies small. Thinner, smaller cookies tend to bake up more crisp. Think back to when we discussed how sugar helps cookies spread: The more sugar, the more they spread, and the more crisp they will be.
  • Use more granulated sugar than brown sugar. For intentionally thinner cookies, try substituting some of the brown sugar for granulated sugar.
  • Use baking soda. Be sure to use baking soda.
  • Don’t overbake! Do not let the cookies overbake. When done, the edges should be set, while the center is a bit gooey.

Cake-Like and Soft Cookies

For a softer texture, a cookie needs high moisture with low fat and sugar.

  • Make cookies larger and thicker. They are usually larger and thicker to help retain and absorb the increased moisture.
  • Chill the dough (and use shortening). Try chilling the cookie dough or adding shortening so they better retain their shape longer during baking.
  • Reduce the baking powder. For less-puffy cookies, decrease or replace the baking powder and/or mix by hand.

Read More on Cookie Science

(Image credit: Tessa Huff)

Lessons in Adjusting a Basic Cookie Recipe

In order to adjust a basic cookie recipe to your liking, let’s take a closer look at how the ingredients and other baking factors can change up the texture and appearance of cookies.

Our “Control” Cookie: The Kitchn’s Chocolate Chip Cookies

75% white sugar – More spread with a crispier outside and chewy center. Not as developed flavors. (Image credit: Tessa Huff)
75% brown sugar – Moderate spread, chewy, definitely could taste the deeper caramel flavours (especially when compared to 75% white sugar). (Image credit: Tessa Huff)

Lessons in Adjusting Sugar

Cookie recipes that call for the sugar and butter to be creamed together will produce tiny air pockets in the batter and contribute to the rise and lift of the cookie.

  • For crisper cookies: Try using more granulated sugar than brown sugar since this increases the rate at which the cookie will spread in the oven, resulting in a thinner, crisper cookie.
  • For chewier cookies: Alternatively, a dough made with all brown sugar will result in chewier cookies since the molasses attracts and retains moisture.
  • For thin or flat cookies: Eliminating brown sugar completely may result in a flatter cookie since there will be no acid to balance out the baking soda. For granulated sugar, the finer the grain, the faster it dissolves and spreads. However, despite the finer texture, powdered sugar helps prevent spread, due to cornstarch.

Remember how sugar caramelizes and browns when combined with heat and proteins? The perfect balance of sugar will flavor and color the cookies perfectly. However, too much sugar usually yields cookies that are too dark, crusty, and may cause them to burn more quickly.

Cake flour – Puffy and cakey. (Image credit: Tessa Huff)

Lessons in Adjusting Flour

As mentioned before, chewier cookies rely on gluten formation to help build structure.

  • For chewier cookies: Use all-purpose, bread, or a combination of high-gluten flours. Whole-wheat flour will yield similar results in texture. Be mindful not to over-mix; too much gluten development will yield a tough cookie.
  • For cakey cookies: Cake flour has less protein and will be more tender and cake-like since it absorbs less moisture, leaving more to steam and puff the cookies.
  • For thicker cookies: An increase in overall flour quantity may yield a thicker cookie with less spread, but also one that is too tough, hard, and dry.
Extra egg yolk – More spread with thinner, browner edges. Richer in taste. Slightly more browned since they required a minute longer to bake. (Image credit: Tessa Huff)

Lessons in Adjusting Eggs

Since yolks contain all of the fat in an egg, a cookie made with only egg whites will be dry and have a shiny, crackly surface.

  • For chewier cookies: Decreasing the egg whites will yield a chewier cookie.
  • For softer cookies: Like in a rich butter cake, using all egg yolks will create a smoother, softer texture.
  • For crisper cookies: Try replacing some of the eggs with milk to decrease puff (as eggs tend to do when cooked) and increase spread for crisper cookies.
Creamed butter – More spread, crispy edges and crinkly on top. (Image credit: Tessa Huff)
More butter (double the amount) – Crispier edges and better overall browning. A bit more spread than control. (Image credit: Tessa Huff)
Melted butter – Less spread that I thought. Pretty similar to control. Crackly top and fairly chewy. (Image credit: Tessa Huff)

Lessons in Adjusting Butter

Since some cookie recipes require softened butter to be creamed with sugar (see above), using melted butter can definitely change the results.

  • For flatter, chewier cookies: Cookies made with melted butter tend to be much flatter (since they won’t have all the tiny air pockets to help them rise) and chewier (since the water in the melted butter will absorb the proteins in the flour). As always, keep an eye on the temperature of butter that a recipe calls for.
  • For puffier cookies: Shortening instead of butter may cause the cookie to be overly greasy, puffy, and will lack that unmistakable butter taste. If puff is what you want, try substituting some of the butter with shortening since it has a higher melting point and will help the cookies set faster before spreading.

Too little butter or fat may create dry and crumbly cookies.

Lessons in Adjusting Oven Temperature

As you can expect, a slightly higher oven temperature will yield crisper, crunchier cookies, while cookies baked at a lower oven temperature will be softer with less-developed flavors.

Dark baking pan – Less spread and much darker bottoms. (Image credit: Tessa Huff)
Parchment paper – Nearly identical to control, which used a Silpat. (Image credit: Tessa Huff)

Lessons in Adjusting Cookie Sheets

Instead of a dark, nonstick cookie sheet, line baking pans with parchment paper (not wax paper) or a silicone mat. Dark, nonstick sheets produce cookies with darker bottoms that set quickly and do not spread as much.

Chilled dough – Much less spread, as expected. More developed flavors the longer the dough had to rest. (Image credit: Tessa Huff)

Lessons in Dough Temperature

Chilling the cookie dough will affect shape and flavor. For some cookie doughs, the cold fats will help the cookies retain their shape for longer and keep them from spreading too quickly. For others, chilling the dough allows the flavors to develop and taste more toffee-like. The most complex flavors will develop after a day or two.

The Best Ways to Store Cookies

Since all cookies are different, they will all store a bit differently. Allow all cookies to cool before storing and place a piece of parchment in between layers. For your typical chocolate chip cookie or similar types, they will keep for about one week at room temperature sealed in a plastic zip-top bag or a lidded metal tin.

Do not combine soft and crisp cookies in the same container.

Add a piece of bread in with your soft cookies to keep them soft (like when we add bread to soften up brown sugar).

If your cookies are filled with an ingredient that may spoil at room temperature, like cream cheesing icing, then store in a covered container in the refrigerator.

Many cookie doughs may be frozen before baking, like drop cookies, refrigerator cookies, and shortbread. Batters for bar cookies and brownies should be baked before frozen. You can, however, freeze the whole, un-cut batch of brownies and the cut once thawed. Cake-like cookies do not freeze as well.

Get Your Step-by-Step Baking Lesson:
How To Freeze Cookie Dough

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

Every lesson has three homework options. Maybe you’ve already got one down, or you just have time for a quick study session. So pick one, and show us by tagging it with #kitchnbakingschool on Instagram or Twitter.

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

Go to Pinterest and pin five new types of cookies you’d like to try this holiday season.

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

Bake a new-to-you style of cookie.

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

Change one thing about your favorite cookie recipe and note the effects. For instance, swap granulated sugar for brown sugar, add an extra egg, bake at a higher temperature. What happened? Report back here!

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