Holiday baking can be a pleasurable, stress-relieving activity…until your cookies turn out crumbly, burnt or too dense and you don’t know why. Here are seven handy tips to skip all that frustration and proceed directly to turning out beautiful cookies and baked goods this season.
Soften the butter
The temperature of the butter is crucial in cookie dough. Butter that is too cold or warm won’t whip enough to incorporate the right amount of air, leading to dense cookies. Plan ahead and bring your butter to room temperature before beginning to bake. (Room temperature butter should be pliable; and a finger should easily indent the butter.) Here are three ways to ensure your butter is ready for baking.
How to soften butter for baking
1. Leave your butter out on the counter for 2 to 3 hours, or overnight.
2. Cut refrigerated butter into small pieces to increase the surface area, then leave at room temperature for about 1 hour.
3. Cut butter into small, uniformly-sized pieces, then spread out evenly on a plate. Microwave on low power in 15-second intervals, turning the pieces after each interval. (It should only take 2 to 3 intervals.)
Aerate the dough
Creaming butter with sugar creates small air pockets, which aerates the dough and helps it rise in the oven—a key step for light cookies.
Using a hand beater or a stand mixer is essential. If using a stand mixer, use the paddle attachment unless the recipe specifies otherwise. Beat until the butter and sugar are pale yellow and fluffy. This usually takes about 3 minutes with a hand mixer on medium, and 2 minutes with a stand mixer on medium. Scrape the sides of the bowl periodically to ensure that all the butter is well-aerated.
Measure flour accurately
Baking requires precision—even a small change in the recipe can impact the end result.
Use a spoon to scoop the flour into the measuring cup, and then use a straight edge (such as the spoon handle) to level off the top. If you scoop flour straight from the bag, you may end up adding more than necessary, resulting in a drier cookie. Or, weigh your flour, according to the weights given in the recipes.
Check the oven temperature
All ovens are slightly different and many don’t run true to temperature, so investing in an oven thermometer is super helpful (a few degrees difference can make a big difference to your cookies).
After checking the temperature, adjust the dial accordingly, or tweak the baking time called for in the recipe. Cookies are small and delicate and a few degrees or a minute of baking is the difference between under-baked, over-baked or juuuuuuust right.
Always use parchment paper
Not only does it make clean up a cinch (no need to wash the baking sheet!), but it means you don’t need to grease the sheet and your cookies won’t stick.
Parchment actually acts as an insulator between the baking sheet and the cookie, and prevents over-browning. It also stops cookies from spreading too much (and merging into one giant cookie).
Kitchen Tip: Don’t throw out used parchment! It can be reused again and again until it’s worn out (as long as it’s clean). Reynolds and No Name are our go-to brand in the test kitchen for quality and durability.
Bake one sheet at a time
Many recipes don’t specify, but it is assumed that cookies are baked one sheet at a time. This is essential because it allows the heat to circulate properly, resulting in even browning. Unless otherwise noted, position the rack in the centre of the oven. Cookies continue to cook on the hot tray after they come out of the oven, so keep that in mind and remove as they are just starting to turn golden at the edges.
Use a cooling rack
We recommend letting the cookies cool on the baking sheet for about 2 minutes, just until they are firm enough to transfer to a cooling rack with a spatula. Transferring the cookies prevents over-baking from the residual heat of the baking sheet, and the rack allows faster cooling because air can circulate on all sides. It also results in crispier cookies, because condensation from steam let off by the cookies as they cool is absorbed into the bottoms when they’re left on a baking sheet, making them softer (this is also why you should remove cakes, loaves and muffins from their pans to cool).
Cookies can be sensitive to air and humidity, so store soft and crisp cookies in separate, sealed containers to preserve texture. Separating layers of cookies with parchment will reduce breakage, especially if you’re transporting them.
How to make jam pinwheel cookies
Originally published November 2017; Updated November 2019.