cookie tips and tricks

I learn a few things every year about cookie baking. There’s always a way to bake almost a thousand cookies better than I did last year, so I’m all about the process improvement–in handling, storage, and giving!

1. The freezer

Instead of asking, ‘what cookies can be frozen?’ a much better question to ask is ‘what cookies can’t be frozen?’ because the answer is: most  cookies freeze well–the dough, the baked un-decorated cookie, the iced cookie.

The only ones that don’t, in my experience, are the ones rolled or sprinkled in powdered sugar. Delicate powdered sugar doesn’t survive the thawing. I haven’t had any experience freezing fruity cookies, so I can’t say what the results would be, so you might want to do a trial run before your heavy cookie baking spree just to see if your particular recipe will freeze well.

Otherwise, just about everything I made was frozen at some point.

Freezing dough. One mistake I made in early years was to make up a bunch of doughs early on, toss ’em in the freezer, then work with them after they were thawed. Big mistake. Making the dough is the easy part. Shaping them, rolling and cutting takes the most time, so this year I rolled and balled before freezing. It goes so quickly. Transfer cookies to freezer on a cookie sheet, flash freeze them till solid, then put them in an airtight container. Keep them in the freezer until ready to bake, then transfer back to a cookie sheet, let them soften in the fridge or on the counter a minute or two, then bake as directed.

This was perfect for me and my toddler–spacing out the tasks of cookies made it so I wasn’t in the kitchen for more than an hour or two, and cleanup was less daunting since it was only a bowl here, a sheet there. I will definitely use this method again.

For cookies that needed decorations before baking, such as raw sugar, spices, or sprinkles, I put those on right before they went into the oven. Since these cookies get special treatment right before baking, I didn’t need to put layers of parchment paper between them. I popped the frozen balls into the canister and back into the freezer they went–no sticking or deformed shapes.

For unbaked cutout cookies, I rolled the dough and cut them out before freezing. Once they froze on a cookie sheet, I stacked them neatly into a canister and stored until it was time to bake. Surprisingly, there were no cookie casualties.

For baked cutout cookies, I cooled those cookies and popped them back in the freezer again–flash frozen on cookie sheets, sealed in an airtight container. I did suffer some cookie casualties at this stage — delicate edges of thin cutouts might not survive if stacked too high or if the container is knocked sideways. Treat these with care and store them in a corner where wayward husbands and children can’t topple.

For iced cookies, I flash froze those once the icing was completely dried (royal icing, a full overnight setting) and then layered them between parchment paper in an airtight container.

For baked cookies, I also — wait for it — flash froze them and stored in an airtight container.

Frozen cookies don’t take a long time to thaw. For gift-giving, I arranged them on the tray straight from the freezer, and by the time I arrived to work or to the party, they were ready to eat. Easy.

The two biggest upsides to frozen cookies were the space saved and freshness. All the space it freed up in my crowded kitchen and dining room made baking so convenient. Frozen cookies can be arranged closer and stacked taller, which meant less containers tucked in the basement freezer instead of spread out over two rooms and completely in reach of a two year old. Win.

Second big upside: fresh cookies. Since they didn’t sit out for days they tasted a lot fresher this year than they have in days past, and I had less of a big push at the end to make sure nothing was stale–they were all in the freezer except the tea cakes and rum balls.

2. Butter

There’s some conflicting advice on the internet about cookies and butter. Most of us agree–get the best butter you can afford and use the unsalted variety.

But. I used to oversoften mine and wonder why my cookies always spread. Chilling the cookies before baking helped but not enough–my crinkles didn’t crackle and my drop cookies were thin and hard outside, doughy raw in.

The neat thing about the internet and recipe sharing is that so much of our expertise gets passed on. It’s not one end-all, be-all site that gives all the cookie tips. It’s something I pick up from one recipe blog, another over here, and a willingness to try it all.

Butter is a strange ingredient to work with. Once it’s gone soft or melted, there’s really no going back. I can’t believe I used to think that there was no such thing as too soft or too creamy. For cookies, there absolutely is too soft and too creamy.

My goal this year, once I learned that cookies will spread with oversoft, overcreamed butter, was to soften and cream just enough. No more leaving my sticks of butter on the stove over the warm oven until they sagged. This year, I used a cheese grater.

A cheese grater? Yep, you heard me right. Grate the butter directly from fridge into the bowl, use the paddle attachment or beaters, get it mixing, then add the sugar and mix until not lumpy. Cookies I made using this method didn’t spread, their surfaces crinkled nicely, and they had such a wonderful texture.

I made buttercream frosting/filling three times using a cheese grater for the butter and it came together so well, and wasn’t terribly hard on my wrists to do with the hand mixer. The filling came out creamy and smooth just as it does when the butter is room temperature, and the filling came to room temperature quickly with all the sugar and extracts added in.

I made a batch of cake batter sugar cookies (four batches actually, because it’s a small batch and my cookie trays are big), only I multiplied it wrong. Note to self: check it thrice. Long story was, after I got the flour added in, the dough was the consistency of cake mix–tasty, but not cookie dough. Was it an egg yolk I missed? Or butter? (That’s one of many pitfalls of baking with a toddler–occasionally forgetting how to count). I had to leave, so I put the crumbly dough in the fridge to troubleshoot later.

I discovered my mistake–indeed, the butter, I only added half the amount. But how to incorporate that much more without overworking the dough?

Hence, the cheese grater. I let the dough crumbles sit in the bowl until not cold, and grated the butter over it and let the dough hook do the rest on low speed. I could not believe how well that worked, and the cookies were saved!

Further experimentation with the dough hook did not go so well. My stand mixer handles larger quantities better than smaller, and I wasn’t able to get the hook to properly incorporate the sugar and butter by itself. But I will definitely try again with a large or double batch of cookies.

3. Oven and Baking

Oven temperature is important. For a while, our oven ran at least 25° too warm and sometimes more. With a thermometer, things got better. With a solid cleaning and an extra layer of foil on the bottom, things got a lot better.

With a too-hot oven, I taught myself the bad habit of taking them the cookies out on the early side, because they burned so fast. With the right temperature in the oven, I let them go the full recommended amount and freed myself to put them back in for another minute or two as required.

The result is thicker cookies. They don’t fall if they’re properly baked all the way through. They don’t spread too much if the butter is creamed just enough.

Cookies can be baked straight from freezer or fridge. It just takes a minute or so longer for each batch, and once you’ve gotten the hang of it, it can save you prep time.

4. A plan

It sounds real ridiculous to have a baking schedule but I made one this year, accounting for obligations like work and parties, and I was completely able to stick to it without being overwhelmed. Complicated cookies were divided into tasks–rolling cutouts one day, baking them the next, frosting another, sandwiching another. I never put more into one day than I could feasibly accomplish, and there were only two nights in the entire month where I had to stay up past midnight to bake cookies. That’s pretty epic for me.

I’m not usually that organized, but I enjoyed it and stuck to the schedule until the last couple of days where an office party snuck up on me.

Having the schedule laid out what kinds of ingredients I needed for the week and what I needed to have ready. I balanced heavy tasks like royal icing one day by following that with an easy task the next day. On days where I worked longer shifts, I didn’t assign any baking at all, so any kitchen work I did was bonus if I felt up to it. A couple times I did, but others I definitely didn’t, so having a couple days off built in was a relief and necessary.

5. Presentation and Decoration

This year, I made sure I had plenty of time to decorate my iced cookies. In years past, it’s been a last minute project that I hurried through so I could get to bed, then I regretted not making prettier cookies or learning how to work with royal icing. With a whole day blocked out for nothing but icing already baked cookies, I had more space, more energy, and more mental gumption to enjoy it and make some really pretty large snowflake cutouts for centerpieces on my cookie trays. They were the prettiest cookies I’ve ever made since I made space and plans for two colors of icing and even colored some sugar for sprinkling before I got started.

Before I even began, I perused recipes and sifted through all the tips and tricks on blogs and pinterest. A lot I knew, but some I didn’t. Refreshing myself on the basics gave me confidence and clarity in what I was making, and I found some great recipes and techniques along the way. I highly recommend antonia74’s royal icing recipe on sweetopia. It worked so perfectly–my best royal icing yet.

Next year, I’m going to plan even more. I used to think designing the decorations pre-icing was over the top, and now I realize it’s not. Drawing them free hand was fun, but having a solid plan will make those cookies look even better. I might have to bake some practice cookies over the next eleven months to get some more practice in. 😉

Oh, and all those recipes and tutorials I found? I went on a pinning spree–my cookies board on Pinterest is just a click away.

Happy Baking!

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