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Secrets to Perfect Cookies

Cookies couldn’t be simpler to make. so why do they so often turn out irregularly shaped, unevenly baked, and lacking the desire texture? Here’s everything you need to know to bake the perfect batch.

article by: Keith Dresser, from Cooks Illustrated Feb 2011

1. MAKING THE DOUGH

Measure accurately –  in tests, we’ve found that the most common way of measuring dry ingredients-spooning them into the measuring cup-is also the least accurate. Since even the slightest variation in an amount can have a direct effect on your cookie (a tiny bit too much flour, for example, and the cookie will be dry; too little and the cookie will bake up flat), it’s important to measure precisely.

preferred method: for the greatest accuracy, weigh sugar and flour.

second best: dip a measuring cup into flour or sugar and scoop away excess with a straight edge.

Use Butter at Optimal Temperature

whether softened of melted, proper butter temperature is as critical in a simple sugar cookie as it is in the fanciest cake.

  • properly softened butter (65 to 67 degrees, or roughly room temperature) allows air to be pumped into the butter for tender texture in the final cookie. two good cues: the butter should give slightly when pressed but still hold its shape, and it should bend without cracking or breaking.
  • when a recipe calls for melted butter, make sure it’s lukewarm (85 to 90 degrees) before adding it to the dough. butter that’s too warm can cook the dough (or the eggs in it) and cause clumps.
Speedy way to Soften Butter
avoid microwaving to soften cold butter-it’s easy to soften it too much or even melt it. instead, cut the butter into small pieces. by the time you’ve preheated the oven and measured the remaining ingredients, the pieces should be near 65 degrees.
2. PORTIONING THE DOUGH
Drop and Roll
with drop cookies, we usually go beyond merely depositing tablespoons of dough on the cookie sheet. instead, we prefer to roll the dough between our hands to create uniformly shaped balls that bake evenly.
A Better Way to Roll
with roll-and-cut cookies, there’s always a danger of working too much flour into the dough during rolling and producing dry cookies. we like to roll out the dough between two large sheets of parchment paper instead of on a floured counter. chill the rolled-out dough in the fridge for 10 minutes to make cutting easier.
3. BAKING
Don’t Forget to Preheat
to keep cookies from spreading too much, it is important to expose them to an immediate blast of heat. it takes at least 15 minutes for a standard oven to reach the desired temperature.
Use an Oven Thermometer
oven temperatures can be off by as much ash 50 degrees. always use an oven thermometer to tell you what’s really going on inside. (our new favorite is profiled on page 11.)
4. PREPARING THE PAN
Use a Parchment Liner
don’t grease your sheets-the extra fat can cause cookies to bake unevenly. instead, line the baking sheet with parchment. its slick surface allows cookies to easily release. (Waxed paper isn’t a good substitute-high temperature can make the wax coating melt.) To keep parchment flat on the pan, put a small dab of dough on each corner of the baking sheet.
Make a Sling
with their gooey centers, it’s nearly impossible to remove some bar cookies from the pan without tearing or crumbling. Here’s our easy solution:
  1. place two sheets of foil or parchment paper perpendicular to each other in the baking pan, pushing into the corners and up the sides. spray with nonstick cooking spray.
  2. after the bar cookies have baked and cooled, use the overhang to lift the whole thing from the pan. cut into portions.
5. TROUBLESHOOTING
Problem: the last cookies always seem short on chips.
Solution: reserve some morsels to add later
           When chocolate chips, nuts, or raisins are in the mix, the last few cookies from a batch never seem to have as many of these goodies as the first few. to get around this, reserve some of the mix-ins and stir them into the dough after about half of it has been scooped out.
Problem: cookies don’t add up to the correct yield.
Solution: use a portion scoop.
            When cookies are portioned our larger or smaller than the recipe directs, they may not produce the intended texture. to ensure consistent size and the proper yield, we use a portion scoop. (We keep many different sizes on hand for just this purpose. a typical cookie requires a #30 scoop.)
Problem: cookies keep burning on bottom
Solution: use a light-colored baking sheet and line with parchment paper.
            We typically don’t like light-colored bakeware since it doesn’t paper heat as well as darker finishes, leading to spotty browning. But the cookie sheet is the exception. all of the dark nonstick cookie sheets we’ve tested consistently overbrown the bottoms of cookies. light colored sheets, on the other hand, prevent overbrowning but are prone to sticking. we get around this by baking cookies on parchment paper.
Problem: chewy cookies that aren’t chewy
Solution: underbake
             To ensure a chewy texture, take cookies out of the oven when they are still lightly underdone, which often means they will droop over the end of a spatula. crevices should appear moist and edges on smooth cookies should be lightly browned.
Problem: cookies run together
Soloution: bake in staggered rows
             When scoops of dough are placed too close together on the sheet, the cookies can fuse together. to ensure enough space between cookies, alternate the rows. For example, place three cookies in the first row, two in the second, three in the third, and so on.
Problem: unevenly baked batches
Solution: rotate during baking
            The temperature in most ovens varies from front to back, top to bottom-even side to side. to prevent uneven baking, rotate the cookie sheet partway through baking so that the back side faces front.
Problem: it’s hard to tell when dark chocolate cookies are done
Solution: press the middle
             Most cookies, irrespective of texture, are done when pressing them lightly with your finger leaves just a slight indentation.
Problem: cookies left in oven too long
Solution: cool immediately on rack
             If you become distracted and leave your cookies in the oven a minute or two too long, all is not lost. remove the baking sheet from the oven and, instead of allowing the cookies to set on the sheet, immediately transfer them to a wire rack, where they will cool more quickly.
Problem: overly crisp edges
Solution: briefly chill dough and don’t use a hot sheet
             If your kitchen is particularly hot, the butter in the dough can start to melt, softening the dough and leading to overcooked edges. if the dough seems too soft, chill it for 10 to 15 minutes before portioning.
            Putting raw dough on cookie sheets still warm from the oven can cause them to begin spreading, leading to burnt edges. always allow baking sheets to cool completely before adding more batches. to expedite cooling, rinse warm-but not hot-sheet under cold tap water.
Problem: chewy cookies dry out too quickly
Solution: store with bread
             To keep chewy cookies from turning dry and brittle, store them in a zipper-lock bag at room temperature with a small piece of bread (no more than half of slice) placed inside.
Freeze n Bake Cookies
almost all cookie dough can be successfully frozen. but instead of freezing it in a solid block, try portioning the dough first. this allows you to bake as many cookies as you like-even just three or four-when the craving strikes. simply portion the dough on a parchment lined baking sheet and freeze until hard. transfer the cookies to a zipper lock bag and return them to the freezer. there’s no need to thaw the dough before baking: just increase the baking time to 1 or 2 minutes.

Thin-Crust Pizza

NOTE: our preferred brand of whole-milk mozzarella is Dragone. you can shape the second dough ball while the first pizza bakes, but don’t top the pizza until right before you bake it. if you don’t have a baking stone, bake the pizzas on an overturned and preheated rimmed baking sheet. it is important to use ice water in the dough to prevent overheating the dough while in the food processor. semolina flour is ideal for dusting the peel; use it in place of bread flour if you have it. the sauce will yield more than needed in the recipe; extra sauce can be refrigerated for up to a week or frozen for up to a month. for our free recipe for thin-crust white pizza, go to www.CooksIllustrated.com/feb11.

Dough

  • 3 cups bread flour, plus more for work surface (see note)
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon instant or rapid-rise yeast
  • 1 1/3 cups ice water (see note)
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, plus more for work surface
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons table salt

Sauce:

  • 1 can whole peeled tomatoes, drained and liquid discarded
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • teaspoon red wine vinegar
  • 2 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed through garlic press (about 2 teaspoons)
  • 1 teaspoon table salt
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black paper

Cheese:

  • 1 ounce finely  grated Parmesan cheese (about 1/2 cup)
  • 8 ounces shredded whole milk mozzarella (about 2 cups) (see note)
  1. FOR THE DOUGH: in food processor fitted with metal blade, process flour, sugar, and yeast until combined, about 2 seconds. with machine running, slowly add water through feed tube; process until dough is just combined and no dry flour remains, about 10 seconds. let dough stand 10 minutes.
  2. add oil and salt to dough and process until dough forms satiny, sticky ball that clears sides of workbowl, 30 to 60 seconds. remove dough from bowl, knead briefly on lightly oiled countertop until smooth, about 1 minute. shape dough into tight ball and place in large, lightly oiled bowl. cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 24 hours and up to 3 days.
  3. FOR THE SAUCE: process all ingredients in food processor until smooth, about 30 seconds. transfer to medium bowl or container and refrigerate until ready to use.
  4. TO BAKE THE PIZZA: one hour before baking pizza, adjust oven rack to second highest position (rack shout be about 4 to 5 inches below broiler), set pizza stone on rack, and heat oven to 500 degrees. remove dough from refrigerator and divide on lightly oiled baking sheet, spacing them at least 3 inches apart; cover loosely with plastic wrap coated with nonstick cooking spray; let stand for 1 hour.
  5. coat 1 ball of dough generously with flour and place on well-floured countertop. using fingertips, gently flatten into 8 inch disk, leaving 1 inch of outer edge slightly thicker than center. using hands, gently stretch into 13-inch round. using back of spoon or ladle, spread 1/2 cup tomato sauce in thin layer over surface of dough, leaving 1/4 inch border around edge. sprinkle 1/4 cup parmesan evenly over sauce, followed by 1 cup mozzarella. slide pizza carefully onto stone and bake until crust is well browned and cheese is bubbly and beginning to brown, 10 to 12 minutes, rotating pizza halfway through. remove pizza and place on wire rack for 5 minutes before slicing and serving. repeat step 5 to shape, top, and bake second pizza.

Topping tips:

we like our thin-crust pizza simply dressed with tomato sauce and handfuls of shredded mozzarella and parmesan, but additional toppings are always an option-provided they’re prepared correctly and added judiciously. (an overloaded pie will bake up soggy.) here are a few guidelines for how to handle different types of topping:

HEARTY VEGETABLES

aim for a maximum of 6 ounces per pie, spread out in a single layer. vegetables such as onions, peppers, and mushrooms should be thinly sliced and lightly sauteed (or microwaved for a minute or two along with a little olive oil) before using.

DELICATE VEGETABLES AND HERBS

leafy greens and herbs like spinach and basil are best placed beneath the cheese to protect them or added raw to the fully cooked pizza.

MEATS:

proteins (no more than 4 ounces per pie) should be precooked and drained to remove excess fat. we like to poach meats like sausage (broken up into 1/2 inch chunks), pepperoni, or ground beef for 4 to 5 minutes in a wide skillet along with 1/4 cup of water, which helps to render the fat while keeping the meat moist.

Technique

Baking the pizza on the top rack-rather than the usual approach of placing it near the bottom of a home oven-means heat will hit the top of the pie, browning the toppings before the crust overcooks.

source: cook’s illustrated February 2011

article by: andrew janjigian