Baking Dos, Don’ts, and Recipes

‘Tis the season to create tasty treats for get-togethers and gifts. Make sure your skills are up to speed—review these tips and try some different recipes
Cranberry Lime Bars

Photo Terry Brennan, food styling by Lara Miklasevics

It’s time to check your list—of baking skills, that is—and make sure you’re ready for the holiday baking season. Cookies and bars are always welcome at get-togethers, whether you’re hosting or arriving with a delicious plate of goodies in hand. I have gathered tips and recipes from pros for your review so you can create with confidence not only this holiday season, but anytime you want to bake.

Twin Cities chef and Saint Paul College Culinary Arts instructor Jason Ross’ tips will help you turn out the cookies you are looking for. And everyone’s favorite chocolate chip cookie can be made soft and chewy or crisp if you have pastry chef and author of “The Baking Answer Book,” Lauren Chatmann’s tips and recipes on hand. Plus, elevate bars with more tricks from Chatmann below.

Cookie Do’s from Chef Jason Ross

Scrape the Bowl to Get Fully Mixed Dough: Do it after adding eggs, adding dry to wet, or wet to dry ingredients. Mixer attachments don’t quite reach the bottom and sides of the bowl, so parts are left unmixed. Use a rubber spatula to stir the unmixed parts back into the dough—and scrape the paddle attachment.

Chill Dough: It makes the batter easier to handle and gives the flour enough time to fully absorb liquid ingredients and make more cohesive dough. For the chocolate chunk cookie recipe here—and any soft cookie—bake from frozen. This will make a tender, crisp cookie that stays chewy. Keep cookie dough balls ready in the freezer during the holidays in case of a “cookie emergency.”

Finish with Salt: Just a few grains sprinkled on top of cookies will hit the palate first, bringing out a surprise flavor. Don’t use enough so you can see it—like a pretzel—rather just enough for a little salt secret.

Cool Cookies on a Rack: Cookies will continue to cook on a hot pan. Unless they are too soft or fragile to handle, lift them off the pans with a metal spatula and cool on a wire rack.

Color Cues: Pay attention to brown color, especially around the edges, and lighter color in the center. This helps determine a perfectly baked cookie. Since cookies are small, a little more or less time makes a big difference. If a few cookies on a tray are done, pull them off to cool and finish cooking the rest of the tray.

Rotate Pans Halfway Through Cooking: All ovens have hot and cool spots, so rotate pans to get even cooking across the tray. Be quick—you don’t want the oven to cool down.

Cookie Spread
The way cookies spread and thin has a big impact on crispness, softness and chewiness.

  • More creaming of butter and sugar will add more air and increase spread; less creaming, less spread and chewier cookies.
  • Lower temperature, even just a few degrees, slows cooking and gives dough more time to spread. Higher temperature will make thicker cookies since it firms up more quickly.
  • More sugar—especially syrupy sugars like honey, molasses or corn syrup—will spread more easily and make softer cookies.
  • Overmixing flour decreases spread and makes doughy cookies.

Must-Have Tools

Scoop: Use a portion control scoop instead of a spoon to avoid messy fingers and quickly and easily scoop balls the same size. Cookies will bake more evenly. Use it for ice cream too!

Digital Scale: It helps especially for measuring flour—the weight difference between cups of flour can be surprising. If you don’t have a scale, avoid compressing flour into the measuring cup; instead spoon it into the cup and level off with the straight edge of a butter knife.

Parchment Paper and Silicon Mats: These both work well and have an impact on cooking besides ease in cleanup: Cookies will spread more on a silicon mat and stay tighter on parchment. Parchment browns cookies a little more nicely, while silicon will yield slightly less crisp cookies. If I had to choose one, it would be parchment, but both have their place depending on the cookie you are baking. If using aluminum pans without either of these, try a little oil spray and possibly dust with flour if you have had trouble with cookies sticking.

More tips from Ross and use your skills with his Chocolate Chunk Cookies recipe here.

Cookie and Bar Tips and Tricks from Lauren Chattman

Tips and Tricks: Soft and Cakey Chocolate Chip Cookies
• Cream butter and sugar together. This will whip some air into the dough, so your cookies will puff up a bit in the oven.
• 1/4 teaspoon of baking powder along with the soda will provide more lift.
• Subtract an egg yolk and use an extra egg white. Egg whites contain more water than yolks which when evaporated in the oven helps cookies rise like little cakes.
• Use twice as much brown sugar as white sugar. Brown sugar, which is slightly acidic, will react with the baking soda in the recipe for a higher rise.
• Add a little extra flour—enough to add structure, but not so much that it will dilute the sweetness of the sugar.
• Chill the dough. Cold dough will spread less in the oven, creating a cakey center.
• Turn up the heat. If a recipe calls for 350°F, increase to 375°F. A hotter oven will allow the cookies to bake before spreading, resulting in cakey centers.

Tips and Tricks: Crisp and Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies
• Use melted, not softened butter for a dense and chewy texture.
• Subtract an egg white and add an extra egg yolk. Yolks have more fat than whites, which give cookies a fudgy rather than cakey texture.
• Use twice as much white sugar as brown. White sugar, which is neutral rather than acidic like brown sugar, will cause your cookies to spread rather than rise. It will also give your cookies a nice crispness around the edges.
• Turn down the heat. A cooler oven will let the cookies spread without drying out.
• Do not overbake. Cookies will continue to firm up and dry out as they cool off, so pull them out of the oven while they still look a little damp on top.

Find more tips from Chattman and recipes for soft and cakey and crisp and chewy chocolate chip cookies here.

Plus: Elements of science combine to create your perfect treat in her Cakey or Fudgy Brownies Recipes

Whip up something different this season with the following recipes for Cranberry and Lime Bars by Lauren Chatmann and Walnut Lace Cookies by cookbook author Georgeanne Brennan, which appeared in Real Food magazine.

Cranberry and Lime Bars

Makes 16 servings | Recipe by Lauren Chattman

A touch of lime zest lends these simple bars a zippy flavor. Give them a bakery-style finish with a drizzle of white chocolate.

2 cups flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon cream of tartar
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
½ cup sugar
½ cup powdered sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ cup dried cranberries
2 tablespoons grated lime zest, plus more for garnish
12 ounces white chocolate chips

  1. Place rack in middle of oven and preheat to 350°F. Line an 8-by-8-inch baking pan with heavy-duty foil, tucking into corners and leaving a 1-inch overhang on all sides.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, cream of tartar and salt.
  3. In a separate large bowl and using an electric mixer, combine butter, sugar and powdered sugar until well combined. Mix in egg and vanilla until smooth. Stir in flour mixture on low until just combined. Stir in cranberries, lime zest and 1¼ cups white chocolate chips.
  4. Pour batter into pan and smooth with a spatula. Bake 25 to 30 minutes, until golden around edges. Let cool completely on a wire rack.
  5. Melt remaining chocolate chips and use a fork to drizzle over bars. Garnish top with lime zest, if desired. Let stand 1 hour, until chocolate is hard. Use foil to lift from pan onto a cutting board and use a sharp knife to cut into 16 squares. Store in an airtight container at room temperature up to 3 days.
Walnut Lace Cookies

Photo Terry Brennan, food styling by Lara Miklasevics

Walnut Lace Cookies

Makes 3½ dozen cookies | Recipe by Georgeanne Brennan

Aptly named, these delicate cookies are rich and crispy, and they are quite quick to make. For a variation, use pistachios, almonds, pecans, or hazelnuts. When still warm, the cookies can be rolled into a thin, cigar-like shape. Or put two cookies together, sandwich style, with chocolate frosting between. Lace cookies tend to absorb moisture, so they should be stored in dry, cool conditions, such as an airtight container.

¼ cup walnut halves or pieces
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
¾ cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
1 tablespoon molasses
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
¾ cup quick-cooking oats
1½ tablespoons all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

  1. In a small frying pan over medium heat, toast walnuts, shaking or stirring. When they become aromatic, after 3 to 4 minutes, remove to a work surface and finely chop. Set aside.
  2. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  3. In a heavy saucepan over medium heat, melt butter. When it foams, add sugar, stirring, and cook 2 to 3 minutes, until sugar is dissolved. Stir in molasses and corn syrup, and add walnuts, oats, flour, salt, and vanilla, and stir until well-blended.
  4. Remove from heat and drop by teaspoon onto baking sheet, spacing at least 2 inches apart (cookies will spread while baking). Bake 7 to 9 minutes, until golden brown and edges are slightly darker and beginning to pull away a tiny bit from parchment.
  5. Let cool on sheet 5 minutes, until slightly firm. Using a metal spatula, transfer to a flat surface or wire rack to cool. If desired, while still pliable, form cookies around handle of a wooden spoon to make a cigar-like cookie roll.
  6. Let dry at room temperature 45 minutes, until no longer pliable.
  7. To store in an airtight container up to 1 week, line container with wax or parchment paper. Place cookies in single layer. Top with a layer of wax or parchment paper and repeat.

Cook’s Note: If desired, make a cookie sandwich by spreading 1 teaspoon chocolate frosting on bottom of 1 cookie, then topping with bottom of a second cookie, gently pressing together. Enjoy within 1 to 2 days.

Nutrition info (per serving)
• Cranberry & Lime Bars: Calories 270 (104 From Fat); Fat 12g (Sat. 8g); Chol 28mg; Sodium 168mg; Carb 38g; Fiber 1g; Protein 4g
• Walnut Lace Cookies: Calories 38 (14 From Fat); Fat 2g (Sat. 1g); Chol 3mg; Sodium 16mg; Carb 6g; Fiber 0g; Protein 0g

Hungry for More Cookie Recipes?

Stenciled Gingerbread Cookies Recipe

Enjoy the seasonal taste of gingerbread in grown-up style—and you don’t need to worry about whether to start with a bite of a little gingerbread fella’s feet or head. (If you want to bake ahead, these cookies can be stored carefully in an airtight container for about two weeks.)

Cranberry Macadamia Nut Cookies Recipe

Keep old cookie friends but make new ones this holiday baking season

Mary Subialka is the editor of Real Food and Drinks magazines, covering the flavorful world of food, wine, and spirits. She rarely meets a chicken she doesn’t like, and hopes that her son, who used to eat beets and Indian food as a preschooler, will one day again think of real food as more than something you need to eat before dessert and be inspired by his younger brother, who is now into trying new foods.