Cookies! Baking Tips, Tricks, and Recipes

Bake with confidence this holiday season and year-round with cookie and bar tips and recipes from the pros
Sparkling Snowflake Cutout Cookies

PHOTOGRAPHY TERRY BRENNAN, FOOD STYLING LARA MIKLASEVICS

‘Tis the season for baking. Making your own holiday cookies can be rewarding and they are always welcome at get-togethers throughout the season, whether you’re hosting or arriving with a delicious plate of treats in hand. Plus, they make great homemade gifts. I have gathered tips and recipes from pros that I have highlighted so you can create with confidence not only this holiday season, but anytime the baking urge strikes throughout the year.

The following classic sugar cookie recipe by cookbook author Georgeanne Brennan will not only make beautiful snowflakes or other wintry shapes now, but you can also make treats for any occasion when you cut the cookies into a variety of other shapes. 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

Sparkling Snowflake Cutout Cookies and Icing

PHOTOGRAPHY TERRY BRENNAN, FOOD STYLING LARA MIKLASEVICS

Sparkling Snowflake Cutout Cookies

Makes 2 to 3 dozen cookies

I like to make snowflake cutouts in different shapes and sizes, then ice some with white frosting and some with blue, and decorate with sparkling white and blue sprinkles. For a variation, use holly-leaf cookie cutters and green food coloring with red hot candies for berries. Like all iced, cutout cookies, these are best eaten within 1 week. —Georgeanne Brennan

For the Cookies
1¾ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
²⁄³ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

For the Icing
2 egg whites
4 cups powdered sugar, or more as needed
Blue food coloring or blue gel

  1. For the cookies: Heat oven to 400°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. In a bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt. In a separate bowl, beat together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in egg and vanilla. Add flour mixture in three batches, mixing each time until a smooth, not sticky, ball can be formed. Divide into two balls, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate 15 to 20 minutes.
  3. Flour a rolling pin and lightly flour a working surface. Roll a ball out to a generous ¹⁄8 inch thickness. Using snowflake cookie cutters, cut out several shapes and sizes. Using a metal spatula, transfer to baking sheet, spacing cookies at least ½ inch apart (they will expand as they bake). Shape remaining dough scraps into a firm ball and repeat. Repeat with second dough ball.
  4. Bake 6 to 8 minutes, until delicately browned on bottom and pale golden on top. Remove from oven and let cool on sheet at least 5 minutes. Using a metal spatula, gently loosen cookies and transfer to a flat surface to cool slightly before icing. (If cookies are warm, icing will spread more easily. However, icing when cookies are fully cooled is fine.)
  5. For the icing: In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat together egg whites and sugar 5 minutes, until stiff enough to spread. If too stiff, add 1 teaspoon water and beat. If too thin, continue beating and add up to ½ cup powdered sugar.
  6. Divide icing into 2 bowls. To 1 bowl, add 2 drops blue food coloring and mix well with a spoon.
  7. Using a knife or stiff spatula, gently spread icing on cookies. Add sprinkles immediately. Set aside on a flat surface to cool completely.
  8. Arrange cookies in a single layer on a platter and cover loosely with wax or parchment paper. They will keep up to 3 days at room temperature. 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.

A Sweet Gift: Choose a special teacup and saucer set and package it with a bag of cookies and a favorite tea to create a gift for a perfect pause, a quiet minute.

Nutrition info (per serving) Sparkling Snowflake Cutout Cookies: Calories 142 (38 From Fat); Fat 4g (Sat. 3g); Chol 17mg; Sodium 35mg; Carb 25g; Fiber 0g; Protein 1g

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

Toffee Squares with Pretzel Topping and Hazelnut and Honey Diamonds

PHOTOGRAPHY TERRY BRENNAN, FOOD STYLING LARA MIKLASEVICS

Bars and Brownies

You may think of bar cookies as basic party fare, but if you elevate them by using delicious ingredients and attractive decorations, they make a perfect addition to holiday dessert choices. While they are easy to make, there are some guidelines that Chattman suggests for good results plus recipes.

Raise the (Dessert) Bar

Easy yet delicious and decorative, bar cookies elevate options for serving and gifting, including Toffee Squares with Pretzel Topping and Hazelnut and Honey Diamonds recipes.

Patchwork Bars

PHOTOGRAPHY TERRY BRENNAN, FOOD STYLING LARA MIKLASEVICS

Patchwork Bars Recipe Plus Top Tips for Baking Bars

Elevate easy-to-make bar cookies with festive toppings for any get-together or homemade gift this holiday season

Hungry for More?

Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Brownies Recipe
These intensely chocolate, not-too-sweet brownie bites by cookbook author Georgeanne Brennan are a tasty marriage of chocolate and a hint of savory.

Brown Butter Blondies Recipe

Celebrate with this twist from Twin Cities baker Sarah Kieffer

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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.