Killer Cookies

By Chandra Orr

September 17, 2010 5 min read

Want to know the secret to perfectly soft, perfectly browned, melt-in-your-mouth sugar cookies? It's all in the technique.

Whether "dry," "flat" or "flavorless," most common cookie complaints come down to a hurried holiday chef. For moist, rich treats that would make even Grandma proud, slow down, enjoy the process and practice the six tenants of perfect cookie construction:

1) Spring for top-notch ingredients. "This is not the time to skimp. Use the absolute best ingredients you can afford," says Linda J. Amendt, author of "400 Sensational Cookies." "If the cookies don't taste good, why bother going to the effort of baking and decorating them?"

Forget the imitation vanilla extract; skip the salted butter; and toss that year-old baking soda, which loses its leavening power over time. Pure extracts, unsalted butter and fresh dry goods impart the best flavors.

"Sugar cookies are all about subtle flavors, and with only a few of them, it's important to make sure each ingredient is the best quality possible," says Alejandra Ramos, creator of the food blog "Always Order Dessert."

2) Start with perfect butter. "They may be called sugar cookies, but it's really all about the butter," Ramos says. "The key to soft and chewy sugar cookies is to always start with softened, slightly-above-room-temperature butter."

Let the butter warm for 10 to 20 minutes -- but keep an eye on it. Butter that's too cold creates heavy, shortbread-style cookies. Butter that's too soft makes flat, crisp cookies.

"To test your butter, hold the wrapped stick and gently press your thumb into the top. The butter should give slightly, but your finger should not go all the way in," Ramos says.

If it's too cold, let it rest for another five minutes; never nuke it. If it's too warm, start with a fresh batch and save that soft stick for your toast.

3) Mix masterfully. "To get light cookies, the butter and sugar need to be creamed together to create air pockets. It's these air pockets that help make sugar cookies light and tender," Amendt says.

In general, butter and sugar should be beaten on medium speed for two to four minutes, until the mixture is light and fluffy.

"'Light' refers to the color, which should be a pale, creamy color," Amendt explains. "'Fluffy' refers to the texture."

Add the flour and other dry goods slowly to avoid unblended pockets, but don't overdo it. Stop mixing when no white streaks remain.

"The biggest mistake people make is over-mixing when adding the flour mixture," Amendt says. "It deflates the air bubbles you created when creaming the butter and sugar. It also develops gluten and makes the cookies tough."

4) Keep it cool. After all that mixing, the dough will be soft -- too soft for cutting. It needs to rest in the refrigerator before you roll it.

"Chilling the dough will make it easier to handle, help keep it from sticking and let you make cleaner cuts with the cookie cutters," Amendt says.

Divide the dough into three equal portions, and wrap it in plastic wrap. Let it chill for about an hour. When it's time to break out the cookie cutters, work with one portion of dough at a time and leave the rest in the fridge.

5) Cut with care. Over-kneading is a cookie's worst enemy. It stiffens the dough and defeats all your prior hard work, so be precise in the placement of cookie cutters.

"Arrange the cookie cutters as close as possible to each other to limit the amount of dough that needs to be rerolled," Ramos says. "The more you reroll the tougher the cookies will be."

Go easy on the flour, as well.

"Use just enough flour to prevent the dough from sticking," Amendt says. "As you roll out the dough, it will absorb much of this flour, and absorbing too much flour will make the cookies tough."

6) Watch the oven. "Sugar cookies bake for such a short time -- usually seven to 12 minutes -- so it's important not to wander off once you put the batch in the oven," Ramos says. "A minute or two is all it takes to go from perfect, chewy cookies to crunchy and over-baked."

For even browning, rotate the baking sheets halfway through. Otherwise keep the oven door closed. Check the progress through the oven window instead.

When the edges of the cookies are lightly golden -- not brown -- it's time to take them out. The cutouts will keep baking for a few minutes while they cool, so if you wait until they're brown to remove them from the heat, you'll have dry, crisp cookies.

"No one likes to eat burnt cookies, and no amount of pretty decorations will cover up the taste of an over-baked cookie," Amendt says.

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