For best results, follow cookie-baking basics

Preheat the oven

follow all directions

December 17, 2003|By Nancy Baggett | Nancy Baggett,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Cookies are among the easiest of all holiday sweet treats to make, but I've learned from baking many hundreds of batches that there are a few basic guidelines that can help ensure success.

For starters: Read and follow all directions. Measure ingredients carefully, preferably with a graduated set of measures that can be over-filled, then leveled off with the sweep of a knife or spatula blade. (When measuring all dry ingredients except brown sugar, don't pack down.)

Preheat the oven at least 15 minutes before beginning baking. Finally, use a kitchen timer, set it for a minute or two less than the minimum baking time indicated, then reset it if necessary -- this is the best way to avoid burning those precious pans of cookies!

Besides the very basic guidelines, these additional suggestions are worth following:

Use quality ingredients. Make sure spices and nuts are fresh and dry fruit is succulent. Use unsalted butter rather than salted.

Let all ingredients that have been stored in a cold spot or refrigerated warm up almost to room temperature before mixing them. This helps ensure that the dough will be warm enough to come together properly and that the cookies will bake in the time specified.

If recipes call for "slightly softened" butter, it should give just slightly when pressed down with a finger and an indentation should remain. Very cold butter will be too stiff to fluff up or cream properly; soft and melted butter won't have enough body to fluff. Note that overly soft butter also causes the problem home bakers most often ask me about -- cookies that spread too much. (The reason is that overly warm butter begins to melt and run in the oven before the dough can set and hold its shape.)

Pay close attention to mixing instructions and the order for adding ingredients. Meringue cookies can deflate if sugar is added too late or if fatty ingredients like nuts and chocolate are added too early. Butter doughs will toughen if liquids and eggs are added to the dry ingredients before fats and sugar. Eggs may curdle if added to hot mixtures too soon. And some doughs will toughen if over-beaten.

Be wary of making substitutions. They are a major cause of disappointing results. Some substitutes work. For example, one type of nut can sometimes stand in for another (though cookie flavor and appearance will change) -- but many don't. Never replace butter or margarine with "light" or "diet" or tub margarines; these not only have less fat but more water and can cause doughs to run during baking and to be difficult to roll and shape. Another no-no is substituting bittersweet for unsweetened chocolate; bittersweet is a sweetened chocolate similar to semisweet, while unsweetened is bitter tasting and needs to be mixed with sugar to be palatable. Even replacing all the granulated sugar with brown sugar can cause problems because brown sugar is not only fuller-flavored and grainier, but contains more moisture.

If your cookies tend to burn on the bottom or stick, try lining the sheets with baking parchment and using only heavy, light-colored metal pans. If you have only lightweight pans, try stacking two together or try using air-cushioned baking sheets. (It's also wise to invest in an oven thermometer to check whether the oven thermostat is off. Surveys have shown that this is a common problem.) If cookies tend to brown unevenly, turn every pan halfway through baking so cookies are rotated from front to back.

Nancy Baggett is the author of the best-selling "All-American Cookie Book," a 2002 James Beard Foundation and an International Association of Culinary Professionals "best baking book" nominee.

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