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Tips for baking holiday cookies

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Posted: Tuesday, December 4, 2012 9:53 pm

• Use butter at the temperature called for in the recipe. That helps ensure the dough will be mixed properly and the texture of the finished cookie will be correct. If a recipe calls for softened butter, let it sit at room temperature for about an hour before using. When you press the butter with your finger it should make an indentation, but not go through the butter completely. It shouldn’t be so soft it looks greasy. If the recipe calls for cold butter, use it right out of the refrigerator.

• Measure ingredients accurately. Measuring properly doesn’t take any more time than measuring inaccurately; you just have to pay attention to what you are doing. The ingredient that gets mismeasured most is flour because it tends to compact as it sits in the container. To measure accurately, stir the flour in the container with a wooden spoon or a fork to aerate it. Dip your measuring cup into the flour and scoop it so it is overflowing. With your finger or a knife, push the excess flour off so the measuring cup is level. Do not shake the measuring cup or push the flour into it. This will result in too much flour, making your cookies cakey or heavy.

• Mix the batter as directed. Most cookie recipes call for mixing just until ingredients are combined or until the dough is smooth. Stop there. No need to worry about beating air into the batter for lighter texture or more volume.

• Use kitchen parchment paper. It’s available in rolls in most supermarkets, generally shelved with the aluminum foil. Lining cookie sheets with parchment eliminates the need to grease them. After you remove the baking sheet from the oven, you can simply slide the parchment with the cookies off onto the counter top. Let the baking pan cool for a couple of minutes and you are ready to use it for the next batch. There’s no need to cool the cookies on racks if you don’t have them.

• Choose the right cookie sheet. Use heavy-gauge sheet pans that won’t buckle in a hot oven. If you use insulated cookie sheets, baking time may be a bit longer. If you use dark-colored cookie sheets, baking time could be shorter.

• Check your oven temperature. Baking cookies at the correct temperature ensures they will be evenly cooked, but home oven temperatures can easily be off. It’s best to buy a free-standing oven thermometer and use it to confirm what the oven dial says. Oven thermometers are inexpensive and available everywhere.

• Be aware of baking time. Even with an accurate oven temperature, be sure to check the cookies a minute or two before the recipe says they will be done. Cookies should be evenly colored on top. My general rule of thumb is if you aren’t sure if your cookies need another minute or two in the oven, err on the side of pulling them out. A slightly underbaked cookie can go unnoticed, but an overbaked one will be dry.

• Conventional versus convection ovens. In a regular oven, if you bake two trays of cookies at a time, you need to switch and rotate the pans halfway through the baking time. The tray on the bottom is blocked from the top heat and the cookies will be lighter in color and not bake as fast. Convection ovens have a fan that blows air around the oven, so you can put more trays in at a time and the cookies will bake more evenly. They will also bake faster, so keep an eye on them. With some convection ovens, you still need to switch the baking sheets. If the cookies look the same on both sheets, they’re fine without switching. But, if the ones on the bottom are paler and look wet in the middle, switch them with the top tray. The instructions in the accompanying recipes are for a regular oven.

• Store cookies properly. Keep cookies in an airtight container at room temperature unless otherwise indicated. Most cookies also freeze well and many can be eaten right out of the freezer because the sugar keeps them from turning rock hard. Others defrost quickly. To have cookies fresh every day, freeze the unbaked dough in small portions, then bake a portion as needed.

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