Professional Bakers Give Their Best Cookie Tips
Want more cookie tips? Check out our everything guide to cookies.
Each fall, baker Melissa Weller starts planning her cookies. "It's all about the cookie menu," she explains. On it, there are always her staples like peanut butter cookies topped with chocolate kisses, gingerbread, and sugar cookies decorated with royal icing. Plus, Weller likes to add a few others each year for whimsy.
Weller isn't alone in her planning. For cookie lovers, Christmas has long been the ultimate holiday. "The modern Christmas tree started as a vehicle for displaying Christmas confections. Cookies, especially gingerbread men," explains The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets.
In recent years, cookie swaps have taken center stage during the holiday season. This year, while swaps may be on hold or look different, cookies are still welcome at any holiday table (or, a holiday bed, which is acceptable in 2020). We asked six bakers for their best holiday cookie tips including how to freeze them, work with gluten-free flours, celebrate Hanukkah with cookies, and more.
Bake for the Freezer
Weller, whose book A Good Bake: The Art and Science of Making Perfect Pastries, Cakes, Cookies, Pies, and Breads at Home debuted this fall, follows her mother's method for cookie planning. She bakes two or three types of cookies a weekend starting weeks before the holiday, getting the easiest recipes out of the way first, and freezes them.
"The sooner you get it going, the better off you are," Weller explains. She recommends freezing baked cookies in resealable plastic bags, tins, or plastic containers like a fish tub, that allow for stacking with parchment paper between each layer. When defrosting, Weller warns, be careful with cookies that are iced, as they will pull in moisture. To preserve your icing work, defrost those cookies on a plate in a single layer.
When In Doubt, Make Shortbread
D.C.-based executive pastry chef and co-founder of Bakers Against racism Paola Velez says, if you're just starting out your cookie baking journey, opt for shortbread. It's simple and takes on flavor easily. Try infusing your dough with a touch of ground dried lavender or matcha powder, she says. Shortbread holds well, making it an excellent choice if you want to send a tin to a loved one in the mail. To preserve their freshness, "I wrap a little piece of bread in gift wrapping tissue paper or parchment paper and that prolongs the shelf life a little bit, for a week or two," Velez adds. If you want to bake to give back, Velez recommends joining the Bakers Against Racism holiday bake sale.
Cookies Are for Hannukah, Too
Fried treats like latkes and doughnuts are traditionally served at Hanukkah, but cookies also have their place. Some American Jews have adopted and adapted the sugar cookie tradition of their neighbors, "which I think is really sweet," says cookbook author Leah Koenig, whose most recent books include The Jewish Cookbook and the Little Book of Jewish Sweets. But the Hanukkah cookie custom goes deeper. "Rugelach are sort of a lesser known Hanukkah treat, which I only found out more recently," Koenig says, explaining that the tradition is connected to the custom of eating dairy on Hanukkah. If you make rugelach for the holiday season, stick with a recipe that calls for equal parts butter and cream cheese. "The dough texture is so tender. And then, when it bakes, it gets this almost croissant-like flakiness," Koenig explains. And don't be afraid to bake and freeze the rugelach in advance, she adds. "They're most delicious warmed up in an oven or a toaster oven. I even microwave them sometimes if I just want a quick snack."
The Ideal Tin Isn't Just About Cookies
Baker Sarah Kieffer's signature is cookies. She popularized the viral pan-banging technique for large crinkled chocolate chip cookies and recently authored 100 Cookies: The Baking Book for Every Kitchen, with Classic Cookies, Novel Treats, Brownies, Bars, and More. But, when it comes to the perfect holiday sweet tin, she opts for variety. The ideal mix, she says, is half cookies and half of other sweets, like brownies and candies. "I like a variety, because I think it just feels more special," she says. One of the non-cookie additions in Kieffer's tin is pretzel Rolo pecan candies. "That's one of the things people always comment on…. It's the thing that takes the least amount of time, of course," she says, laughing. To deliver holiday tins to neighbors safely this year, Kieffer will make a drop and alert friends via text message.
Buy a Scale
"The list to improve your game in the baking department is so much smaller than people realize," says Lani Halliday, the owner of Brooklyn-based gluten-free pastry company Brutus Bakeshop. That list consists of two items: a kitchen scale and a portion scoop. If your favorite cookie recipe is measured in cups, Halliday urges home bakers to experiment with measuring ingredients in grams and rewriting the recipe in a small notebook — the result will pay dividends in the form of consistently excellent cookies for years to come.
Give Your Gluten-Free Flour Time
And, for those baking with gluten-free flour, Halliday adds, that hydrating the flour is crucial. Once she finishes making any cookie dough, she allows it to sit for 30 minutes before scooping. "It just needs to sit and chill and do its thing... It's chill, as in hang out, not like put it in the fridge," she jokingly clarifies.
Upgrade the Recipe From the Bag
"My mom taught me that the best chocolate chip cookies... are the recipe from the back of the bag," says Jessamyn Waldman Rodriguez, the founder of Hot Bread Kitchen, the author of the organization's cookbook, and the managing director of Daily Provisions. "They recipe test the heck out of those cookie recipes…. And, with a little extra pizzazz they turn out really well," she says. That pizzazz includes spending extra time creaming the butter and sugar, lining the baking sheet with parchment paper, and most importantly roasting the walnuts to deepen their flavor. Sometimes, it's best to listen to your mother.