5 Pieces of Wisdom to Steal From My Years of Testing Holiday Cookies

We make a LOT of cookies in Food Network Kitchen — and we've learned quite a bit about perfecting them.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year — cookie time! Cookies just may be the perfect dessert. They are portable, single-serve, crunchy or gooey, fruity or chocolatey. They bake quickly and taste good warm — great for when you just can’t wait. But like any baked good, there can be pitfalls on the road to reaching cookie nirvana. So in Food Network Kitchen (where I'm a recipe developer), we take our cookies pretty seriously. This year marked the seventh year in a row we've offered a 25-cookie holiday round-up in Food Network Magazine and we have learned a lot along the way. Today, I pass that knowledge onto you:

1. Be good to your butter.

Butter is at the core of so many delightful cookies, so it must get proper attention and care.

If you need to melt it, your first goal is not let it explode all over the microwave (you’ll lose some of the volume!). You also want to avoid pouring it into your batter piping hot or allowing it to re-solidfy before you mix it in. Butter should be melted on the stovetop (or incrementally in the microwave) and then cooled just enough to let the steamy heat abate but remain totally liquid.

If your recipe calls for softened butter, it should be cool to the touch with a little give when you press it. It should almost feel like a ripe avocado or peach: soft but with a little resistance. If your finger squishes right through, it’s way too soft. And if you must press hard, it’s too cold. The very best way to soften your butter is to place it at room temperature and wait. But if you are in a rush … or happen to have an unheated kitchen because your house was built in the late 1800’s and renovated bizarrely over the years (ahem!), you can speed it up a bit. Cut the butter into chunks and microwave in 5-10 second intervals, tossing the cubes and squeezing them until they have the right amount of give. You do not want to melt the outside layer and still have a cold internal core. If you are good to your butter, it will be good to your cookies.

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20120914_FoodNetwork_S24_DutchSpiceCookies_0137.tif

Photo by: Johnny Miller

Johnny Miller

2. We give you permission to tweak the size of the cookie — if you follow these rules.

When we work on a cookie story we try and offer a mix of sizes and shapes — but maybe you need one of our bigger cookies to be smaller (say, so a recipe that makes 2 dozen can work for your “4-dozen-required” cookie swap). Or maybe you want a bigger cookie! We’ve all been there!

You can do it — if you account for two things: 1. Know that the baking time will be different, so you will have to keep a close eye and gauge the cookies’ doneness by the visual cues (our recipes always tell you what to look for, so start there as a guide). And 2. You may have to adjust how many cookies you can fit on one tray. When in doubt, allow more room than you think you need. No one likes when six cookies bake together into one giant pile of cookie blob with square edges.

3. Your oven is different from my oven (is different from your grandma’s oven … is different from your neighbor’s oven…).

We talk about ovens a LOT in the test kitchen. We debate how cookies turn out in older ovens versus newer upgrades, the differences between gas and electric, and (most frustratingly) how our home ovens can turn out cookies that are a little different than what comes out of the test kitchen ovens. And if there’s this much oven variation among the five Food Network Magazine recipe developers, just think how different all of the ovens across the country must be! That is why we write recipes to include signals to look for that tell you the cookie is done. For instance, we might tell you to look for "a golden color" or see how much resistance the cookie yields when gently pressed around the edges. If your cookies get to that point at 10 minutes but the recipe suggests 12-15, it’s OK to take them out! This will ensure your crispy cookies get crispy, and your soft and chewy cookies stay that way.

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FN0911141_05_PINK_SHORTBREAD_02.tif

Photo by: Levi Brown

4. We don’t scoop flour — we spoon it.

How to measure flour is a controversial (but also critical!) step in baking. Too much and your treats will be heavy and dry. Too little and they will crumble and fall apart. Recipes from Food Network Kitchen are always developed by spooning the flour into the measuring cup and sweeping the top level with something flat, like the back of a butter knife. The reason we do this (instead of dipping the measuring cup into the flour and then leveling) is for consistency. Scooping the measuring cup into the flour will pack it a little differently each time, and the result will pretty much always weigh more than if you spoon and level. Please. Don’t end up with dry cookies — scoop and level.

5. If you feel like a recipe has a weird step, there is definitely a reason we put it in there.

The mission of Food Network Kitchen recipes is to get to a delicious result with as little fuss as possible. When we test cookie recipes we make sure that if we call for a parchment-lined pan that it really needs it. We asks ourselves, "does the dough need to be chilled, or can you just scoop and go?" If we can get those cookies in your mouth 1 hour faster with one less step we will write it that way.

But then there’s the flip side of that. If there’s something in a recipe that seems a little odd to you (like an unusual method or more eggs than expected) — it is there on purpose. Please don’t skip it. I once tested a colleague’s recipe and there were several different chilling steps, water in the dough and an extra-long bake time — it seemed so strange to me. But I followed the recipe, and the cookies turned out tender, buttery and crisp but not hard. It was a good reminder that not every cookie follows the same basic steps as a chocolate chip cookie recipe.

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