9 Pastry-Chef Hacks for Better Holiday Cookies

When you make a ton of cookies for a living, you pick up some clever tricks along the way.

By: Colleen Travers

A Better Batch of Cookies

Baking cookies around the holidays is a time-honored tradition, and we'd never suggest that you should give up your personal cookie-baking routine. But, if you're worried about burnt gingerbread or spreading cut-outs, we know some people who can help you make a few small (but worth it!) tweaks. Here, some smart pastry chefs share clever ways to decorate along with time-saving baking tips to turn your cookie mistakes into masterpieces.

An Ice Cream Scoop Is the Secret to Consistent Cookies

We’ve all been there: You slowly start portioning out cookies only to run out of time, patience, and room on your cookie sheet. But this step is key — different-sized cookies will bake a different rates. "If you're using a wet-texture dough [such as chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin cookies] use an ice cream scoop to make sure all of the cookies are the same size," says Lauren Amedure, executive pastry chef at Beauty and Essex in New York City. You’ll reduce the chance of overcrowding your sheet and ensure that each cookie gets perfectly baked. And just think how pretty your uniform lineup will look on a holiday platter!

Flour the Board and Flour the Dough — But Also Flour the Cutters

Sugar cookies in festive shapes like snowflakes, candy canes and more are a hallmark of the season — making sure they keep their shape as you cut them out is key to their success. "If you are using a cookie cutter, always make sure to flour the cutters," Amedure says. "This will make the cutters come off of the dough easily without sticking and creating shape mishaps."

Or Skip Cutting and Try Piping Cookies Into Shapes

If cookie cutters aren't your thing, you can still make festive shapes (like these freeform trees) with a wet, textured dough. Pipe the dough through a piping bag to make fun, seasonal shapes like stars, snowmen, and bells, Amedure says. With this technique, you can feel free to get creative and experiment — even if your shapes are mismatched, they'll look cozy and rustic together.

A Stencil Is a Genius (And Fast) Way to Decorate Cookies

Not into laboring over sugar cookies with twelve different colors of royal icing? Amedure suggests using a stencil and some powdered sugar for another fun effect that you can accomplish in mere seconds. "Place the stencil on top of the [baked] sugar cookie and dust with powdered sugar using a small sieve," she says. Just be sure to carefully lift the stencil off the cookie so you don’t smudge your design.

Soften Brown Sugar, Stat

Don’t toss that rock-hard brown sugar — there's no need for a last-minute grocery store run. Instead, Christina Ferrari, owner and chef of the Shoreline Lake Boathouse & American Bistro in Mountain View, CA says to place the brown sugar in a bowl with a moist paper towel on top. Microwave for 15 to 20 seconds and you’ll bring it back to life.

When It’s Time to Bake, Wait

And then wait a little more. Tatiana Vernot, chef at OTL in Miami, FL likes her cookie dough should be "aged" (read: stick it in the the refrigerator) for at least 36 hours. "This will make the dough firmer and will offer better consistency as well as a deeper and more caramel flavor," Vernot says.

One Quick Move Keeps Frosting Fresh

"When making frosting for sugar cookies, keep it in a glass bowl with a damp towel over it," says Adrian Mendoza, executive pastry chef at Herb & Wood in San Diego, CA. "This will keep the frosting from drying out." This little move is perfect for when you've started on the green leaves of your cookie Christmas trees, but haven't yet picked up the red and yellow frosting for ornaments.

Freeze Sugar Cookies for a Better Shape

"When making any sort of cut-out cookies, freeze them and bake frozen to help keep their shape," says Alisha Falkenstein, pastry chef at Il Solito in Portland, OR. Just remember to make this batch first, so you have enough time (about a day) to freeze before it’s time to put them in the oven.

When All Else Fails, Cheat

Here’s a hack when you’re out of time or just forgot about that holiday school bake sale — use store-bought. To mimic the taste of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies Daniel Kotz, chef de cuisine at Beauty & Essex in Los Angeles shares a tip his father taught him: "Take store-bought cookies and sprinkle them with a few drops of water," he says. "Wrap them in aluminum foil and bake for three to five minutes at 325 degrees F. Feels like almost fresh baked." Genius.

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