Holiday Cookies 101

The holiday season isn't complete without fresh-baked cookies. Whether you are looking to create easy-to-decorate family favorites, or want to bake gifts for friends and neighbors, each of these holiday cookie recipes is guaranteed to work. And for perfect cookies, every time, we've assembled the tested techniques you'll need for success.

Cookie Decorating 101

1. For a smooth, evenly glazed cookies, spoon a little glaze on the center of the cookies, then spread it out in an even layer using the back of the spoon. 

2. After glazing the cookies, sprinkle with crushed candy canes, colored sugar, or chopped nuts. 

3. To add detail to a cut-out cookie, spoon some glaze into a zipper-lock bag, push it to a bottom corner, and snip off the corner of the bag with scissors to make a piping bag. 

4. After you've piped outlines onto a cookie, go back and fill in with colored glazes. This technique also works well for gingerbread people or Christmas trees. 

5. To add textural detail, run a fluted pastry wheel lightly over the surface of the cookie before it's baked. This not only makes pretty garlands on a Christmas tree, but it can also create a quilted effect on a round cookie if done with an angled crosshatch pattern. 

6. Place glaze in a zipper-lock bag, pip small dots on the cookies then top with shiny, bead-like decorations. When set, the glaze will hold the beads in place. 

Shortening vs. Butter in Cookies

Some cookie recipes call for shortening and others call for butter. What’s the difference?

To find out the different effects that shortening and butter can have on cookie dough, we prepared several different kinds of cookies with butter and with shortening. In general, tasters preferred the flavor of the cookies made with butter. For instance, shortening made especially bland chocolate chip cookies. This flavor deficit was less noticeable in snickerdoodles (classic New England cookies). These cookies are so heavily coated with cinnamon-sugar that the differences between the batches made with butter and shortening were harder (although not impossible) to detect.

In addition to flavor differences, cookies made with shortening were crispier, and that's largely because shortening adds no water to dough. Unlike butter, which is about 80 percent fat and 20 percent water, shortening is 100 percent fat. Cookies made with butter were softer and cakier.

Our advice? You can use butter in cookie recipes that call for shortening; the cookies may be more flavorful, but they are also likely to be less crisp.

Making a Foil Sling

With their gooey fillings and high sugar content, brownies and bar cookies and often snack cakes can be nearly impossible to remove from their baking pans—no matter how well the pan is greased. After baking countless batches, we finally found a method that works every time. Lining the pan with an aluminum foil or parchment paper "sling" before baking prevents any casualties. Once cooled, the bar cookies may be lifted easily from the pan, transferred to a cutting board, and cut into tidy squares.

1. Fold two long sheets of aluminum foil so that they are as wide as the baking pan (if the dish is rectangular, the two sheets will be different sizes). Lay the sheets of foil in the pan, perpendicular to one another, with the extra foil hanging over the edges of the pan. 

2. Push the foil into the corners and up the sides of the pan. Try to iron out any wrinkles in the foil, smoothing it flush to the pan. Grease the sides and bottom before adding the batter. 

3. After the brownies, bars, or cakes have baked and cooled, use the foil sling to lift and transfer them to a cutting board before cutting into squares. The foil should easily peel away. 

Refrigerating Cookie Dough

Can I make and refrigerate cookie dough and then bake the cookies a few at a time over several days?

The amount of time you can refrigerate cookie dough before baking depends on the presence and type of leavener in the dough. To sort through holding times for doughs with different (or no) leaveners, we made four batches of sugar cookies: one with baking powder, one with baking soda, one with both, and the last (an icebox cookie) with neither. We baked six cookies from each batch every day for a week. We found that the dough with baking soda held well for two days, but was a little flatter on the third. Cookies with both baking powder and soda began to lose lift after four days. Baking powder–leavened cookie dough maintained good lift all week. The unleavened cookies held well all week.

The cookies with baking soda were the losers in the holding test because soda is a single-acting leavener, meaning that it begins to make lift-giving air bubbles as soon as it gets wet and comes in contact with an acid. Once started, this action continues until all the leavening power is spent—so there’s a time limit. Baking powder is double acting, so it releases gas twice: once when it gets wet, and again when it heats up. So even if the first batch of air bubbles is spent, the second action will allow cookies to rise in the oven.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Cookie dough made with baking soda is best used within two days. Recipes with both powder and soda can be made four days ahead. Recipes with baking powder or no leavener can be made up to seven days ahead.

Troubleshooting Cookies

Problem: No softened butter on hand. 

Solution: Take a butter-softening shortcut. 

It can take about 30 minutes for a cold stick of butter to soften at room temperature. And in order for butter to cream properly, it needs to be soft. What if you don't want to wait? Here's how to soften butter n a hurry. Cut each stick of butter in half and place both halves on a small microwave-safe plate. Place the plate in the microwave and heat for 1 minute at 10 percent power. Press on the butter with your fingers to see if it is sufficiently softened; if not, heat for an additional 40 seconds at 10 percent power. 

Problem:  Dough is too soft. 

Solution:  Refrigerate the dough. 

Cookies are rich with butter and when the air is hot or humid, butter will start to melt and soften your dough. Just place the dough in the refrigerator for 10 to 15 minutes until the dough has firmed up. If your kitchen is especially warm, remove just enough to portion onto one or two trays, while the rest stays chilled and firm in the refrigerator. 

Problem:  Some cookies are short on chips. 

Solution:  Stud the balls with extra chips. 

Sometimes chocolate chips, nuts and other goodies don't get evenly mixed into the dough. The result? The last few balls of dough are skimpy on the 'good stuff." Rather than mixing extra chips into the dough (and possibly overworking the dough), simply reserve a spoonful of chips from the total amount called for and stud the last few formed balls with the chips. 

Problem:  Out of parchment paper. 

Solution:  Use aluminum foil. 

You might be tempted to grease the baking sheet or spray it with vegetable spray—don't. The extra fat will cause the cookies to spread and bake unevenly. We prefer parchment for lining our baking sheets. Its slick surface prevents sticking, so we don't need to wrestle cookies from baking sheets. But what if you're out of parchment? There is a solution—aluminum foil. While the cookies stick a little, you'll be able to gently lift them off the foil. 

Problem:  Cookies are overbaked. 

Solution:  Immediately remove cookies to a wire rack. 

It happens. You become distracted in the flurry of a busy kitchen and your cookies are in the oven a minute or two too long. Remove the sheet immediately from the oven and then, rather than allowing the cookies to set on the baking sheet (as our recipes instruct), immediately use a thin, wide spatula to gently remove the to a wire rack where they will cool off more quickly. 

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