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
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.
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.