"Who doesn't like a cookie?" said Amy Carter. "If you've never baked anything else, cookies are a good way to start. They're such a good entry into baking. They're forgiving. Even if they crumble on you, someone will want to eat them, especially if you used good ingredients."
She ought to know. Carter ran a bakery for nine years, was a pastry chef at a private club for four years, spent 19 years as a pastry instructor at the Art Institutes International Minnesota and is now in her fourth year as an executive chef for product development at Lunds & Byerlys. For the past five years, she has also managed the semifinalist portion of our contest, overseeing a skilled, all-volunteer crew of baking professionals.
If anyone in the Twin Cities can be called a cookie-baking expert, it's Carter. Here she is on ...
Preheating the oven: "Cookies have this fine line between spreading too much or spreading too little, or being too dry or not being baked enough. That's why you preheat the oven, because if the oven hasn't come up to the right temperature, the butter will start to melt before the proteins coagulate. The cookies will spread like crazy. But at the correct temperature, everything happens around the cookie at the same time. That's why I like convection ovens better for baking cookies, because with air moving inside the oven, the tops and the bottoms of the cookies bake at the same rate. That makes for a much better cookie."
Ideal baking temperature: "I really like 325 degrees for baking most cookies. We baked all of this year's [semifinalist] cookies in a 325-degree, low-wind convection oven."
Oven thermometers: "If you don't know your oven well, you should buy a thermometer that just hangs on the rack. Bake with it in one spot, and then in another, and another, to see if the oven has hot spots."
Timers: "If it says, 'Bake for 15 minutes,' never set the timer for 15 minutes. Always set it for about two-thirds of the time. You don't necessarily have to open the oven door, but you do have to look at the cookies. If you look and think, 'Oh, just another minute,' then always set the timer. Here's what I used to do with students: I'd make them stand at the oven door, and count to 60. Because if you walk away, you'll probably forget. It only takes 30 seconds to overbake."
Baking sheets: "I use half-sheet trays. The rimmed sheet has a little bit of a lip, which means that the heat has to come up around the rims, and it evens out the baking process. As long as you're using parchment paper, I don't see the value in nonstick coatings. If you're moving fast, and you're using a rimless baking sheet and have everything on parchment, you risk the cookies sliding off."
Parchment paper: "I don't like baking directly on aluminum, and half-sheet trays are made of aluminum, which is why I use parchment paper. It keeps the sheet pan clean, and it guarantees that the cookies aren't touching the pan's surface. You can reuse parchment paper, too. With silicon mats, you sometimes don't get cookies to spread in the same way. Compared with silicon, parchment paper has a tiny, tiny bit of grip to it. And a lot of silicon mats have an off odor to me."
Room-temperature butter: "It should have a very slight give to it. It shouldn't be so soft that when you press into it, it squishes. And it shouldn't be firm. When you're baking cookies, you really can't microwave butter. It doesn't work, because melted butter is not the same as softened butter, and when you microwave butter, you could be creating little pockets of melted butter in the butter. If we're talking Christmas baking, and it's winter in Minnesota, you can leave the butter out the night before you bake. Just remember that, when you touch it, it's soft. It's something that you'd want to butter toast with."
Creaming sugar and butter: "It all depends on the cookie, but it's one of the keys to determining how much a cookie will spread. You beat the butter with the sugar because the sugar acts as sandpaper on the butter. It creams in a little bit of air, it disperses the sugar properly and it starts the process of dissolving the sugar. You don't want to liquefy it, but you want a smooth mixture that has a little bit of air in it, so the cookie spreads better. It's the same with shortening, although shortening is more elastic than butter — it doesn't have the same water content — so it takes in more air. The more you mix in the beginning, the more spread you will have. The more you mix in the end, with the flour, the chewier the cookie will be, because that develops the gluten. It's really a combination of the two."
Eggs: "You should use room-temperature eggs, because the proteins work better when they're not cold. If the eggs are cold, they'll go into that warm butter and the fat will start to firm up. When I know that I'm going to bake cookies, I'll take out the butter and the number of eggs that I'll be using, and I'll let them come to room temperature on the counter. Never crack eggs into a bowl with other ingredients. There might be pieces of shell that fall in, and that shell might contain bacteria or some other contaminant. Instead, I'll crack them into a separate bowl, and then I'll wash my hands, because I know that at some point I'm probably going to be touching the dough."
Flour: "I like King Arthur. It's consistent quality, and it has a good flavor. You think that it's not going to have flavor, but it does. Flour isn't just flour. There's a difference in quality among brands. I like Bob's Red Mill flour, too."
Vanilla extract: "Don't buy artificial vanilla extract. It's not worth it. Vanilla is expensive right now, but cookies don't use much. The fake stuff has no redeeming qualities. It's just alcohol with fake color and fake flavor. I'm not a fan."
Salt: "I'm a firm believer in using superfine sea salt for baking. Not table salt or kosher salt. If you want to subtly change a cookie, add a flavored salt: a lemon salt or a vanilla salt. You can easily make them, and they add a little flavor twist."
Chocolate: "If I'm baking with my grandsons, I'll use chocolate chips, because they're designed to hold their shape and not be super-soft and messy at room temperature. Otherwise, I like to use chunks, or chop up bars. If chocolate is the star, buy something good. It's worth it. I like Callebaut, and I like Valrhona, if I can find it. If you're going to melt chocolate, don't overheat it. It doesn't take much to melt chocolate, so don't abuse it. Good white chocolate is expensive and can be hard to find, but it's important to buy a good quality, because they often put so much garbage into it."
Refrigerating dough: "Not all cookie doughs need to be chilled. Most cookies have a little downtime before they're baked, to relax the gluten. Just don't bake chilled dough unless the recipe calls for it. You can refrigerate just about any dough, but bring the dough back to room temperature before baking."
Key baking equipment: "If you really want a proper texture for cookies, you need a mixer. It doesn't have to be a stand mixer, a hand mixer will do, as long as you don't try to do too large a batch. Baking is a science; it's not like cooking. Which is why you'll need a good set of measuring cups, measuring spoons and a good liquid measuring cup, because you shouldn't measure milk the way you measure flour. You'll need a cooling rack, so you're not setting cookies directly on the counter. For drop cookies, an ice cream scoop with a release handle makes for consistent cookies that bake evenly."
Storage: "All-butter cookies get stale pretty fast because they have a higher moisture content, which means they can quickly dry out. Make sure you have airtight containers and that you use different containers for different types of cookies. If you're going to be storing cookies for more than a few days, freeze them. Cookies freeze really well. Freeze the dough. Just defrost the dough and bake them. Bar cookies freeze really well, already baked. Just cut them into the shape you want, and freeze them."
Advice for novice bakers: "Start by choosing a basic, reliable recipe, otherwise you're going to be discouraged right away. Don't be overly ambitious. Make the Toll House chocolate chip cookies, the recipe on the package. It's a good, basic recipe."