The holidays are when many of us think about baking something special to share with our families and friends, and cookies are one of the easiest things to make. As with all baking, make sure you read the entire recipe and gather all your ingredients and equipment before you start so you don't have to stop and run to the store.
What's the most important step in baking fabulous cookies? Follow the recipe closely the first time -- you can make changes next time. Use high-quality ingredients such as pure vanilla extract, unsalted butter and real chocolate. Measure accurately, using measuring cups for dry ingredients and clear measuring cups for liquids.
Does it matter what kind of flour you use? Bleached all-purpose flour is the best for cookies unless the recipe specifies another type. Some recipes contain cake flour because its lower protein content makes very tender cookies. Whole-wheat flour adds a nutty flavor but tends to make cookies dry.
How can I tell if my baking powder from last year is still good? To test baking powder, dissolve 1 teaspoon in 1/3 cup warm water. It should become fizzy. If there is no reaction, replace it.
How can I keep my cookies from spreading too much? If your butter is too soft, cookies spread before the heat sets them. Soften butter by removing it from the refrigerator no more than 45 minutes before you use it. If you are using margarine, read labels carefully and be sure it contains 70 to 80 percent fat, similar to butter. Chilling your dough can reduce spreading.
Can I bake with light spreads to reduce calories? Butter, margarine or shortening work best for cookies. Reduced-fat spreads contain more water, which makes the dough spread too much and the cookies become flat, tough and tend to stick to the cookie sheet.
How can I prevent my cookies from being dry and hard? Measure flour properly and be careful not to bake the cookies too long. Most recipes are developed by lightly spooning flour into the measuring cup and leveling off with a spatula. Because flour tends to pack down, if you scoop it up you may get too much. Cookie dough scraps should only be rerolled once or your cookies will be tough.
How can I keep my cookies from getting too dark? Bake one cookie sheet at a time or rotate sheets halfway through baking. Use an oven thermometer to test the accuracy of your oven. Try to have about 2 inches between the cookie sheet and the sides of the oven. Cool your cookie sheets between batches.
What are the best cookie sheets to use? Use shiny aluminum cookie sheets with one or two raised ends. Insulated baking sheets prevent cookies from browning too much on the bottom, but it's hard to judge doneness because the edges don't brown as well, either. Cookies bake faster on dark cookie sheets, so watch carefully.
Does it matter if I grease my cookie sheet or not? Follow the recipe directions as to greasing or not greasing cookie sheets. Most cookies are high in fat and won't stick. If you grease the cookie sheet when it's not needed, your cookies may spread too much. Shortening is the best fat to use for greasing.
How can I tell when my cookies are done? Cookies should have lightly browned edges and appear set in the middle. Most recipes tell you how the cookies should look and a range for baking time. Always check cookies one minute before the baking time is up. One minute too long can make a big difference.
Do I have to chill my cookie dough if I'm in a hurry? Some cookie dough is too soft to handle if isn't chilled. Bake a couple of test cookies to determine if the dough is firm enough to use. Rolled cookie dough is much easier to handle when chilled. Keep the remaining dough chilled until needed.
What can I do to keep my cookie dough from sticking to my work surface? Dust your work surface and rolling pin lightly with flour. Chilled cookie dough made with butter is less likely to stick. Margarine makes dough that is much softer, even when chilled, and requires a light touch. Use a long metal spatula to place the cookies on the cookie sheet.
How should I store my cookies after baking? How far ahead can I bake my holiday cookies? Crisp cookies should be stored loosely and covered to retain their crispness. Soft cookies should be stored tightly covered so that they don't dry out. Don't mix strong flavored cookies in the same container or the flavors will transfer. For longer storage, freeze cookies. Wrap the cookies in airtight containers and freeze up to three months. Cookies thaw quickly at room temperature.
Pat Sinclair of Minneapolis is the author of "Baking Basics and Beyond" (Surrey Books, 2006), which won the Cordon d'Or-Gold Ribbon Award for baking from the Culinary Arts Academy. Reach her at www.PatCooksandBakes.blogspot.com.
Poll: Which 2013 Taste Holiday Cookie Contest entry do you most want to try?