Cookies Crumbling? Read On.

By Nancy Baggett
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, December 11, 2006

Having written several cookie cookbooks, I get a lot of questions about baking cookies. The same questions come up over and over, but occasionally an unusual one pops up, including the most surprising I've heard recently: "How far should I drop drop cookies?" (If you are among those rare individuals who haven't seen cookies being dropped: A spoonful or scoop of dough is held about four inches above a baking sheet, then pushed off onto the pan.)

Here are the most commonly asked questions and their answers that come my way:

My cookies came out too flat, and some ran together. What went wrong?

It's usually about the butter. If it is very soft when you begin mixing it, and then the dough stands in an overheated kitchen, the butter might melt -- and the cookies run -- as soon as the pan hits the oven. Especially when baking large quantities, refrigerate the dough and take out and shape portions of it as needed. Be sure to let the baking sheets cool between batches. Pay attention to how far apart the recipe says to space the cookies. And resist the urge to substitute tub-style diet spreads for butter; they frequently cause the cookies to flatten too much.

My cookies often burn. What can I do?

Your oven might be running hotter than you think. If you can't check with an oven thermometer, just lower the setting until your results improve. If the cookies burn unevenly, the oven probably has hot spots; repositioning and turning the pans several times during baking will help. Use heavy, light-colored baking sheets, or, in a pinch, two thin pans stacked together. Air-cushioned pans don't conduct heat well, so I don't normally recommend them, but they might be the solution if your oven runs super-hot or the cookies burn only on the bottom.

My cookies stuck to the pans, then broke when I tried to remove them. How can I avoid that?

Some cookies -- meringues and others loaded with egg whites, or those with lots of chocolate or candy bits -- can stick tenaciously. To head off trouble, recipes for sticky doughs often call for lining the pan with parchment paper, a silicone mat or foil instead of greasing it. Start by prepping the pan as directed.

Use a wide, thin-bladed spatula at the right moment: when the rounds have cooled and firmed up some but are not completely cold and brittle. If you let a pan get too cool, return it to the oven for just a couple of minutes to soften the cookies before trying to remove them.

I've read that the butter temperature is a key to success in cookie baking. But how do I know when the temperature is right?

Many recipes call for slightly softened or room-temperature butter. That's because cold, hard butter is difficult to combine with other ingredients, while overly soft butter can become too runny to hold its shape or to aerate properly (leading to the spreading-and-running-together problem). I suggest a press test: Press down firmly on the butter with a fingertip; you should make an indentation that stays in the surface. If the butter is too hard to press, let it warm up a little longer. If it's squishy-soft, return to the refrigerator for a bit.

Some cookies, especially shortbreads, call for cold, firm butter, usually because it is worked or cut, not beaten, into the other ingredients. That butter should not give when you press the surface.

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