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6 tips for baking a better batch of cookies, every time

(Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post/Food styling by Gina Nistico for The Washington Post)
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Every year, I bake dozens and dozens of cookies — mostly for work, but also for my friends and family. Whether it’s through personal experience or things I pick up from professional bakers, I never fail to learn something new or find a better way of cooking.

With my third go at our annual holiday cookie issue, publishing this week, I once again had my share of aha moments, even beyond the tips my colleague G. Daniela Galarza and I offered last year.

Make the recipe pictured above: Marbled Shortbread

Here are some of my biggest revelations. I’m sharing them with you in the hope that they help your baking go smoother and smarter.

Buy a few extra sheet pans. Many cookie recipes call for multiple batches and may require additional space for chilling and decorating. I ran into this several times, wishing I had a few more sheet pans to speed up the process without a constant carousel of filling and clearing pans. I would have said two is the very minimum of what you’d want. After testing, however, my new ideal number is four. Of course, you’ll find many more uses for them year-round, too. The Voraciously team’s favorite option is the Nordic Ware Baker’s Half Sheet, which is durable, affordable and sold in more economical two-packs.

12 colorful holiday cookie recipes to illuminate the season

Chill out. This certainly applies to your mentality, but it’s extremely helpful for your dough, too. Chilled dough will hold its shape better when baked, whether it’s scooped rounds for drop cookies or cutouts. Dough destined for cookies created with delicately shaped cutters especially benefits from a stint in the freezer, before you punch the cookies out — and even after. If you’re hoping to shape a log of dough for slice-and-bakes and finding it too soft to handle, pop it into the fridge for 15 or 20 minutes. That will make it easier for a round or square shape. To avoid the dreaded flat bottom on rounds, you can do a few iterations of pulling the dough in and out of the refrigerator and rolling, so that you even out the shape as the dough firms up.

How to clean and care for your sheet pans — and worry less about how they look

Verify your oven temperature. It took a few frustrating batches of cookies that weren’t turning out quite right this year — too pale, too much spreading — for me to buy a new oven thermometer and see what was going on. The answer? My oven was heating to the set temperature at a much slower rate than I realized. After figuring it out, I started waiting a full 30 minutes (at least) for the oven to reach the temp, and my results improved. Depending on what you find, you’ll want to tweak your temp or cook time, calibrate the oven or call in a pro for a repair.

How to check your oven’s temperature, and what to do if it runs hot or cold

Bake a test cookie. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve filled a whole pan with cookies only to realize after baking that I should have done something differently — spaced them out more or less, chilled the dough more, adjusted the bake time. (I often find myself yelling this at my TV while watching “The Great British Baking Show.”) Especially if you’re working with an unfamiliar recipe, do yourself a favor and sacrifice one or two cookies as guinea pigs to see how they bake. The time commitment isn’t long, as cookies bake pretty quickly, and you may end up saving yourself grief in the long run. If you have a smaller pan, such as a quarter sheet or jellyroll pan, use it for the test batch, while you prep the rest of the dough on your half sheet pans.

Put those takeout containers to good use. I continue to lean on takeout when it comes to supporting my local restaurants, so you better believe I’ve built up an impressive stash of containers over the course of the pandemic. And thank goodness, because they were invaluable for all my cookie testing. Use them to hold pre-measured ingredients if you’re doing advance prep. They’re also great for holding scooped portions of dough in the refrigerator or freezer. Pack them up with finished cookies to share with loved ones (no need to get the containers back!) or to freeze extras for future cravings. They’re sturdy, reusable and easily cleaned.

All my takeout has delivered a mountain of trash. So I asked experts how to minimize it.

It’s okay to reshape. Want to know how pros sometimes get perfectly shaped cookies? They reshape them partway through baking. It takes a little bit of intuition and a gentle hand, because if you do it at the wrong time or too forcefully, you may end up doing more harm than good. About halfway through baking is usually a good benchmark, so the cookies are at the sweet spot between set and malleable. Setting a round cookie cutter over a drop cookie and gently sliding it around in a circle can even out the round, and the dull side of a butter knife can be used to gently nudge a square cookie back into shape. If you’re not sure about timing and method and want to experiment, here’s where to try that test cookie I mentioned above.

More from Voraciously:

2021 cookie package: 12 colorful holiday cookie recipes to illuminate the season

12 holiday cookie recipes to end the year on a sweeter note

Five tips to make you a better baker

Don’t underestimate your hand mixer. Here’s how to put it to work for you.

Want to learn how to bake? These sweet recipes and guides will help you do it.