In my last post I finally published my basic vanilla sugar cookie recipe. It isn't the perfect no-spread recipe, because I like the texture and the flavour, and don't wish to compromise the balance I've achieved. Instead, there are other tricks I use to create cookies with smooth tops and perfect edges.
The main problem that spoils a cookie is spreading but I've also experienced bubbles, bumpy surfaces and oddly, bowing of large, or narrow cookies after they've thoroughly cooled so that they no longer lay perfectly flat.
[Update 28th July 1016: A helpful commenter (I'm sorry I can't now remember who or where, but if it's you, please let me know so I can credit you!) has pointed out that this is due to the gluten protein contracting. These protein strands are formed from working dough during mixing or rolling.]
I've spent many hours studying the science of the sugar cookie, and am now pouring out all my accumulated knowledge in the hope that it can help others who have ever stood over a baking sheet and wept...
For all my collected knowledge on How to Prevent Your Cookies From Spreading, read on...
Keep raising agents eg. baking powder to a minimum. I don't use any in my recipe.
- Avoid fats with a high quantity of water. Most UK supermarket butter has around 82%, which is what I use - if I can't get it in the supermarket, then it's not going in my recipe! But if you use a butter with a higher water content and lower fat, then it may cause more spreading.
- Similarly, avoid flavourings that are moisture based. If I want vanilla, I use seeds, or ground pods, not essence. If I want lemon, I use lots of finely grated zest, rather than juice or essence. Many fruits can now be bought in freeze dried form, and though I've never tried them as they're very expensive, you can find almost any flavour you can dream of in powder form online.
- You can try using fats with a higher melting point, such as shortening, so the cookies behave better in the oven, but I've never tried this. The payoff is reduction in buttery flavour and I don't want that! I might try it for some complicated 3D cookie construction, but not for cookies that are going to be eaten and need to be tasty.
- Use larger grained, whiter sugars. Sugar attracts moisture, which causes spread, the more so if it's very fine. Brown sugars, whilst having richer, more complex flavours, naturally have even more moisture in them than white. Having said that, my recipe uses powdered sugar (icing sugar), for two reasons: I like the finer velvety texture of the resulting cookies, and the powdered sugar seems to taste sweeter, perhaps because of the greater surface area available to the taste buds? In any case, a straight switch to powdered sugar resulted in much sweeter cookies, so I was able to reduce the overall sugar quantity quite drastically.
- Mix your dough gently. Creaming butter and sugar - particularly if you have a granulated form of sugar - whips in tiny air bubbles. This is what makes it start to look pale, puff up and be light in texture. It's also perfect to fill with steam and make cookies expand. It makes for delicious light crisp cookies - which can spread like billy-o! Just mix gently until the sugar and butter are thoroughly incorporated but not whipped up.
- Use a baking surface that's not too slippery! Use parchment or silicon mats, but not a buttered non-stick surface. Put simply, the cookies will spread because there's nothing holding them back! I notice a clear difference between my newer silicon sheets, and the older ones, that have become waxy and smooth with use.
- Freeze your cookies before baking. Maybe ten minutes or so in the freezer, at least til they're firm and cold. The quicker the fat gets to melt, the easier it is for the cookie to spread but if the cookies are very cold, then the edges get to bake and set in position more quickly before the inside gets a chance to flow!
- Keep re-rolling to a minimum. Cookies from re-rolled dough can be tougher, and larger cookies can 'bow' or bend slightly as they cool due to contraction of the gluten. I use only first-rolled dough for large cookies, and the re-rolled sheets (made from leftover scraps) I use for smaller cookies, or test cookies that aren't for customers.
Having said all that, the recipe I have settled on due to its lovely fine texture has a tendency to spread just a little. For most shapes this isn't a problem. Even geometric plaques turn out quite nicely. It's noticeable really when I want cookies that fit together perfectly (such as in a cookie jigsaw), or perfect squares or rectangles. In addition, during cooking I still get lots of little bubbles forming on the surface.
So for a perfect surface, I always take out my tray of cookies after about 8 minutes at 155c (fan oven), when the shine of the dough has gone, but they haven't started properly baking. I quickly smooth them over with a fondant smoother, which usually works beautifully. Just occasionally I smooth again after they've finished baking, during the minute or two before they're too set to smooth further.
For straight edges, I wait until the cookies are fully cool and microplane them. My microplane has a wide very flat surface and I use this as a guide to straightness. The resulting cookie dust can be used to make cookie moss, as per by Mike of Semi Sweet's tutorial, or to make cookie butter - I've never tried this but it looks pretty amazing!
Sometimes I've found that long, or very large cookies can bow up slightly as they cool. You can see this on the picture below. This is a little worrying when I want to ship the cookies as they're less able than normal to take any pressure without cracking. I've found that placing another baking sheet directly on top when they're out of the oven, allowing them to fully cool before removing it, can help this problem. If they've already cooled like this, they will soften again with a few minutes in the oven, then the second sheet can be put on top.
Updated 28th July 2016: this problem is geatly reduced by not working the dough too much, particularly not baking long or large cookies from re-rolled dough, as it is due to the contraction of gluten proteins which are formed during these processes.
And finally, if I'm going to be particularly pedantic about the cookie shape, I have a six inch coarse round metalworking file (obviously kept for food-use only!) which I used to get this particular set of cookies to fit tightly. You can see how both my Summer Garden Cookiesaw and Scottish Autumn Cookiesaw progressed using these methods (the latter has a timelapse video I'm particularly fond of).