Colorful cookies are a holiday tradition.
From airy meringues to shaped cookies to ones with cinnamon spiciness, cookies make good gifts and are at the heart of many holiday-time exchanges among bakers.
Here are some tips for getting the best when you make cookies — whether as a fun project with the kids or to leave out for Santa:
Butter versus shortening: Always use good-quality butter with a high fat content to minimize spreading of cookies. Lower-quality butter may contain more water. In the United States, all butter is graded according to quality, with the finest being “AA.” Alternatively, use shortening, which has a higher melting point than butter and will produce a more crumbly cookie with better color.
Brown sugar — light versus dark: Color is the only difference. In the old days, dark brown sugar had more molasses, but that's no longer true. Today, the color difference generally comes from additives. A cup of firmly packed brown sugar can be substituted for a cup of granulated. Some stores also sell pourable and liquid brown sugars; do not use these for baking.
Flour — all-purpose versus pastry: All-purpose flour has a higher protein content than pastry flour and will produce a more shapely, easier-to-handle dough. Pastry flour will create softer, gooier cookies. Professional bakers debate the merits of each, so it's really your choice.
Freeze and eat: When making drop cookies, fill a cookie sheet with
dough balls and place it in the freezer. After 2 hours, transfer the balls to a plastic freezer bag and tuck them away for a snowy day.
Frozen cookie dough can be placed directly into the oven. You may need to adjust cooking time by several minutes, so watch the cookies carefully during baking.
Chilled cookie dough: Anything that needs a cookie cutter probably will need to be chilled before baking. Instead of placing the whole ball of dough in the refrigerator, put it in a zip-close plastic bag and roll out with a rolling pin. Stick the disc in the fridge. It will chill faster and be easier to use.
Sticky dough: When dealing with particularly sticky dough, flip over the baking sheet and roll out the dough directly on the back of it. Cut your shapes, then remove the excess dough from around them. This will preserve the shape of the cookies.
They can be baked right on the back of the cookie sheet.