As home cooks, we rely on our instincts, our knowledge, and our curiosities -- but we also have to rely on our tools. Which is why we're asking the experts about the essential tools we need to make our favorite foods attainable in our own kitchens.
Today: Dorie Greenspan -- fount of cookie knowledge and author of many cookbooks including the recent Baking Chez Moi -- is sharing the tips and tools you need to bake cookies of all sorts this holiday season.
There are lots of reasons to dub December "the merriest month," but for me and so many other home bakers, the most delicious reason is cookie-making and all the gifting, stocking-stuffing, and swapping that goes with it. And that's not to mention all of the gear -- the tools that help us turn out rounds, rings, and roly-poly gingerbread folk. Buy the best tools you can and, with few exceptions, you'll never have to buy them again. I speak from experience, since I've still got my grandmother's rolling pin and the cooling racks I bought when I got married.
But before you pull out the gear, here are a few general cookie-baking tips to get you through this sweet season:
Now, head for the oven with these basic tools -- they're what you'll need to get started and to keep you baking cookies through the hols and the years to come.
No kitchen, especially a cookie kitchen, should be without a sturdy spatula. Even if you make your dough in a heavy-duty mixer, you need a spatula to scrape down the bowl, to get the dough out of the bowl, and, if you're making delicate doughs, to fold in ingredients, to smooth the tops of brownies and bar cookies, and to lick. A silicone spatula is the most practical, and one that's molded in a single piece and is flexible but not floppy is the best. When you find a spatula you like, buy a couple of them -- a kitchen can never have too many.
2. Oven thermometer
Of course you need an oven thermometer no matter what kind of baking you're doing, but you really need it when you're baking cookies. Because most cookies bake for only a short time, it's important that the oven be at the prescribed temperature when you slide the baking sheets in. And to make certain that the oven will stay at temperature for a while, I like to extend the preheat period for 10 to 20 minutes after the indicator light says you're good to go. Doing this ensures that the oven is truly at temperature and that it won't dip too dramatically the instant you open the oven door.
More: Even if you can't foster world peace, you can still make Pierre Hermé & Dorie Greenspan's World Peace Cookies.
3. Baking sheets
Although I was taught that cookies should be baked on a "cookie" sheet -- a pan with at least one rimless side -- I prefer to use rimmed baking sheets. Actually, they're what you'll find in most bakeries and pâtisseries. Look for sturdy pans. Since you'll also use them for roasting vegetables and maybe even birds, you want pans that won't buckle under high heat or go wonky when the weight is heavy. Shiny pans are better than dark ones and plain are better than nonstick -- you want to bake the cookies to the right shade of golden brown and having lighter-hued pans helps the cookies not to color too deeply before they're baked through. Finally, stay away from insulated pans. They're great as liners for long-baking pound cakes, but not good for cookies that are in the oven for a short time. True, you won't burn your cookies with an insulated pan, but you won't get good color either. And everything that makes baking sheets good goes for square and rectangular brownie and bar-cookie pans, too.
4. Parchment paper and silicone baking mats
Lining a baking sheet with either parchment or a silicone baking mat means that clean-up will be a breeze. It also means that you won't have the messy job of buttering pans. Silicone mats are expensive, but unless you decide to go into the cookie biz, you'll have them forever. Even if you decide on silicone, you should have parchment in the house -- it's the best for sandwiching dough to be rolled out.
5. Rolling pin.
Save the big heavy rolling pin for bread dough and anything that fights back, and roll cookie dough with an elegant French pin, a slender pin sans handles. (My everyday pin is this one.) Cookie dough -- and pie and tart dough, too -- should be rolled with a light touch and the French pin will give you that. It will also give you control. Because the pin and the pressure you put on it are guided by your hands -- and you can feel what you're doing -- driving a French pin is like steering a well-tuned sports car. (Extend the analogy, and the bruiser pin becomes a tractor-trailer, which is just what you want for the long haul that is bread.) My preference is to roll dough as soon as it's mixed, when it's at its most malleable. Put the dough between sheets of parchment paper, roll to the thickness you want (no need to flour the dough), slide the sandwiched dough onto a baking sheet, and then chill or freeze the dough until you're ready to cut and bake it.
6. Cookie cutters
Perhaps you're steelier willed than I am, but I've been seduced by so many cookie cutters in my life that you'd think I'd know better. I fall for their cute shapes and don't bother to give them the all-important squeeze test, the one that would tell me ahead of time that they're flimsy and will lose their shape three star-bearing angels in. Cookie cutters need to be strong and their edges need to be sharp enough to give you a clean cut. In addition to everything seasonal, if you're a serial cookie-maker, you should have a box of graduated round cutters and perhaps a box of scalloped-edged ones too. And, while you're shopping, think about getting a fluted ravioli cutter -- the rick-rack edge makes adorable cookies and crackers. I like these round and fluted cutters from Matfer.
7. Cookie scoops
Drop cookies are the easiest to make and can be portioned out with a spoon. But drop them with a cookie scoop and you'll get cookies that are all the same size -- they'll bake more evenly and there'll be no fighting over who gets the bigger one. And scooped cookies look better. I keep a stash of scoops at the ready in small, medium, and large sizes and use them for lots of different kinds of cookies, from traditional chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies, to coconut macaroons and thumbprints. I even use the scoops to fill muffin tins and shape cream puffs. My favorite scoops are made by OXO.
8. Cooling racks
For all the pleasure there is in nabbing a warm cookie, the fact is that most cookies don't come into their own until they reach room temperature. And in order for them to reach room temperature without developing the dreaded soggy-bottom, they should be cooled on racks that raise them above the counter and allow air to circulate all around them. Buy good racks -- and you should buy at least a couple -- and you'll never have to replace them. And if you're a serious cookie-baker, go big! It's great to have a rack that will hold a full batch or two of your faves.
9. Cookie plate
Okay, you don't really need a beautiful plate or a cake stand to serve your cookies, but it's awfully nice to have something pretty to offer your little beauties on. While chippers and saucer-size cookies are great in baskets, bowls, or cookie jars, if you've fussed over cut-out cookies, treat them -- and yourself -- to something lovely. I'm particularly fond of serving cookies on a stand -- it gives them the lift they deserve and puts them, quite literally, on equal footing with show-offy cakes.
What are your favorite tricks for making holiday cookies? Share with us in the comments below!