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Why Cookies Spread (& How to Stop It!), With Tests & Videos

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Are you an angel who always spaces your cookies out just as the recipe instructs?

In an effort to make as many cookies as possible in as few batches as possible, I confess that I almost never give my cut-outs or balls the room they need. (What? You think baking sheet real estate comes cheap?)

The result is almost always conjoined cookies, semi-circular once uncoupled.

I spy some kissing cookies.
I spy some kissing cookies. Photo by James Ransom

But why do cookies spread, and how much power does a baker have, working within the confines of one recipe, to reduce that spreading? I did a few tests to figure things out—but first, the why of the matter:

My (highly scientific) cookie-spreading tests.
My (highly scientific) cookie-spreading tests.

What's the deal?

There are several reasons why cookies lose their s#!t flop out, according to David Lebovitz, Deb Perelman, Dorie Greenspan, and others:

  1. Greased cookie sheets promote spreading. Giving your cookies something with friction to cling onto, so to speak—like an ungreased baking sheet or one lined with parchment or Silpat—can slow the spreading.
  2. Butter that's too cold. When a recipe calls for room temperature butter, you should be able to make a small indentation easily with your finger without the area sinking under its weight. If the butter is too cold, you'll have to do more mixing to get it to properly incorporate, which can lead to...
  3. Dough that's too airy. As Dorie Greenspan explains in Dorie's Cookies, it's important not to take the first step of many cookie recipes—beating together the butter and the sugar—too far. The goal, usually, is to incorporate the two ingredients without reaching the "light and fluffy" place. When you mix the butter and sugar together at high speed or for too long, you'll aerate the dough excessively, causing the cookies to rise—and then fall—in the oven.
  4. Dough that's too warm. Chilling the dough solidifies the fat in the dough, meaning that it will melt more slowly under the heat of the oven and result in taller, thicker cookies. You'll see that, even when a recipe doesn't explicitly require it, many bakers recommend chilling cookie dough to slow spreading and to make the dough easier to work it.
  5. A wacky ratio of sugar, butter, and fat. Too much sugar, too much butter, or too little flour can all contribute to cookies that are on the run. (In the case of cookies that spread no matter how careful you are preparing the dough and/or the baking sheets, I'd probably turn to another recipe.)

What Can I Do About It?

I decided to futz with drbabs' Magical Marvelous Memorable Cookies to see if a few simple factors—chill time and oven temperature—could really make a difference. I chose the recipe, one, because these cookies are known to spread (drbabs says so) and, two, because every time we've made them at the Food52 offices, they've turned out a little different. Just take a look at how much puffier the cookies on the right (which were made more recently) are than those in the original batch:

The old photo (left) versus the newer photo (right). Photos by James Ransom, Alpha Smoot

How would changing some simple variables affect how (and how much) the cookies spread (keeping in mind, of course, that each ball would sprawl slightly differently depending on the concentration and distribution of M&Ms, granola, pretzels)? I split one batch of cookies in four and baked each a little differently:

  1. Baked at 375° F immediately after the dough was mixed, against the recipe's instructions.
  2. Frozen for 20 minutes, then baked at 375° F, as the recipe recommends as an option.
  3. Refrigerated for 1 hour, then baked at 375° F, as the recipe recommends as an option.
  4. Refrigerated for 1 hour, then baked at 300° F, per a tip on King Arthur Flour's website that suggests stymieing spreading by baking the cookies at a lower temperature for a longer period of time. At a lower temperature, the cookies are able to set before the fat melts, their theory goes.

Using the June Oven, a super high-tech smart oven that has a camera inside of it, peering down on the food (so it can detect when you've put in broccoli versus salmon versus brownies), I was able to watch the cookies as they spread—and to automatically record each batch in a video saved to my phone (and then geek out over this bird's eye view I'd never seen before!).

From puffiest (top left) to flattest (bottom right).
From puffiest (top left) to flattest (bottom right).

Here's what I saw (and found, and tasted):

Cookies Baked Right Away

The cookies I baked immediately, without chilling at all, spread the most—though their movement was not detrimental to taste or appearance.

In fact, these were the cookies that most resembled the first batch we made at the Food52 offices (the photo on the left of the diptych above). That made me wonder: Perhaps I had creamed the butter and sugar less vigorously than had the original test kitchen baker; or maybe I was heavy-handed when I was measuring the flour? Still, these cookies were differently the thinnest and flattest of the bunch.

Even a 20-minute stint in the freezer makes for a cookie with less sprawl.
Even a 20-minute stint in the freezer makes for a cookie with less sprawl.

Cookies Baked After Chilling

The cookies that baked after 20 minutes in the freezer were the second flattest, noticeably thinner than those that spent an hour in the fridge. I had expected that the briefly-frozen dough balls would have spread less than the refrigerated ones—but the dough must have not gotten quite as cold: Had I frozen the dough for an hour, rather than just 20 minutes, might that have changed? Regardless, both chilled batches spread less dramatically in the oven: Even 20 minutes has an impact.

Cookies baked after 20 minutes in the freezer (they hold their ball shape for a while, then spread rapidly):

Cookies baked after 1 hour in the fridge (they spread more consistently throughout the duration of the cook time):

Cookies Baked at a Lower Temperature After Chilling

The cookies that looked the most different from the rest were those baked according to King Arthur Flour's tip (at a 300° F, as opposed to 375° F) and for much longer (25 minutes as opposed to 14).

They were blonde all over, with no thin, crispy circumferences. The lower the temperature, J. Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats explains, "the more evenly the cookie bakes, with less of a contrast between the edges and the center."

Chilled dough + a cooler oven = a paler, puffier cookie.
Chilled dough + a cooler oven = a paler, puffier cookie.

Many cookie experts warn against a too-low oven temperature (David Lebovitz writes that it "can prolong the time it takes for cookies to bake, giving them too much of a head-start in the race against spreading"). But I found that the batch cooked at a lower temp held their shape best.

But, of course, it's the temperature of the dough that has an impact as well: Had the dough itself not been cold from the fridge when it went into the lower-temperature oven, the results surely would've been different.

And in the end, all the cookies were crunchy and crispy. While those that I baked at 300° F had a little more heft and chew in the middle, they were still brittle—they snapped in half with a hard crack, just like the batches baked at 375° F. Ultimately, the nature of the cookie did not change, no matter the chill time or oven temperature.

For kicks, I also tested parchment paper versus Silpat, putting both sheets in the same oven for the exact same period of time, rotating halfway through. The cookies on the Silpat-lined sheet did spread slightly more, but their bottoms were lighter:

The parchment paper cookies held their shapes better (but only slightly).
The parchment paper cookies held their shapes better (but only slightly).
The cookies baked on parchment (left) were darker than those baked on Silpat (right): It's most evident in the M&M bottoms.
The cookies baked on parchment (left) were darker than those baked on Silpat (right): It's most evident in the M&M bottoms.

If, after all of this, you still find yourself with dough that spreads too much, Food52er butter-sugar-flowers has a wonderful suggestion: Drop the balls into a muffin tin (or a mini muffin tin) before baking. Uniform size, uniform thickness, and no risk of pancaked cookies. Or make a skillet cookie, under-bake it, and attack it with spoons.

Try a few batches yourself!

Magical, Marvelous, Memorable Cookies

Magical, Marvelous, Memorable Cookies

drbabs drbabs
Go To Recipe
Makes 24-30 cookies
  • 1 1/2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 3/4 sticks (7 ounces) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup granola (or other cereal)
  • 1/2 cup crushed salted pretzel pieces (or other salty snack food)
  • 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips, chopped chocolate candies, or a small bar of good dark chocolate, chopped into chunks
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans or other nuts, optional
  • (If you don't use nuts, you may want to add more cereal, snacks or chocolate to compensate.)
  • You may want to add a little cinnamon, allspice, cardamom, or whatever you fancy. We didn't because we wanted the taste of the granola to come through.
Go to Recipe
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Or seek out a cookie you know will be dense, thick, and chewy:

Oatmeal Cookies with White Chocolate and Golden Raisins

Oatmeal Cookies with White Chocolate and Golden Raisins by sarah kieffer | the vanilla...

Jacques Torres' Chocolate Chip Cookies

Jacques Torres' Chocolate Chip Cookies by Posie (Harwood) Brien

Or one destined to be very thin and crispy:

Ultra Thin Chocolate Chunk Cookies

Ultra Thin Chocolate Chunk Cookies by Alice Medrich

Crispy Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

Crispy Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies by Merrill Stubbs

Do you prefer cookies that are tall and domed or flat and squashed? And what steps do you take to get your cookies to cooperate? Tell us in the comments!

Tags: Bake, Tips & Techniques