Anita 101: Cookie Spread

Date December 20, 2012

Spread. The arch nemesis of all cookie bakers since time immemorial.

This chocolate-based cookie has minimal spread. Happy face.

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This vanilla-based cookie has aggravating spread. Grumpy face. Boo. Hiss.

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When a snow flake morphs into a daisy, that’s a spread problem.

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While the process of mixing, rolling, cutting, baking, and decorating seems simple enough,  every cookie baker has their unique style for coming up with the best cookie ever. It doesn’t matter if you’re a gray-haired grandma who makes a sweet little platter of cookies for your grandkids at the holidays or if you run a cookie storefront with hundreds of cookies flying out of your cyclone series gas convection double deck oven every day. We all make cookies our way. We find what works for us, that perfect combination from how we measure our flour to how thick we roll our cookies to how long and at what temperature we bake them.

I’ve followed a lot of cookiephile conversations on the topic of cookie spread and it becomes smack your head obvious from the get go that there are a variety of opinions, strong opinions on exactly what prevents those cookies from doing the limbo across the baking sheet.
“I always chill my cookies for 17.5 minutes before baking.”
“I never chill my cookies before baking.”
“Since rolling my cookies a little thinner my cookies never spread.”
“I’ve found rolling my cookies thicker keeps them from spreading.”
“To stop spread I chant while tapping my rolling pin on my head to 70′s disco music.”
“To avoid spread I wave my apron over my head five times in the direction of Julia Usher.”

While there are certainly baking tips that can minimize cookie spread no one person has the perfect solution for everyone else because not everyone else has the very same oven, the exact same recipe, the precise degree of humidity, and the same eggs from the same hen. There are dozens of incidentals that contribute to the final cookie and some that are out of our control to change. Given that it’s impossible to tell you how to avoid cookie spread I’m going to tell you how I avoid cookie spread anyway. Just so I can hear myself talk aaaaaand because the only thing worse to a cookie baker than having her cookie’s spread is sharing her cookie flavor recipes and having other cookie baker’s cookies spread when they try her recipes.

1. The Recipe

I use Georganne’s The End-All for Chocolate and Vanilla Variation cookie recipes as the basis for every roll and cut cookie that comes out of my kitchen. The only adjustment I’ve made is that in the chocolate recipe I’ve increased the butter and eliminated the shortening (I’m Swiss and we are a butter-only people) , and in the vanilla recipe I add an additional splash of vanilla bean paste because I like little black dots in my white dough (That has nothing to do with being Swiss). Even with those little adjustments Georganne’s recipes have never failed me. The dough is user-friendly, the spread is minimal to none, the finished texture is tender, and the taste is phenomenal. And best of all, her recipes are solid enough to hold up against all the tasty bits I throw into them with my favor adaptions. Best. Recipes. Ever. From one of the sweetest, funniest, kindness girls. Ever.

2. The Butter

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I use the less expensive store brands, such as Smart and Final’s First Street Butter. If I could afford to use Land O’ Lakes or Challenge Butter regularly I would since the top quality butters have a higher fat/lower water content and less liquid in the dough translates to less spread and more fat translates to more stability. Any difference in spread between the two however isn’t enough for me to absorb the added expense.

I use salted butter in cookies. Sherrene over at The Sugar Tree did an impressive and throughout side by side comparison and found that salted butter produced more spread than unsalted butter but I didn’t find the difference to be of any significance when I tested the theory at home. The difference between the two again is in the water/fat ratio since salted butter contains more water than unsalted butter.

I use room temperature but firm butter.  If the butter is melted or so soft that it squishes when you push the center the air the fat and liquid have begun to separate which doesn’t allow air bubbles to form and some air bubbles are necessary for cookie structure and tenderness. If the butter is too cold it takes much longer to fully incorporate the butter and sugar together which means the dough will have too many air bubbles which will cause unwanted rise and spread. Great for cakes, not so much for roll and cut cookies.

3. Creaming the Butter and the Sugar

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I cream the butter and sugar just until it’s blended and smooth. Usually it takes no longer than 45 seconds in my standing mixer. I know it’s convenient to measure out flour or go gather cookie cutters while the butter and sugar are creaming away but don’t do it. While the two are beating away the sugar crystals are creating air bubbles in the butterfat. The longer they beat, the more air they create and when those air bubbles hit the oven heat they’re going to steam and expand in the oven, causing a lighter cookie but also a cookie with more rise both upward and outward.

4. Eggs

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 I use jumbo size eggs while most people use large eggs. A jumbo egg contains about 2.5 ounces of liquid. A large egg is closer to 2 ounces. That means in a recipe calling for 2 eggs there could be a difference of as much or more than a full ounce. This is the reason why in my recipes I always give a range of measurement for the flour to allow for the liquid differential. Typically, but not always, it’s 4 – 4 1/2 cups of flour for the vanilla-based recipes and 3 – 3 1/2 cups for the chocolate-based cookies (the 2/3 cup of cocoa is left unchanged). Start with the lower amount but if you find the dough is still tacky, gradually add more until the dough pulls away cleanly from the sides of the mixing bowl without being dry. If you ever feel that your cookie dough is too dry, instead of adding water, beat in just a drizzle of vegetable oil or an extra teaspoon of butter. And no, I’m not so baking wise that I happened to know the fluid content of eggs from my vast storehouse of gained knowledge. There’s this little thing called an internet search engine. You might have heard of it.

5.  Flour

A Cup

I use Gold Medal All-Purpose White Flour. My grandma used it. My mom used it. I use it. Could my reason be more simple than that?  Occasionally I’ll use whole wheat flour for a more dense and deeper flavored cookie and when unbleached flour goes on sale I grab a few bags but otherwise it’s that orange and blue label.

I measure my flour by fluffing the flour in the bin with a plastic or metal kitchen scraper and then gently dropping the flour into the measuring cup. I’m now telling you what everyone knows and that this . . . one cup of flour can vary greatly in weight. It all depends on how the flour gets into the cup in the first place and that amount can be the difference between cookies that spread and cookies that hold a clean line.

measuring flour
I did a quick test by measuring 4 cups of flour in 4 different ways and weighed the amounts in grams and as you can see in the photos above there was quite a difference in weight between them. On most measurement conversion charts 1 cup of all-purpose flour weighs between 125-128 grams, which means that either dropping or spooning the flour into the cup gives a more accurate measurement. Again, that’s how I’m measuring my flour which affects the measurements I give in my recipes. If you dip your cup into flour, use less than my recipes call for and if you sift the flour into the cup use more. A lot more.

6. Adding in Dry Ingredients

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Okay. This is where I need to come clean. All my recipes read “Add one cup of dry ingredients at a time” when in truth I dump all the dry ingredients in at once. Why do I do that? Because I’m lazy. Period. End of story. Why don’t my recipes reflect that? Because I want my recipes to sound like real recipes and “Now dump in the dry stuff” doesn’t exactly ring of Julia Child. By the way, because I always make two batches at once I’m dumping more than 7-8 cups of dry ingredients into a spinning beater which results in a beautiful floury coating over the entire surface of the kitchen each and every time. My spouse LOVES that and if it gets on the floor, oh, the joy that lights up in her eyes. It’s a beautiful thing to see.

7. Handling the Dough

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I abuse my dough. There. I said it. I beat the dough in the standing mixer until it pulls away from the sides in a ball and then I remove the dough using a scraper and knead it for a minute or so like I would bread dough. I pound. I pull. I smack. Cheapest therapy ever.

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A few of you more dainty bakers are cringing right now.
I can feel the ground trembling from your shuddering.
Anita, be gentle with your dough. The less you work with the dough the better.
Listen Girls, my dough isn’t some wussy baby pants cookie dough. Oh sure. It makes a soft and tender cookie but before it hits the oven it’s a no nonsense take no prisoners tough guy kind of dough. There’s only one reason for that and that’s because Georganne sprinkled her magic baker’s dust in the air and then she tweaked and adjusted her two recipes until they were nothing short of perfection. Seriously people, give it up for Georganne!

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I’ve tried every rolling pin and method for rolling out the dough but this is the one that works the best for me. A silpat mat, a fondant rolling pin, and two straight edge balsa wood poles for getting an even thickness. My regular cookies are 3/8 inches thick. My minis are 1/4 inch thick.

I always keep in mind that I’ll be adding more flour as I roll out the dough so I tend to stop just short of adding all the flour needed when adding in the dry ingredients. When rolling out chocolate dough I use flour mixed with cocoa on the rolling surface.

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And I use every scrap of dough and when I’ve compared first roll cookies with third roll cookies I’m unable to see any difference in spread or in tenderness. Some cookie bakers have mentioned that there are layers in their finished cookies with re-rolled dough. I know what they’re talking about but I haven’t  experienced that much, possibly because I knead the dough scraps together until they’re fully bound back together.

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My hands warm the dough enough that it softens and absorbs the dry flour that it picked up when being rolled.

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After the re-rolled dough has softened from kneading I first press it down with my hand and again, this seems to do more to seal the little cracks together than just starting back in with the rolling pin does.

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The last two cookies were made with dough that had been rolled out five times.
That’s right. Five times.
Do you think less of me now?

Would it help if I showed you the lack of spread on one of those final two cookies?

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Not so bad, eh?
Now do you feel bad for judging my excessive rolling?

8. Baking the Cookies

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I don’t chill my cookies before baking unless I’ve made the dough ahead of time and am freezing the cookies or rolled sheets for later use. The idea behind chilling the dough is to make it more firm so that when it goes into the oven the cookies buy a little extra time to begin baking before they soften and begin to spread. I go about it another way.
I leave my unbaked cookies to rest at a cool room temperature for 45-60 minutes before baking. Before you start judging me, I didn’t just make this up. I picked up the idea from German Springerle cookies. Springerle dough is rolled, pressed with wood molds, and then left to dry in the fridge or at a cool room temperature for up to 24 hours before baking. The drying time allows the sides and top of the cookie to develop a crust which prevents the cookie from spreading when baking so that it retains the detailed imprint from the mold.  I’ve tried this a number of times recently and the results have been positive with little to no spread or rise.

I use parchment paper on heavy gauze 1/2 baking sheets. I used silpat mats for the first year of baking and only switched back to parchment paper a month ago when I found a local source for large quantity pre-cut parchment sheets. I haven’t noticed any difference in spread or bottom color between the silpat and the parchment. A greased baking sheet will dramatically increase spreading but you know that already, right?

I bake one sheet on the middle rack in a convection oven, and every time I get impatient and try to rush by baking two sheets of cookies on racks placed just above and just below center, I end up regretting it since there ends up being more browning irregularities from cookie to cookie and more noticeable to significant spreading. This happens whether I rotate the cookie trays half-way through the baking time or not.
I bake the cookies at a high temperature between 365-375 degrees. The lower the temperature the longer the baking time the more opportunity there is for spreading.

9. Cooling the Cookies

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I flatten the tops of the warm baked cookies by placing a clean baking sheet directly on top of the cookies for 3 seconds. This is the system I landed on after crushing, maiming, and destroying one too many cookies with the press-em-flat-with-the-spatula method.

10. And When All Else Fails . . .

sanding cookies

I pull out my microplane and shave off the excess spread and smooth the cookie edges.

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Not only do I end up with a cleaner finish on my cookies . . .

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. . . but I end up with a pile of cookie dust.

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Which is a sweet ending to a long day of baking!

So do tell, what do you do to avoid the dreaded spread?

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13 Responses to “Anita 101: Cookie Spread”

  1. Diane {Created by Di said:

    Really great tips Anita! I use salted butter also and love the responses I get. LOL! I like your trick with placing the cookie sheet on the warm cookies I've never tried that. I used to beat my butter and sugar longer and on a higher speed and found that the air it created made my cookies spread more, so I no longer do that, I do find like you said if they crust up a bit they don't spread, and I don't refrigerate either. I prefer parchment to silpat after more than 10 years of baking on silpats they all just lay in a drawer! I am a re-roller too and have no trouble with the "layers". I just started using dowels and what a huge difference it makes, I've been eyeballing cookies and now it's so simple.Wonderful post :) The only tip I could possible offer is if I've added enough flour on the rolled out dough and I place a piece of wax paper on top to do the rolling so I don't continue to need more flour, I don't use a fondant roller, I use wood. But the wax paper on top of the cookie dough works great especially if I've added a bit to much to begin with and I don't want to add any more.

  2. Georganne said:

    Well. That pretty much sums up everything anyone ever needed to know about baking cookies. This is SUCH a good post. Every cookie decorator should read it before starting to bake!! (And I'm not just saying that because you said all those super sweet — and not entirely true– things about me. :) )

  3. Lisa Melland said:

    To make the chocolate version in your way, would I use the exact same amount of butter in place of the shortening?

  4. Katydoescookies said:

    Very interesting. You made some good points. I liked the comparison of flour weight with the 4 methods. I love Georganne's chocolate cookie recipe too. Ever since I made your gnome cookies, I have made sure I sneak a batch in now and then. Enjoy your blogging style. You make me laugh. –Katy

  5. Jenny said:

    Are you kidding me, you were unhappy with the left pile of cookies? I am definitely bookmarking all this. Good info, especially the flour bit — that was even shocking.

  6. anita said:

    Lisa, yep. I use 1 1/4 cups of butter in a single batch of the chocolate cookie recipe.

  7. anita said:

    Katy, thank you so much!

  8. anita said:

    Diane, you sound like a baking sister! Wow, you were eyeballing the thickness?!?! I just can't live life on the edge like that you risk-taker! I can't believe I waited so long to try the dowels…best technique ever! Thanks for the suggestion on the wax paper. I've tried it off and on but I think I might be too aggressive of a dough roller because it always ends up wrinkling and annoying me. But then, I annoy easily :)

  9. Anne@Have a Cookie! said:

    Love this post! I just made a batch of sugar cookies that, during baking, developed big air bubbles on the bottoms of the cookies. I'm trying to figure out why. After reading your post, I realize now that I'm over-mixing my butter and sugar . . . big time. I roll out my dough between 2 parchment sheets and chill it until it's firm. Then I cut out my cookies and bake them. I haven't had much problem with spreading until this last batch. Air bubbles and spreading. Any ideas? Thanks!

  10. Loretta said:

    I'm so glad someone (you) finally put it all out there. Because I was having trouble with my cookies spreading. They would always tell me to freeze them. Now after reading this post, I realize I was mixing my butter and sugar too long.I went back and tried your way and guess what no more spreading …. yay! Plus all I ever read was don't over work the dough, really didn't see any difference with the last part of my batch of cookies. In all the last ones really looked the best. I wanted to thank you for writing this in your blog you have helped me more then anyone I've ask about spreading. Keep up the awesome blog, I love reading it because your so funny and I love people that can laugh at their selves.

  11. SWEETH0PE said:

    Loretta, thank you :) Of all the tips for keeping down the spread, it's the minimalistic beating of the butter and sugar that tends to provide the most consistent results. Thanks so much for following my blog :)

  12. Nikki K said:

    I just “met” you during the OK auction so I’ve recently started looking at each and every post on your blog. So far there’s been a lot of swooning. I wish I had found you sooner, I need your kind of comedic therapy!

    I was using the wooden dowels too but found that I’m much too messy to keep them clean. One batch of chocolate cookies and in the trash they go. I found a much better alternative! Go to home depot.com and search “corner guards”. I think mine are 5/8″ but when laid on 2 sides, they’re exactly 3/8″ tall. Perfecto!

    Shout out to Georganneand her awesome cookie recipes! Woo hoo! Those chocolate cookies couldn’t get any more perfect.

  13. Suzanne said:

    Ok – I guess I'm your stalker of the day! This is SOOOO helpful! I am going to keep trying and trying. I have been trying to tweak an old recipe but as i change it the flavor turns – blah!!! I will try this and let you know. I learned so much from this post. Thank you for all the time you put into this! You are a genius!

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