There’s nothing like discovering an exciting new cookie recipe on your social media feed. The photo is ridiculously taste-tempting, readers are trying to outdo one another with superlatives, and when you finally click to the recipe it’s got rave reviews. You can’t wait to make these babies!
This enthusiasm carries you through the measuring and mixing in a flash. The oven is preheated, and you’re ready to scoop out some cookies …
But hold on: This is a recipe you’ve never made before. It may very well be coming from an unfamiliar (non-professional) source — which means you can’t be sure exactly how the recipe writer measures flour, or if their oven is calibrated like yours, or even if they’re using measuring spoons that might be wildly inaccurate.
All of these variables can affect how cookies turn out, and there’s no way to know which (if any) will make a difference until you actually bake and taste the cookies.
What should you do?
Bake a few test cookies
If the recipe you're baking is from King Arthur, you can be sure it's been tested multiple times and vetted by teams of bakers. If this is the first time you've baked with us, we encourage you to read our Recipe Success Guide before jumping in, just to make sure we're all on the same page ingredient-wise (yes, there's a difference between medium and large eggs!).
But if the recipe came from the cousin of a friend of a friend, and no one knows its actual origin? It's worth it to make the dough, and then bake just two (or three or four) cookies before scooping and baking the entire batch. That way you can do a complete initial assessment:
How much do the cookies spread (or not spread)?
- What size are they (too big, too small, just right)?
- How do they taste (not enough salt, too much cinnamon)?
- What’s their texture (crispy, crunchy, chewy, soft)?
- Does the given baking time work for your oven (were they burned, or underdone)?
- Does it matter if you cool the cookies on a pan vs. on a rack?
Amazing all the variables that can go into just one little cookie, isn’t it? By baking off a few cookies for testing purposes, you’ll be able to identify anything that can be tweaked to taste immediately, before baking the remainder of the dough; and what will have to wait until next time.
And while baking several test cookies does add a bit of time to the process, it also means you won’t end up with two or three baking sheets of failed cookies that have spread into gigantic puddles — or really need a lot more salt.
An effective way to test-bake cookies
1. Prepare the cookie dough as the recipe directs. It’s always wise to start without making any changes, in order to get a baseline. To demonstrate the process, I'm going to bake one of our new masa harina recipes: Sweet Corn Cookies. Featuring both cornmeal and masa harina, their flavor is said to evoke Frosted Flakes and milk; make them and see what you think!
2. Scoop out the several cookies you’re going to bake, and space them around the center of a parchment-lined or lightly greased baking sheet (unless the recipe specifically tells you not to grease your baking sheet). Leave plenty of room between the cookies, since you don’t know how much they’ll spread.
I usually bake two to four test cookies, depending on the size of the recipe. If it's a recipe with a big yield, you can afford to bake four; if the recipe only makes 18 cookies, best to test with just two.
3. Bake the cookies as directed. If the recipe includes a time range (“Bake the cookies for 12 to 15 minutes”), use a spatula to quickly slide one or two cookies off the pan after the shorter amount of time, leaving the other one or two to bake the full amount.
4. Remove the cookies from the oven and let them cool. DO NOT eat a warm cookie — you don’t want to devour the data before it’s analyzed!
5. Compare the shorter vs. longer bake time to determine just how much time you want the rest of your cookies to spend in the oven.
6. Assess the cookies’ spread: Too much spread can be the result of too much sugar or fat, too little flour, or too much liquid (none of which you can easily amend in the dough at this point).
Another reason cookies spread too much is something you can actually fix: baking temperature and time. Baking at too high an oven temperature causes the dough’s fat to melt (and the sugar to liquefy) before the cookies’ structure is set. For your remaining cookie dough, try lowering your oven temperature and baking the cookies longer. You might also try chilling the dough for 30 minutes before scooping additional cookies; this will keep the fats solid longer, meaning the cookies will spread more slowly.
On the other hand, if your cookies didn’t spread enough, try gently flattening the remaining cookies in the batch with your palm or a flat-bottom measuring cup before placing them in the oven.
7. How do they taste? Overly salty, too sweet, uncomfortably spicy? Make notes so that the next time you make the recipe you can add or reduce its salt, spices, and/or sugar. One precaution: To avoid a potential disaster, read How to reduce sugar in cookies and bars.
If the baked cookies taste a bit bland (and if the dough is fairly soft and receptive to additions), add salt and/or spices to the remaining dough before baking. If, on the other hand, they’re a bit salty for your taste, try rolling the dough balls in sugar before baking. And if they taste too sweet? Sprinkle the baked cookies while warm with a touch of flaky sea salt. Salt and sugar temper one another nicely.
Expand the test
Once you become accustomed to baking test cookies whenever you try a new recipe, you can enlarge the test’s parameters by scooping the cookies with two different size scoops to compare the final diameter of the cookies (and get an idea of the relative baking times for the different sizes).
Another thing to try: Once the cookies are baked, transfer one or two to a rack to cool; let the other one or two cool right on the pan. To speed the cooling process, transfer the pan and rack to a cooler part of your kitchen.
When the cookies are cool (it won’t take long), compare the look and texture of the cookies that have cooled on the pan vs. those cooled on a rack. In some recipes, cooling cookies on the pan adds a bit of extra browning and crispiness, which can either take them from underdone to perfect; or from perfect to overbaked. The difference between cooling on a rack vs. on the pan is subtle, but can be there.
A final reminder
All of this testing will be for naught if you don’t write down the results. Whatever your favorite way to annotate recipes — use it. Trust me, you may think you’ll remember to add a pinch of salt and press the dough balls flat next time; but unless you bake your next batch of cookies right away — you won’t.
Test, assess, record: that’s what our King Arthur test kitchen bakers do, and that’s why the recipes on our site are so uniformly good. While baking a few test cookies when trying out a new recipe may feel time-consuming initially, it just may save you from disappointment later on.
Not in the mood for scooping out cookie dough? Take a break: Transform your favorite cookie recipe into bars!
Cover photo by John Sherman