Holiday Cookies 101
The holiday season isn't complete without fresh-baked cookies. Whether you are looking to create easy-to-decorate family favorites, or want to bake gifts for friends and neigbors, each of these holiday cookie recipes is guaranteed to work. And for perfect cookies, every time, we've assembled the winning ingredients, essential equipment, and tested techniques you'll need for success.
Problem: No softened butter on hand.
Solution: Take a butter-softening shortcut.
It can take about 30 minutes for a cold stick of butter to soften at room temperature. And in order for butter to cream properly, it needs to be soft. What if you don't want to wait? Here's how to soften butter n a hurry. Cut each stick of butter in half and place both halves on a small microwave-safe plate. Place the plate in the microwave and heat for 1 minute at 10 percent power. Press on the butter with your fingers to see if it is sufficiently softened; if not, heat for an additional 40 seconds at 10 percent power.
Problem: Dough is too soft.
Solution: Refrigerate the dough.
Cookies are rich with butter and when the air is hot or humid, butter will start to melt and soften your dough. Just place the dough in the refrigerator for 10 to 15 minutes until the dough has firmed up. If your kitchen is especially warm, remove just enough to portion onto one or two trays, while the rest stays chilled and firm in the refrigerator.
Problem: Some cookies are short on chips.
Solution: Stud the balls with extra chips.
Sometimes chocolate chips, nuts and other goodies don't get evenly mixed into the dough. The result? The last few balls of dough are skimpy on the 'good stuff." Rather than mixing extra chips into the dough (and possibly overworking the dough), simply reserve a spoonful of chips from the total amount called for and stud the last few formed balls with the chips.
Problem: Out of parchment paper.
Solution: Use aluminum foil.
You might be tempted to grease the baking sheet or spray it with vegetable spray—don't. The extra fat will cause the cookies to spread and bake unevenly. We prefer parchment for lining our baking sheets. Its slick surface prevents sticking, so we don't need to wrestle cookies from baking sheets. But what if you're out of parchment? There is a solution—aluminum foil. While the cookies stick a little, you'll be able to gently lift them off the foil.
Problem: Cookies are overbaked.
Solution: Immediately remove cookies to a wire rack.
It happens. You become distracted in the flurry of a busy kitchen and your cookies are in the oven a minute or two too long. Remove the sheet immediately from the oven and then, rather than allowing the cookies to set on the baking sheet (as our recipes instruct), immediately use a thin, wide spatula to gently remove the to a wire rack where they will cool off more quickly.
Shortening vs. Butter in Cookies
Some cookie recipes call for shortening and others call for butter. What’s the difference?
To find out the different effects that shortening and butter can have on cookie dough, we prepared several different kinds of cookies with butter and with shortening. In general, tasters preferred the flavor of the cookies made with butter. For instance, shortening made especially bland chocolate chip cookies. This flavor deficit was less noticeable in snickerdoodles (classic New England cookies). These cookies are so heavily coated with cinnamon-sugar that the differences between the batches made with butter and shortening were harder (although not impossible) to detect.
In addition to flavor differences, cookies made with shortening were crispier, and that's largely because shortening adds no water to dough. Unlike butter, which is about 80 percent fat and 20 percent water, shortening is 100 percent fat. Cookies made with butter were softer and cakier.
Our advice? You can use butter in cookie recipes that call for shortening; the cookies may be more flavorful, but they are also likely to be less crisp.
Refrigerating Cookie Dough
Can I make and refrigerate cookie dough and then bake the cookies a few at a time over several days?
The amount of time you can refrigerate cookie dough before baking depends on the presence and type of leavener in the dough. To sort through holding times for doughs with different (or no) leaveners, we made four batches of sugar cookies: one with baking powder, one with baking soda, one with both, and the last (an icebox cookie) with neither. We baked six cookies from each batch every day for a week. We found that the dough with baking soda held well for two days, but was a little flatter on the third. Cookies with both baking powder and soda began to lose lift after four days. Baking powder–leavened cookie dough maintained good lift all week. The unleavened cookies held well all week.
The cookies with baking soda were the losers in the holding test because soda is a single-acting leavener, meaning that it begins to make lift-giving air bubbles as soon as it gets wet and comes in contact with an acid. Once started, this action continues until all the leavening power is spent—so there’s a time limit. Baking powder is double acting, so it releases gas twice: once when it gets wet, and again when it heats up. So even if the first batch of air bubbles is spent, the second action will allow cookies to rise in the oven.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Cookie dough made with baking soda is best used within two days. Recipes with both powder and soda can be made four days ahead. Recipes with baking powder or no leavener can be made up to seven days ahead.
Making a Foil Sling
With their gooey fillings and high sugar content, brownies and bar cookies and often snack cakes can be nearly impossible to remove from their baking pans—no matter how well the pan is greased. After baking countless batches, we finally found a method that works every time. Lining the pan with an aluminum foil or parchment paper "sling" before baking prevents any casualties. Once cooled, the bar cookies may be lifted easily from the pan, transferred to a cutting board, and cut into tidy squares.
1. Fold two long sheets of aluminum foil so that they are as wide as the baking pan (if the dish is rectangular, the two sheets will be different sizes). Lay the sheets of foil in the pan, perpendicular to one another, with the extra foil hanging over the edges of the pan.
2. Push the foil into the corners and up the sides of the pan. Try to iron out any wrinkles in the foil, smoothing it flush to the pan. Grease the sides and bottom before adding the batter.
3. After the brownies, bars, or cakes have baked and cooled, use the foil sling to lift and transfer them to a cutting board before cutting into squares. The foil should easily peel away.
Cookie Decorating 101
1. For a smooth, evenly glazed cookies, spoon a little glaze on the center of the cookies, then spread it out in an even layer using the back of the spoon.
2. After glazing the cookies, sprinkle with crushed candy canes, colored sugar, or chopped nuts.
3. To add detail to a cut-out cookie, spoon some glaze into a zipper-lock bag, push it to a bottom corner, and snip off the corner of the bag with scissors to make a piping bag.
4. After you've piped outlines onto a cookie, go back and fill in with colored glazes. This technique also works well for gingerbread people or Christmas trees.
5. To add textural detail, run a fluted pastry wheel lightly over the surface of the cookie before it's baked. This not only makes pretty garlands on a Christmas tree, but it can also create a quilted effect on a round cookie if done with an angled crosshatch pattern.
6. Place glaze in a zipper-lock bag, pip small dots on the cookies then top with shiny, bead-like decorations. When set, the glaze will hold the beads in place.
The Right Tools for Making Holiday Cookies
Stand mixers can make easy work of mixing cookie dough. They come with either one beater arm or two. We prefer mixers with “planetary action,” which is effective at reaching the sides and center of the work bowl and ensures that all of the cookie dough gets incorporated. All three of our winning inexpensive stand mixers feature this kind of movement.
When making cookie dough, we’ve found that a hand-held mixer can yield the same results as a stand mixer, just a little more slowly. Look for a hand-held mixer that offers excellent control with gentle low speeds and powerful high speeds. In short: buy either of our top finishers, which offered all of these things—and cost a fraction of the price of a stand mixer.
Years of baking brownies and bar cookies have taught us what to look for in a square cake pan. Always opt for a pan with a dark coating, which promotes better browning than a shiny, light-colored coating. And make sure the pan is sturdy enough to withstand denting. We also always recommend lining your square pan with a foil sling. Doing so makes retrieving your bar cookies an effortless task.
Lining your cookie sheets with parchment paper is a quick and easy way to make sure your cookie sheets stay clean and your cookies release effortlessly. We found that all brands performed well in the charring and release tests, but the one area in which the products varied was width. Our favorite brand was the widest product of the bunch.
What’s the ideal cookie sheet? We found it to be a heavy sheet with handles on the two short sides and with a light-colored matte finish. (Darker nonstick sheets brown too quickly.) Plus, cookies should release easily from the sheet, even when unlined. We tested several models to find one that met all these requirements.
The primary job of a cooling rack is straightforward. But a good cooling rack should do more than simply cool off cookies. It should be sturdy, able to withstand a hot broiler, and clean up without warping or getting damaged. It should also fit inside a standard 18 by 13-inch baking pan, allowing it to be used for many more tasks than cooling chocolate chip cookies.
Key Ingredients for Making Holiday Cookies
All-purpose flour is a key ingredient in nearly every cookie recipe. It is a blend of high- and low-protein wheat flour and, as the name implies, is the go-to flour in most baking applications. Look for a bag labeled unbleached, as bleaching flour alters the proteins, making them less inclined to form strong gluten.
We only use unsalted butter in our holiday cookies. Not only is its salt content (or lack thereof) consistent, but it contains less water than salted butter. Excess water interferes with the development of gluten, which is vital to producing that perfect cookie texture.
Believe it or not, if you only use vanilla for baking cookies and cakes, there’s not much difference between a well-made synthetic vanilla and the real thing. However, if you’re only buying one bottle of vanilla for baking and making cold and creamy desserts, the bottle you buy makes a difference.
Chocolate chips typically have less cacao and less cocoa butter than chocolate bars, which means the chocolate is less fluid when melted, making it easier for chips to hold that classic teardrop shape. But it also means chips tend to be more gritty and grainy than bar chocolate. Our winning chip, not surprisingly, has the same cacao percentage as the brand’s dark chocolate bar.
Milk chocolate, by definition, contains enough milk solids and milk fat to give it a distinctly milky flavor. But like dark chocolate, the best tasting brands feature chips with bolder chocolate flavor, higher fat content, and lower sugar content.
When it comes to cinnamon, there are many fancy labels out there—with prices to match. But when it comes time to purchase the best bottle of cinnamon for your baking, our tests found that most brands of cinnamon rated reasonably well as long as they were fresh.
Our Favorite Holiday Cookie Recipes
Easy-to-decorate cookies don’t need to taste lousy. Our version of this classic holiday cookie uses a combination of egg yolks, sour cream, and butter, which keeps the dough tender and flavorful. We also found that sandwiching the dough between sheets of parchment paper allowed us to roll it out without adding more flour, which can lead to tough cookies.
These delicate butter cookies literally melt in your mouth thanks to cornstarch worked into the dough. The other gluten-free ingredient we used to create the ultra-crumbly texture: Rice Krispies. The ground cereal added the volume we were looking for without toughening the crumb.
Chewy hermit cookies bring together raisins and warm spices such as cinnamon, allspice, and ginger. We found that adding these spices to browned butter bloomed their natural flavor, and it avoided a dusty texture from too much ground spice. Pureed raisins (softened in melted butter) helped distribute raisin flavor into every bite.
Although Nutella is the star ingredient in these cookies, instant espresso powder serves to deepen the chocolate flavor. Butter temperature is also important for the texture of these chewy cookies, as cold butter made for flat cookies. A roll in toasted, chopped hazelnuts added crunch and reinforced the Nutella’s hazelnut flavor.
We were careful to underbake these sandwich cookies to keep them moist and chewy. Using only a small amount of peppermint extract ensured that it didn’t overwhelm the chocolate flavor. And just for fun, we grabbed food coloring and dyed the filling green and red.
A trio of spices gives the cookies plenty of punch, and the lemony frosting complements the strong spices perfectly. What’s more, the frosting is the perfect blend of creamy and firm: easily spreadable but stiff enough to glue the spiced sandwich cookies together.
Chocolate Turtle Cookies combine soft caramel candies with a pecan-crusted rich, chocolate cookie. We kept these turtles light and airy by avoiding egg whites. The water in the egg whites blended with the flour to form gluten, which made for tough cookies.
To give these easy-to-assemble cookies a strong, nutty flavor, we toasted the hazelnuts. Through our tests, we learned that homemade lemon curd makes for a better cookie. But if you are pressed for time this holiday season, jarred lemon curd will work nearly as well.
These super-thin gingerbread cookies melt in your mouth the moment you take a bite. Their unique shape comes from an unconventional spreading technique. And for their intense ginger flavor, we used two different kinds: grated fresh ginger and toasted ground ginger.
For a chocolate thumbprint cookie with intense chocolate flavor, we turned to Dutch-processed cocoa powder. Toasting the pecans and rolling the dough balls in them added a pleasing nuttiness to the baked cookies. And for a final touch, we drizzled melted white chocolate chips over the raspberry-filled cookies.
This oatmeal cookie is light, delicate, and easy-to-make, as all the ingredients come together in the same saucepan. After trying several sugars, we settled on light brown sugar for the crisp texture we were after. It has less moisture than dark brown sugar, which gave us a chewier version.
These easier-than-they-look cookies combine toasted pecans with a caramel-coated cookie base. The pat-in-the-pan crust bakes quickly in your square baking pan, and the caramel coating (a combination of brown sugar, butter, and honey) comes together in less than 5 minutes.
For a version of biscotti that had the absolute perfect crisp, crunchy texture, we turned to an odd ingredient: instant grits. As for the flavor, the recipe’s “boozy” name comes from spiced rum, which leaves behind a subtle flavor after the alcohol burns away during baking.
We wanted a no-bake cookie recipe that would be a tasty addition to the holiday dessert table. Soaking raisins in spiced rum allowed them to plump up and absorb the rum. Ground vanilla wafers, almonds, and cornflakes supply the crunch.
Several shortcuts helped to make these Raspberry Mini Cheesecakes an easy-to-assemble treat. Sweetened condensed milk allowed us to streamline the ingredient list by eliminating several sweeteners. Instead of struggling with crafting individual crusts, we opted to use a single shortbread cookie for each mini cheesecake. And a layer of raspberry jam atop the cookie crust—as well as above the custard—further enhanced the raspberry flavor.
These moist, fudgy, marshmallow-topped brownies are related to Mississippi mud pie and Mississippi mud cake—desserts that share one trait: dense gooeyness that approximates the texture of the silt that settles in the Mississippi River Delta. Since the brownie layer in our Mississippi Mud Brownies recipe is so chocolaty, the frosting can be minimized to just a melted drizzle.
The key to our Raspberry Cream Cheese Brownies’ moist and chewy texture is its construction: Spreading the cream cheese in between two layers of brownie batter protected the brownies from drying out. Then, to make sure the raspberry flavor popped and held its own against the chocolate, we cut back on sugar by turning to unsweetened chocolate.
To give our Dream Bars their characteristic rich coconut and pecan flavor, we toasted the nuts until they were crunchy. And to prevent the shredded coconut from drying out, we turned to a surprising ingredient: cream of coconut. Soaking the shredded coconut in the cream resulted in a rich, moist topping that caramelized beautifully.
Seven-Layer Bars recipes are loaded with ingredients that fight for the spotlight instead of working cohesively to create a great bar cookie. To improve our recipe’s flavor and texture, we toasted the coconut and nuts. We added extra chocolate flavor by drizzling melted milk chocolate over the Seven-Layer Bars’ hot crust, and we prebaked the crust to develop its crisp texture. Toffee bits also added a buttery and salty flavor to the crust.