Smart cookies: Refrigerating dough saves time and enhances flavor

Posted Online: Dec. 18, 2012, 9:40 am
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By Kathleen Purvis
All that dashing and dancing in the kitchen adds up to a lot of time around the holidays. Anything you can do ahead is bound to help.

That may be enough motivation to make cookie doughs in advance and stash them in the refrigerator, ready to bake.

But how about this: Your time-saver may be a flavor booster. Making cookies in advance may improve them.


In the last few years, cookie recipes have been cropping up that harness the idea of building flavor and texture by letting things wait a little.

"I think you can taste a difference," said Sue Gray, manager of product development for King Arthur Flour. "There are changes happening. Exactly what they are is hard to pin down. Probably a bunch of little things are happening."

The idea of letting cookie dough sit in the refrigerator, not just for a couple of hours but for as long as several days, came to my attention in 2008, when food writer David Leite wrote a story for The New York Times on his quest for the perfect chocolate chip cookie.

He discovered that Maury Rubin of City Bakery in New York let cookie dough rest for 36 hours before baking.

After hearing that, Leite went back to the source, a 1953 cookbook by Ruth Wakefield, the originator of the Toll House cookie, and noticed that her recipe called for letting the dough rest overnight. Apparently, the step was dropped when Nestle put the recipe on bags of semisweet morsels.

After trying it, Leite decided it did make a difference. The dough was drier and firmer, and the cookies developed sweet, toffee-like flavors.

I played with the idea a little more last year, when I was working on a crunchy pecan chocolate chip cookie. Several baking sites touched on the idea of letting creamed butter, sugars and egg sit for a few minutes before adding flour. The sugar melts a little, leading to a crispier cookie.

For the holidays, I decided to look further. What I learned is there's a lot of anecdotal evidence, but not a lot of proof of exactly what is happening.

Making cookie doughs in advance is common in bakeries, said Megan Lambert, a senior baking instructor at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, N.C. She and her mother used to own a bakery in Raleigh, N.C., the Flour Shop.

"You make a huge batch of cookie (doughs) and then you just pull from that."

But in her classes, cookies usually are baked the same day they're mixed. She does notice a little difference, she said, particularly a sharper flavor from the baking soda, which hasn't had a chance to mellow.

Even though doughs commonly are made in advance in bakeries, there's not a lot of research into the difference, said Sue Gray of King Arthur. Studies usually are paid for by food companies, which are more interested in techniques that lead to efficiency, not flavor.

"So anything I say, I can't prove," she said. Still, she does think something is happening with the flavor.

"There's so much happening in doughs," she said. "Anytime you make something, giving it some time for the flavors to develop, for water to become evenly absorbed, can't hurt."

Food science writer Harold McGee definitely agreed. In his new book, "Keys to Good Cooking," he included this point:

"To develop more flavor, refrigerate doughs for days wrapped airtight. Refrigerated doughs slowly break down some starch and protein, and make progressively darker and more flavorful cookies."

Kenji Lopez-Alt has worked with doughs made in advance and he notices differences, too. Chief creative officer for the food website and a former editor with Cook's Illustrated, he's writing a book based on his Serious Eats column The Food Lab, where he tests cooking theories.

"Definitely, the way the dough handles (changes)," he said. "Letting it rest, you end up with a drier dough that I find a little easier to measure and scoop. When you bake it, it's a flavor difference. A little sweeter, a little more complex."

The difference starts with the liquid in the egg, which hydrates the starch in flour. Giving the flour more time to absorb that liquid makes the dough firmer, but it also lets enzymes in the flour and the egg yolk break down carbohydrates into the simple sugars fructose and glucose. Separately, they taste sweeter and they caramelize faster when baked.

While some theories claim long refrigeration lets gluten relax in cookie doughs, both Gray and Lopez-Alt discount that. There's not that much gluten development in cookie dough.

And not all cookies can sit, of course. Meringues and macaroons, based on foamy egg whites, can't wait.

But doughs based on flour, sugars, butter and egg are made for waiting. Cookies with strong flavors, such as ginger or peanut butter, can benefit from time to ripen.

Cookies are small things, made from simple ingredients using simple techniques. So small changes, like waiting times, can do big things.

"You start with such simple ingredients," said Lopez-Alt. "It's really the process and the details of technique that are going to have the biggest effect."

Making cookies?

How you measure makes a difference. For dry ingredients, use dry-cup measures — the flat rim lets you level them easier. Glass or plastic liquid measuring cups are difficult to fill accurately with dry ingredients. To measure flour and sugar, spoon them into the cup until they're above the rim, then level off with the flat edge of a knife.

Be careful about adding fresh dough to a still-hot cookie sheet — it can melt and spread. The easiest way: Line the cookie sheet with parchment paper, then slide it off to a cooling rack and rinse the sheet with cold water. You can portion out the next batch of dough on parchment paper too, so it's ready to slide onto the cooled sheet.

"Room temperature" butter should be soft, but not too soft or it won't hold air when you beat it. Let it stand until you can just press a fingertip into it and leave a mark. To hurry it, cut the butter into one-tablespoon slices. Don't soften butter in the microwave. The center may melt before the outside softens.

"Creaming" means to beat fat (usually butter) with sugar. Beat it long enough to make it light-colored and fluffy, which can take several minutes.

Cooling matters: If you remove cookies from a baking sheet too soon, they'll break or bend. If you don't have a cooling rack, pull out the second rack of your oven or the rack from inside the toaster oven. (Cover the rack with paper towels if it's stained.) Always completely cool cookies before decorating or storing them.

Roll-Out Sugar Cookies
From "The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion" (Countryman Press, 2004). Sugar cookies, with their simple flavors, can benefit from refrigerating. If you're baking with kids, it also helps to have the dough ready and waiting in the refrigerator.
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract (optional)
1 large egg
1/4 cup heavy cream or sour cream
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

Simple Cookie Glaze
2 1/4 cups confectioners' sugar
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon milk or heavy cream
Food coloring (optional)

Beat the butter, sugar, salt, baking powder, vanilla and almond extract with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg. Add half the cream, all of the cornstarch and half the flour; beat well. Add the remaining cream and flour, mixing just until incorporated.
Divide the dough in half. Flatten into rounds and wrap well. Refrigerate at least one hour and up to several days.
Lightly grease two baking sheets or line with parchment. Transfer one section of chilled dough to a lightly floured surface. Lightly flour a rolling pin and roll out the dough to 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick. Using cookie cutters dipped in flour, cut out shapes and transfer to the baking sheets.
Bake 10 to 12 minutes, until cookies are set but not browned. Remove from oven and cool five minutes before removing from the baking sheets. Cool completely before decorating.
Glaze: Whisk together the confectioners' sugar, corn syrup and 1 1/2 tablespoons milk or cream. Spread a little on one cookie. If it doesn't smooth out after a minute, dribble in a little extra milk. Divide into small bowls and stir in food coloring if desired.
Yield: About 4 dozen, depending on cutter sizes.

From "The Baker's Manual," by Joseph Amendola and Nicole Rees (Wiley, 2003).
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup shortening
1 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
2 tablespoons dark molasses
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
Beat the butter and shortening with an electric mixer on medium speed until smooth. Add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy.
Beat in the egg and molasses until smooth. Add the dry ingredients and beat on low just until dough forms.
Remove the dough from the mixer and place in an airtight container. Refrigerate up to one week.
Form dough into 1 1/2-inch balls. Roll in granulated sugar. Place balls on ungreased baking sheets. Flatten with the bottom of a glass, dipped in sugar to prevent sticking if necessary.
Bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes, until centers are puffed and almost set (bake up to 14 minutes for crunchier cookies). Cool for five minutes on the baking sheets, then transfer to wire racks to cool.
Yield: 3 dozen.

Overnight Shortbread
From "Pure Dessert," by Alice Medrich, and the blog Smitten Kitchen by Deb Perelman. The second baking makes exceptionally crisp shortbread, while letting the dough sit overnight fully hydrates the flour and increases the buttery flavor.
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
5 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Granulated sugar, for topping

Line an 8-inch baking pan with foil, letting it hang over two sides. Or grease an 8-inch springform pan with a removable bottom.
Melt the butter in a small saucepan. Remove from heat and add to a mixing bowl with the sugar, vanilla and salt. Mix until combined. Add the flour and mix just until incorporated.
Pat and spread the dough evenly into the pan. Cover and let stand at least two hours and up to overnight. (It can just sit on the counter, unrefrigerated.)
Place a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat oven to 300 degrees. Bake the shortbread for 45 minutes. Remove from oven, leaving the oven on. Lightly sprinkle the surface with sugar, then let stand for 10 minutes.
Remove the shortbread from the pan and gently cut it in wedges, rectangles or squares. Place the pieces slightly apart on a nonstick baking sheet and return to the oven for 15 minutes. Cool on a rack. Yield: 16 wedges or about 2 dozen squares.

Candy Cane Pinwheels
Adapted from Cook's Country magazine.
1/2 cup finely ground peppermint candies (see note)
3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon peppermint extract
6 drops red food coloring

Crush the peppermints and set aside. Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt and set aside.
Beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, about two minutes. Beat in egg. Add flour and beat on low just until a dough forms, about one minute.
Remove half the dough from the bowl and reserve. Add the extracts, candy and food coloring to remaining dough and beat until combined.
Place the reserved (plain) dough between two sheets of parchment paper and roll into a 14-by-8-inch rectangle. Repeat with the peppermint dough. Remove paper from one side of each dough and place them together, pressing gently. Roll up from the long side, forming a log. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate, at least two hours or up to three days.
Place oven racks in the upper-middle and lower-middle positions and heat oven to 375 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment. Slice chilled dough into 1/4-inch rounds and place one inch apart on baking sheets. Bake until edges are just golden, switching and rotating sheets halfway through baking. Cool 10 minutes on sheets, then transfer to a rack. Store cookies in an airtight container up to one week.
Note: To grind peppermint, unwrap about 20 disc-type hard peppermints and place in a resealable freezer bag, beating with a mallet to crush them. Or put them in a food processor and pulse until ground. You also can use about 30 small candy canes to create the crushed peppermint.
Yield: About 4 1/2 dozen.


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