food New Year's Goals

52 Batches Later: What I Learned about Cookies

At the beginning of 2021, I set the goal to bake 52 batches of cookies. Since then, I have gone through countless sticks of butter and bags of flour to bake over a thousand cookies.

I have been asked many times what my favorite cookie was and what I learned from the experience. Now that I’m done baking, below are a few of my biggest lessons and a list of the top tier cookies.

The Cookie Connection’s Chocolate Chip Pan Cookies

But before the lessons, I actually have one last cookie to share. About 2 weeks ago, dinner was almost out of the oven when I realized we didn’t have dessert. Knowing the pan cookie took extra time to bake, I made this recipe in a photo-less flurry.

I was a few minutes late to sitting down, but at least we had cookies on-time for dessert.

In my haste, I made a mistake and didn’t cover the pan with foil for most of the bake, but I think it turned out mostly as intended. It was better than Baking Nadiya Hussain’s Chocolate Chip Pan Cookie, but I think I prefer individual cookies.

Okay, onto the lessons.

Every cookie is unique.

At some point, I got the idea that you could make every cookie from the following starting point and a few adjustments.

  1. Cream together 2 parts butter with 3 parts sugar
  2. Mix in 2 eggs and 1 tsp of vanilla
  3. Slowly incorporate 4 parts flour with 1 tsp baking soda and 1 tsp salt
  4. Add anywhere from 2 to 4 parts mix-ins
  5. Scoop out 12 dough balls onto a baking sheet
  6. Bake in a 375F oven for about 10 minutes
  7. Cool for 5 minutes

Maybe you can get to sugar cookies, oatmeal raisin cookies, or peanut butter cookies from there, but cookies are far more diverse than just that.

From meringues to cutout, shortbread to chocolate chip, cookies get made with all sorts of ingredients and just as many techniques.

It really just depends on what you’re going for. I certainly had my preferences, but this year was about exploring broadly. I ended up using many ingredients and using them in many ways I hadn’t previously considered.

Follow the recipe.

In addition to trying many recipes, I also read a lot of cookie baking advice. Common tips are:

  1. Use slightly above room temperature butter
  2. Don’t use silicone baking mats
  3. Let your dough rest overnight
  4. Use room temperature eggs
  5. Use cold eggs
  6. A cup of flour is X ounces

I thought I could hone in on the perfect cookie baking technique from my experience to make every recipe work.

Well, it turns out that a corollary of “every cookie is unique” is that I really should do what the recipe author says, even if it’s different from general advice.

It’s possible that the author hadn’t considered creaming for longer or resting the dough. Or maybe they very intentionally used a specific, non-standard technique. By changing the technique, I no longer was baking what the author intended.

However, I do have one caveat: authors often don’t mention letting cookies cool on the pan, and if they do, they don’t specify how long. Whenever there weren’t specific directions (e.g. “cool on pan for 10 minutes” or “remove from the pan immediately”), I let them cool for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

As long as the cookies aren’t burned, they will turn out great.

Most cookie recipes are extremely forgiving. I have received praise for cookies that were:

  • Overbaked (but not burned)
  • Underbaked
  • Overmixed
  • Undermixed
  • Had ooo much sugar
  • Incorrectly scaled
  • Too flat
  • Too chewy

A baked pile of flour, sugar, and fat is almost certainly going to be delicious as long as it isn’t burned.

Some say that cooking is an art while baking is a science. I think the point is that baking requires exact in measurements and timing. That might be true for some baked goods, but it’s not for most cookies.

Cookies have turned out fine with 25% too much flour, twice as much salt, and mostly inert leavening. It’s all fine. As long as the cookie consumers don’t know what was intended, they won’t mind the results.

Of course, I still use a digital kitchen scale for baking, but just for convenience. I have on many occasions forgotten how many cups of flour I have scooped into a bowl, whereas I’m much less likely to make a mistake reading the scale display.

Bake one batch at a time and fresh (if possible).

Most of the cookies this year went off-track during baking. Although authors give precise ingredient measurements, the bake times can vary by as much as 5 minutes on a 10 minute bake. My understanding is that this is due to variability between ovens and even within a single oven over time for heating.

King Arthur recommends baking test cookies, and I completely agree. If you have time, bake one batch and let them cool fully to evaluate the result. Then, adjust the temperature, oven setting, rack positions, dough temperature, etc. if needed.

It’s ironic that you don’t need to pay as close attention when you’re active in mixing ingredients, but you do need to pay attention when you’re just watching the oven do the work. I’m usually ready to walk away or start washing dishes, but it’s generally worth setting the timer early and checking often.

Also, bake cookies to be eaten fresh. Baked cookies can change a lot over even a few hours. Some stayed better than others, but none of them improved with age. All of them were best within the first hour out of the oven. I was very successful in freezing dough ball and thawing them to bake a few at a time in the toaster oven.

All of that being said, I was often in a rush in the kitchen, so I often just baked everything two sheets at a time.

Everyone loves homemade cookies.

Due to the tremendous cookie production this year, I ended up mailing off and sharing many cookies. And although not every batch made it to its destination, I got a thank you for every one that did.

It would be a lie to say it was the least I could do, but giving out cookies was still largely incidental to something I was doing for myself. Many of the cookies weren’t worthy of praise, in my opinion, but the gratitude was still appreciated nonetheless.

This Year’s Best Cookie Recipes

To finish off this goal, I have a list of top tier cookies. Each week, Julie and I would rate the cookies against the others. Although we didn’t come up with a 1 through 52 exact ordering, we were able to group them into tiers, where all cookies within one tier were better than all cookies in all lower tiers.

By the end of the year, we had 6 tiers and 12 recipes in the top tier. Here’s the list:

Final Thoughts

I can summarize what I learned as follows: if you mostly follow the recipe and don’t burn your cookies, people will love them.

I suspect my cookie baking will return to its previous, less than monthly cadence. I learned a lot, but our diets will improve without a container constantly crowding our counter.

Ironically, our baby has barely had a chance to enjoy my cookies. We only recently have let her eat refined sugar, and we’re glad that she both likes it but hasn’t turned into a monster about it (yet).

I’m not certain if I set this cookie goal this year because of or just coincidentally with the birth of our first child. However, I think I inevitably will tie the experience of baking cookies with raising a baby.

Which perhaps, over time, will make me a bit fonder of both of them.

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