Sunday, February 19, 2012

Problems with Sugar Cookie Dough Spreading and How to Stop It!

What's a cookie baker to do when her cookie shapes spread? Go to the experts. That's where I started. I compiled a list of recommendations to help with my spreading issues. You can see that here.

Before I started my experiment - my biggest fear and actually what I believed could very well be my true problem was that my oven is to blame. I think that I can fix anything else. Fixing my oven sounds like a costly solution, one that I'm not willing to do right now.

So here's what I was doing before....
I used to use Sugarbelle's recipe, roll with flour, bake room temperature dough, oven set to 400.

Later, I used the same recipe, rolled without flour - between plastic wrap, baked chilled dough, oven set to 400.

My cookies were nice and lightly colored on the back, not much browning on the edges. I seemed to get inconsistent results on the spreading. In general, they were spreading too much for me. My cookies don't have anywhere near those perfect edges that you see on Sugarbelle's post and on all of those other amazing cookie blogs.

I decided to run some experiments. I decided to use Sugarbelle's recipe, keeping the baking powder at 2 tsp. I wanted my cookies light and fluffy. I wanted them to spread up, not out. I did add a bit more flour than I usually do so that it wasn't sticky at all. Her recipe calls for baking at 400 degrees. To keep the timing consistent, I'll bake all batches for 8 minutes.

Warning: This post is crazy long and may be confusing. If you want to cut to the chase, just scroll to the bottom to see the conclusion.

If you're the daring type, come along for my baking experiments.....

The first thing I did was buy an oven thermometer.

Wow. Just plain old wow. The result was shocking.

I set my oven to 400 degrees. I heard the beep 10 minutes later and guess what the thermometer read? 300 stinking degrees. I tried to remain calm. So it takes a little longer to get to 400. No big deal. Everyone says to heat the oven for a long time before baking. I'll give it half an hour.

375 degrees. Worry starts to set in. At 55 minutes my oven finally reached about 390 degrees. Don't panic. Just set the oven to 410 and all will be well. Right? No. The dang oven got to 405 so I switched it back to 400 and decided to just get started.

So here's Batch #1. The raw dough.

I made the dough and let it rest for five minutes.
Rolled between plastic, no flour.
Room temperature dough.
Cut with a 2 1/4" cutter.

The dough was stretchy and difficult to move to the cookie sheet without distorting the shapes. I've never done it this way before. Hated it already.

Many cookiers say that over-crowding the pan leads to more spreading, so I crowded the cookies on the right and left plenty of room around the ones on the left.

The oven read 405. Reset it to 400 and put them in. *sigh*

Here's the result for Batch #1.

Difficult to see, huh?

Major spreeeeaaaaading problems.

They measure 2 5/8". Horrible! The scallops around the edges melded together quite a bit.

No difference between the over-crowded and not crowded cookies.

Batch #2.

I rolled out just-made, room temperature dough. No flour. Plastic wrap.
Chilled 20 minues.
The shapes were a dream to handle. No stretching.

My oven was now reading 390 stinkin degrees. Changed to 410 and popped those babies in. *sigh again*

Here's the result of Batch #2.

They may be the tiniest bit smaller than batch #1.
They measure 2 1/2".

No difference between crowded and not crowded.

Not good, but better.

A close up of the ones placed close together from batch #2.

Notice the bottom, left cookie, left edge. The scallops almost entirely disappeared. That side of the cookie isn't crowded at all.

Could it be my oven? Notice that it's brown on that edge. Hot spots in my oven?

Depression is setting in.

The backs of batch #2

Depression is seriously setting in.

The backs have never looked like this before.

Well of course they haven't. I've had my oven set at 400, not 410. I've been baking below 400 degrees. Who knows how much lower. It could have been a lot, especially if I started baking soon after (so-called) preheating.

Batch #3.

Room temperature dough from batch #1 but I re-rolled it using flour, between plastic.

I was hoping to firm it up a bit but still wanted to see what it did at room temp.

It was easier to handle this way than back at batch #1. Not as easy to handle as batch #2. Slightly stretchy dough.

(Is anyone following this? Ha!)

Changed my oven temp back to 410. Thermometer read 375. Uggggghhhh.

When I took them out of the oven, the thermometer read 390.

Crowded/not crowded were the same.

Brown edges.

These were measuring 2 1/2".

Better than batch #1. About the same as batch #2.

Very, very interesting.

Batch #4.

This is the rest of the dough from batch #3.

Rolled with flour between plastic but this time I chilled it.

Nice, firm dough. no stretching.

Batch #4 baked.

I had to do something about the browning. A lot of cookiers use the NFSC recipe. It calls for baking at 350 so I decided to try lowering my temp.

Oven set to 360. Actual oven temp 350 or slightly below.

Cookies measure 2 1/2".
More defined. Nicer scallops.
Things are looking better.

The backs of batch #4.

Much, much better.

Batch #5.

This is the same dough from batch #2.

Rolled with no flour, between plastic.


But I wanted to try it at the lower baking temperature.

Batch #5 baked.

Oven set to 360, actual oven temp is 350.

Nice and light in color.

Scallops aren't horrible.

Backs of batch #5.


It's looking like #4 and #5 came out the best. I wanted to compare them up close.

Batch #4 is on the top row. Batch #5 on the bottom row.

Very close. Look at that beauty on the top right. It's smaller than the rest and awesome!

The one on the bottom right is smaller than the rest of that row. I'm guessing that means that the right side of my oven is cooler and caused those to spread less.

Well I'm certainly not going to be using only one side of my oven, so I need to come up with a general conclusion here.

And that is....that Batch #4 is the winner. (The top row above.) The scallops are slightly more defined. The cookies may be the slightest bit smaller.

I must say that I'm surprised. Rolling with flour helps prevent spreading???? In all of my research on the topic (and that's rather extensive), I don't think that I've ever read to roll with flour to reduce spreading. Could it be?

Or could it be that I didn't have enough flour in my dough? I weigh my flour but I used a bit more this time.

Granted, there isn't a whole lot of difference between #4 and #5 but there is a difference.

I gotta say that I'm pretty shocked. I'm also pleased that I seem to be getting somewhere.

But I have to do just two more batches.

Many cookiers say that there seems to be more spread, the more you re-roll the scraps. So I took all of the scraps, let them come to room temperature, kneaded them together a bit, rolled between plastic, with flour.

Flour - my new secret weapon?

The oven had been on for a long time now and had gotten up to 360 so I reset to 355.

I opened the door and put the cookies in when it reached 350. Baked for 8 minutes, took them out and.....

Batch #6.

My first thought was, "Holy crap, those are beautiful cookies!" This is the best batch yet.

Gorgeous. Exquisite. Things of beauty. I think I'll frame them and hang them on the wall. There aren't enough adjectives in the English language to convey my feelings for these cookies. I think I want to marry them.

And they measure...2 3/8"!!!! Less than 2 1/2"! Just a tad larger than 2 1/4"! I know that you know what 2 3/8" means, I just can't believe it.

A beauty close up to show off their amazing curves.

Time for reflection. Why are these even better? They've had more flour kneaded in. They've been re-rolled once with flour. They've been chilled. They've been baked at a lower temperature.

There's just one more thing that I need to do. I'm going back to 400 degrees. I'm perfectly, completely pleased with the last batch. I'm just curious about decreasing the baking time at 400. I'm using the exact same dough as the last batch. 400 degrees for 6 minutes.

Batch #7.

Not bad. Not bad at all. They measure 2 1/2" just like many of the above batches but these scallops are much more defined.

Not as well defined or as small as Batch #6, but pretty good.

Shew. Has anyone read this entire thing? If so, you deserve a cookie. My head is swimming. If anyone else actually read this far, I wonder if it makes any sense at all.

One last picture. The gorgeous cookie on the bottom is from Batch #6. The one on the top is from one of the earliest batches. Quite a difference!

So let's wrap this up. The very best batch was rolled (actually re-rolled) using flour AND chilled. Baked at 350 for 8 minutes.

If you're experiencing spreading, I hope that this can somehow help you as it's helped me. Our recipes, our ovens, the way we do things are all different so I'm sure you'll have to run your own experiments but just maybe you'll find that lowering your oven temperature, using more flour, and chilling the dough will help you too. I hope so!

I'm quite unhappy that my oven isn't performing properly but I am quite thrilled that I may be able to get around it.

This whole oven temperature thing has rocked my world. I had no idea that my oven was performing this way. Who am I? What does this mean for all of my other baking? Whenever a time range is given for a baking recipe, I always end up baking for the longest time given. I thought that was normal. That's why they give a range, right?

I think I'm undergoing a baker's identity crisis right now. Am I babbling? Do I need to adjust the oven temp now for everything or continue on in the state of ignorant bliss that I was before? Everything (except my sugar cookies) was coming out just fine.

I'll have to do some baker's self-analysis on all of that.

In the meantime I think I'll just bask in the fabulousness of getting closer to non-spreading cookies. I can't wait to bake my next batch.

I had no real plans for these cookies, other than using them for scientific experimentation. I think I'll frost them with chocolate royal icing. Yum!

Edit: For an update on my cookie dough spreading problem, please see this post.

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