Baking cookies? Here’s how to get the taste, texture, color & shape you want

Many of us remember our grandmothers throwing together cookie dough while barely glancing at a recipe or using a measuring cup. As impressive as our grandmothers were, they didn’t learn to bake those perfect cookies overnight. They learned from trial and error on countless recipes, scrapping many along the way.

Let’s speed that up just a bit by getting to know the ingredients used in baking cookies, and how they change your delicious desserts with each variation!

This article has been sponsored by Domino Sugar/C&H Sugar, and although Thanksgiving.com has been compensated for this post, we only recommend products or services some of our team members personally use and believe will be a good fit for our readers.


Baking cookies with flour

Flour can make or break a cookie recipe if the baker doesn’t understand the differences among the many types available.

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If a cookie recipe calls for all-purpose flour, you can safely substitute bleached or unbleached flour of any brand with no change in the cookie. If a recipe simply calls for “flour” and gives no further explanation, you can use either basic type.

Below are other kinds of flour and the most likely results when used in cookie recipes:

  • Bread flour has a higher protein content than other flours, which means it produces more gluten. This is great for bread but will turn out a denser, chewier cookie.
  • Self-rising flour has baking powder and salt already mixed in. Lower in protein content, it’s ideal for biscuits, scones, and muffins ⎯ but not for cookies. If you must use it, be sure it’s for recipes that already call for baking powder. If the recipe calls for 1 to 2 teaspoons of baking powder per 2 cups of flour, you should be good. Leave out the baking powder and the salt. However, the cookies will spread more than with all-purpose flour.
  • Whole-wheat flour will completely change your cookies, making them earthier and denser if substituted fully. Alternatively, you can replace 1/4 cup all-purpose flour with 1/4 cup whole wheat flour. This gives the cookie more texture from the added fiber but should preserve the overall taste and appearance.
  • Oatmeal can be used in place of up to 1/2 of a cup of all-purpose flour. In other words, if the recipe calls for 2 cups of flour, replace 1/2 cup with old-fashioned oats or quick oats. If any more is used, it will change the sweetness and the density of the cookie. (Instant oatmeal will break down, and steel-cut oats are too hard.) Steel-cut oats have a really interesting texture; they are cut differently than the oatmeal we normally use in recipes. If it’s all you have in the pantry, you can try using it in place of old-fashioned oats, but replace only 1/4 cup or less in a cookie or bar recipe.

These are the most common flours and grains, but there are many other “flours” out there, such as almond flour, ancient grains, rice flour, Graham, and many more. If you are using 25% of any of these with 75% all-purpose flour, you should be fine if the remainder of the ingredients are kept the same as the original recipe.

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Sugar cookies

Baking cookies with sugar

Granulated, powdered, brown, raw and superfine are all terms used to describe types of sugar. Each has its purpose. Some are interchangeable, but some must be kept for special uses.

White granulated and brown are the most common in cookie recipes. A recipe often calls for 1 cup of each, which gives us the best of both. Familiarize yourself with the most common sugars, and you should be all set when it comes to baking cookies.

  • White granulated sugar is the classic used in any recipe that calls for white, granulated, or otherwise unspecified sugar. It is readily available and works like a charm in baking cookies. Granulated sugar used in a recipe by itself will result in a nicely browned cookie that is crispy and sweet. Some recipes use both white and brown sugar to get the best of both worlds.
  • Superfine sugar (also known as caster, fine, extra-fine or table sugar) is a finely ground granulated variety that dissolves quickly and completely ⎯ important for meringues and other desserts. It can be used in place of regular white sugar with the same results. It is the same sugar except for the texture. If a cookie recipe calls for superfine or fine sugar, however, don’t substitute regular; it could change the cookie’s texture or make it heavy instead of light. (In a pinch, toss regular sugar in a food processor for a minute or two until it’s a finer texture before using in a recipe calling for superfine.) Note: Superfine sugar is not powdered sugar.
  • Confectioners’ sugar (also known as powdered, icing and 10X superfine sugar) is granulated sugar that has been ground to a powder and then mixed with a small amount of cornstarch. The process creates a completely different texture. Powdered sugar will not work well in place of granulated, fine or brown sugar. Its light, airy texture makes it look more like flour than sugar and is perfect for icing or coating on cookies. Powdered sugar is not interchangeable with granulated or brown sugar because of these differences in weight, sweetness and texture. Confectioners’ sugar is used in meringue cookies and macarons with mouthwatering results. It is an important ingredient that can’t be replaced with other sugars.
  • Brown sugar contains the same sugar as granulated, but the addition of molasses creates a moist, flavorful sugar. Dark brown sugar contains about twice as much molasses for a deeper color and taste than light brown sugar. They can be interchanged in recipes, but the dark brown sugar’s molasses flavor is especially nice in cookies using ginger or oatmeal. Using either light or dark brown sugar results in a moister, chewier cookie. They can be substituted for white sugar in recipes that use both brown and white sugar; even a straight-up switch from granulated to brown works. It will change the cookie slightly, making it chewy rather than thin and crispy. Taste will vary a little too.
  • Other types of sugar: Unrefined or raw sugars can be substituted in some cases for granulated or brown sugar. Muscovado sugar is moist with a deep molasses flavor; it works well in place of brown sugar and vice versa. Turbinado and demerara sugars can be used in place of granulated sugar but should be ground in a food processor slightly so the crystals are smaller. Their colors and tastes are different from granulated sugar, which makes both lovely for sprinkling on the top of cookies.
  • Sugar substitutes are varied and many, but most provide equivalents and directions on their labels. The fussier a cookie recipe is, the more difficult it is to substitute a different type of sweetener. Try looking for recipes that have been tested previously using the alternative sweetener you prefer for best results.

Two of the leading brands of cane sugar in America are Domino® Sugar and C&H® Sugar. Each of these brands has its own rich American history that spans more than 100 years ⎯ Domino® in the East and C&H® in the West.


Roll of cookie dough

Baking cookies with butter, margarine & shortening

All cookie recipes contain some type of fat, and it’s tempting to grab whatever you have on hand or is on sale at the store. Before you decide, though, you should know how it will change your cookies.

Margarine sold in a tub should not be substituted for butter or shortening in cookie recipes. It doesn’t harden; this is because of the added liquid that keeps it soft for spreading. That same liquid will cause the dough to spread while baking, which will give you flat, rather tough cookies.

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Margarine packaged as wrapped sticks can be interchanged with butter as long as it contains at least 80% vegetable oil. The nutrition information should give this information. Many bakers swear by using half butter and half margarine. The taste difference will be most obvious in sugar cookies, shortbread and any cookie that uses butter as the main flavor. Using half-and-half produces less butter taste, but it still works well as far as texture and form.

Shortening is another favorite of many bakers. Cookies made with shortening tend to spread less, and they turn out slightly chewy rather than crispy. The difference is the 100% fat content of shortening. Butter and margarine aren’t completely interchangeable with shortening because of this difference. The former consists of about 80-85% fat, and it makes a difference. The taste will be less buttery in flavor ⎯ a consideration if that is important to the type of cookie you’re baking.

Butter: Melted, cold or room temp?

Butter is the gold standard in baking for many people, but even butter can go wrong in a cookie if it’s not treated correctly. Generally, recipes call for three variations: melted, cold or room temperature. They are not interchangeable. If butter is melted, even slightly by using the microwave or some other method, the cookies will spread and flatten.

When a recipe calls for room-temperature butter, plan ahead and leave the butter on the countertop for an hour or two before beginning your baking rather than using a quick method of softening. If a recipe calls for creaming the butter and sugars, but doesn’t specify the temperature of the butter, go with room temperature.

Other recipes call for cold butter, which is equally as important. This is more common in biscuit and scone recipes, but some cookie recipes specify it. It’s usually worked into dry ingredients rather than creamed with the sugars. Again, always follow the directions.

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Baking cookies with salt and leavening agents

Salt is important in baking cookies. Most recipes call for a small amount, depending on the size of the recipe, but it brings out flavor and helps the gluten do its job. Kosher, sea and table salt are fine to use as long as they’re finely ground.

Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) needs an acid to work in a recipe. Baking powder is basically baking soda with an acid already added so that it can work on its own. Many cookies call for both baking soda and powder because they sometimes need each other to work correctly. The bottom line: Follow the directions in recipes and use the correct amount of each, whether used alone or together.

Baking cookies: Odds and ends

Baking is an ongoing learning process, and many factors can affect its success. Below are a few more tips to consider before putting your cookie dough in the oven:

  • Unless a recipe specifies Dutch-process cocoa, use cocoa that is 100% cacao, non-alkalized and unsweetened. Many recipes simply call for “cocoa powder,” but you should use only natural cocoa for the best results in cookies that use baking soda as a leavening agent.
  • Use parchment paper on baking sheets for even browning, especially when you’re using old pans.
  • Always preheat the oven completely before baking.
  • Cool baking sheets before using them for the next batch of dough.
  • Eggs in recipes should always be large ⎯ not medium or jumbo. This could make a difference if the recipe calls for four or more eggs.
  • Grease or spray a cookie sheet parchment only if the recipe calls for it. Additional fat on the sheet could cause spreading.
  • Chilling cookie dough for 15-20 minutes in the freezer or for a few hours in the refrigerator improves flavor and deters spreading. If you have time, give it a try — and if a recipe calls for this step, don’t skip it.
  • If a variation or substitution is a success in a recipe, make a note, so you can do the same thing next time you grab that keeper recipe.

Photos courtesy of Sally’s Baking Addiction