Our popular Kitchen Geekery column is back with a burning question: to chill or not to chill cookie dough? Do you really need to chill cookie dough? Our resident baking science expert, Dr. J, explains all the reasons why we chill cookie dough before baking it. But what if you just can't wait?
When I started baking, I’d often get to the dough chilling step of a cookie recipe and snicker. I do most of my cookie baking when I’m craving cookies and, obviously, I cannot predict a craving 24 hours (or even 72 hours) before it hits me! So, I'd often skip or skimp on the chilling step, assuming that chilling cookie dough probably doesn’t make a difference anyways.
Actually, chilling cookie dough really does have an impact on your cookies!
Chilling Prevents Cookie Spread
Chilling cookie dough is especially important when there’s a risk of cookie spread, specifically in cookies with a high butter (and fat) content, like buttery sablé cookies and slice-and-bakes. The high fat content of these cookie recipes means that the butter will melt as soon as the cookies hit the oven. If you chill the cookie dough well prior to baking them, it will take significantly longer for the butter in the cookies to melt and cause spread.c
That delay in melting gives the heat of the oven a little extra time to bake and dry out the edges and surface of the cookies, firming them up and locking them in place. Once that crust forms on the outside of the cookies, it’s just that much more difficult for the cookies to spread, which means you're more likely to end up with a more even cookie shape. The cookies will be pretty close to the size they were when you slid that cookie sheet into the oven.
Actually, it's not just the fat that contributes to spread, but also the moisture content. Chilling cookie dough gives time for the flour to absorb some of the moisture in the cookie dough, resulting in a drier cookie dough. So, less moisture also leads to less spread.
A Popular Alternative to Prevent Cookie Spread
The alternative to chilling a cookie dough to prevent cookie spread is increasing the amount of dry ingredients (the flour) in your recipe or reducing the butter. While this method does work, your cookies will have a very different texture: they'll be firmer, harder, dryer and less buttery because you’ve altered the ratio of butter to flour in your recipe. Less butter per cookie means less buttery cookies.
Butter obviously contributes a delightful creamy flavour, and also a certain “lightness” and sandy texture when combined with the right sugar. To achieve that texture, chilling cookie dough is a much better option than altering a recipe by adding more flour (or reducing the butter in a recipe).
Chilling Concentrates Flavour
Chilling cookie dough isn’t just for appearances and texture. Chilling a cookie dough can also alter the flavour of your cookies. This is especially true for chocolate chip cookies, as proven by Jacques Torres’ infamous chocolate chip cookie recipe published in the New York Times years ago. Jacques Torres’ recipe calls for 72 hours of dough chilling. That’s a lot of time to wait for a chocolate chip cookie.
I encourage you to do the experiment yourself and test out different chill times. You’ll most likely realize that the chilling time is worth it, especially the first 24 hours in the fridge, which have the greatest impact on flavour. The caramel notes from the brown sugar will be more pronounced because the dough dries out (as the flour absorbs moisture) and the flavours concentrate.
What Types of Cookies Require Chilling?
Any type of rolled cookie that's cut out into neat shapes could definitely benefit from some chilling, not only to prevent spreading in the oven (and distortion of the desired cookie shape), but also because chilling makes rolling a little easier. Even just an hour of chilling can make a huge difference to how easily the cookie dough rolls out. Once the cookies are cut to the desired shapes, chill them again to firm up that butter and reduce the spread in the oven. This type of cookie includes rolled sugar cookie doughs, gingerbread cookie doughs for gingerbread people and especially gingerbread houses where the pieces have to fit properly together to build a house.
For scooped cookies like oatmeal cookies and chocolate chip cookies, I like to chill the dough overnight. The texture is improved, the cold dough helps keep my cookies thicker as they bake, and the caramel notes in the cookies are enhanced. I definitely recommend a 24-hour chill for many scooped cookie recipes.
In the end, if you're craving a freshly–baked chocolate chip cookie now, just go for it and break all the recommendations. And while you're at it, chill some of that dough for 24 hours in the fridge, then scoop and freeze it so that next time you have a hankering, you’ll be armed with chilled/aged cookie dough that’s ready to go!
- There's More Than One Kind of Butter
- What Makes Popcorn Pop?
- Tips for Prepping Your Cake Pans
- The Surprising Truths About Brown Sugar
Kitchen Geekery is written by Janice Lawandi. Janice is a PhD-chemist-turned-baker, which is why she loves to use science to understand and solve problems in the kitchen. She's currently working as a recipe tester and writer in Montreal, QC. Visit Janice’s blog, Kitchen Heals Soul, for more baking science and inspiration. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google+.
Do you cook chilled cookie dough longer?
You will most probably want to add a couple minutes to the bake time. Best to bake a “test cookie” to get an idea of what the baking time will be with chilled dough, especially if that dough has chilled for a very long time in the fridge, like 24 hours or more.
That being said, with chocolate chip cookies, some bakers, like Christina Tosi, will bake the chilled dough at a very high temperature for a short time to get that baked outer cookie crust with a gewy/raw-ish centre. So, it can depend on what you are going for. With sugar cookies and sablés, I keep the baking temperature at 350ºF, and I tend to bake them til the edges are golden brown. I monitor the look of them more than the clock in some cases, I guess.
Hope that helps!
Hi, Thank you so much for the insight! I also am curious about the science of the enzymes. I am msking spritz cookies and an pressed for time, i would like to make dough ahead of time, of course the recipe states need t to refrigerate dough. Is this only because the dough needs to be soft for the press, or for other reasons such as the eggs and flour enzymes.. Etc?
Interesting question! In the case of spritz cookies, some recipes recommend chilling the dough because spritz cookies have an intricate shape and design, which you would want to preserve, and one easy way to help preserve that shape is by keeping the dough cold so that when the cookies hit the oven, the shape is baked in place before the butter/cookies have time to melt/spread. Another reason why doughs that you press may be chilled is to help stabilize the dough because if the dough is too warm, you may experience the fat being pressed out of the dough from the mechanical force of the cookie press on the dough. Chilling helps prevent the fat from separating out, which I’ve noticed is especially a problem with doughs made with oils like coconut oil and pushed through a cookie press.
As for the enzymes, given that cookie dough is very low on humidity and water, I’d expect the enzymes in flour and eggs would not be super active, especially in the fridge at colder temperatures. But since you are curious about the enzymes, check out this article about enzymes in bread making: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/enzymes-the-little-molecules-that-bake-bread/
Completely confused as to why when I chill the cookie dough they spread and when I cook them right away they puff up. Seems to be the complete opposite of everything I have read. Any ideas??? Thanks much!
Can you tell me what the best butter and margarine I could purchase that would best for baking cookies?
Are you looking for a particular brand recommendation or for the type of butter you should use?
In general, for most baking recipes like cookies and cakes, you can absolutely get away with any good quality butter. I’ve done a lot of baking lately with a grocery store brand butter and it’s all worked out fine!
If you were making a laminated dough, you might want to invest in a “better butter” with a higher fat content (82–84% fat or more). Those recipes usually contain a lot more butter and with a short ingredient list, I’d recommend using the best butter you can afford. That being said, if it’s your first time experimenting with laminated dough, perhaps start with a more affordable one to practice with, and as you get better with the techniques, then maybe start investing in better butter. If you want brand recommendations, let me know!
I don’t have any recommendations for margarine in baking at the moment. One thing to note: some margarine brands add dairy flavours/dairy products to their margarine to improve flavour, so that’s something to be aware of that if you are baking for vegans, for example.
If you chill the cookie dough for sugar cookies overnight, how long do you let it sit before rolling and cutting out?
If you’ve chilled your cookie dough overnight in the fridge, you will have to wait at least 30 minutes before being able to roll it out. If you try to roll it out and the dough is too cold, it will crack, which isn’t ideal, but not the end of the world if you are using cookie cutters. In general, when I start to roll out a dough, if I find it’s too cold to roll, I cover loosely with a piece of plastic wrap and I walk away to give the dough a little more time to warm up a little.
After making the chocolate chip cookie dough, will it make a difference whether to chill over night and then scoop into balls or scoop right away and then chill?
How does this apply to alternative flours? I am gluten free and bake with either coconut or almond flours and often employ allulose/lakanto as a sugar alternative – would chilling still be useful?