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.
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!
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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+.