Saturday, April 16, 2011

Baking Tips Part 1: Cookie Shaping

When I first started baking I learned the hard way that you should read through a recipe and make sure you are certain of two things: first, that you have all the ingredients, and second, that you understand all the instructions.  The worst time to realize you aren't sure of either of those items is when you are halfway into making a recipe.  Along the way I have picked up some various other tips and tweaks that I regularly apply to my baking and for this half I'd like to touch on shaping the cookie dough.

Something else I learned early on is that I am a lazy cook when it comes to certain steps, especially when it comes to shaping cookies.  Here are a few things I routinely do to make my cookie baking easier, faster, or less messy than the instructions call for.  There are several ways of shaping cookies and I find that they fall under two tiers, the first tier being the simpler. If I were to list them in order of preference based on ease of assembly they would be:

   First Tier-
  • Bar Cookies- By far the easiest and least fussy method.  Plop the dough into your prepared pan and smooth it out using a spatula, your wet/greased hands, or a piece of wax paper.  Wonderful in that you do not have to babysit the oven, turning trays and switching trays and putting a new tray in, but it will take a bit longer to cook so your instant gratification is reduced.

  • Drop Cookies-  One of the more common methods, perhaps even the most common.  I bought three sizes of cookie scoops (1 tablespoon, 2 tablespoons, and 3 tablespoons) and no longer dread gooey fingers or uneven sized cookies that lead to overdone and underdone cookies on the same tray.  Easy to assemble but you need to babysit the oven, filling trays and switching them around. (Along these same lines are thumbprint cookies which are drop cookies that have been indented, usually with your thumb, and then filled.)

  • Rolled into a ball and flattened-  This is where you divide the dough into even little balls of a determined size or number before using your wet/greased/floured hand or the bottom of a floured/sugared glass to press them into thinner flat disks.  Previous to buying my cookies scoops I didn't like this method much as it sorely tested my patience when it came to getting all the balls to be even.  Now I use my cookie scoops to plop them out all the same size without a bit of hassle.

   Second Tier-
  • Slice and Bake- Here you take the entire portion of dough and shape it into a long log using parchment paper, wax paper, or plastic wrap.  It is then chilled before slicing off even thicknesses of dough and baking them.  My dough often does not cooperate.  The pitfalls of this method include: round logs turning square, square logs turning round, dough sticking to the wrapper, slices getting squashed or cut unevenly.  This works well for a nice thick dough that is well chilled but as the dough softens you run into trouble.

  • Rolled Out and Cut- Using a floured or greased surface and rolling pin the dough is rolled out to a prescribed thickness and shape before being cut into smaller portions with a knife, pastry cutter, pizza wheel, cookie cutters, etc.  Unless you cut the dough into squares you are left with scraps and the procedure must be repeated.  Each time it is repeated with subsequent scraps the uncooked dough gets a little warmer/softer resulting in a tougher finished product.  Also, you may run into dough that wishes to stick to either the rolling surface or the rolling pin and after doing so, tears when you try to move it to the baking sheet.

  • Rolled, Filled and Shaped- Like the previous method, this dough is rolled out flat and cut into smaller portions.  Those portions are then filled with some concoction and then the dough is wrapped to hold the filling in some way.  This is by far the most fastidious method and the one I am least likely to do.

About that lazy cook thing that I mentioned before.  When I am making any cookie in the second tier, 99% of the time I will switch it for a first tier method.  It makes my life simpler and makes me happy while I'm baking.  The final products are not usually drastically different from the original intent and sometimes I even prefer them.  Although I must admit, since I have never made some of the second tier cookies in their original presentation, I am only making an assumed comparison.  Sometimes I will even turn first tier cookies into the simplest form, that of the bar cookie.  It really depends on my mood and my time constraints.

I know that there are other methods of shaping cookies, and even variations on the above methods.  Cookie guns or cookies presses for example aren't anywhere on my list, but since I have never used one I can't comment.  I won't pretend that the above list is by any means complete, it is, however, complete according to the methods I typically come across.  So, what have I missed?  Would you agree with that order of ease or do you switch some around?  Are you a baker (lazy or otherwise) with any tips to share?

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