Oatmeal Cookies: How To Never Over- Or Under-Bake Cookies Ever Again

The other day Laura was about to bake up a batch of oatmeal cookies and she asked me for some advice:

Laura: So, our oven I think runs cooler than the one in our old place. So, should I put the temp up 25 degrees higher? And add two minutes to the cooking time? Or should I add 15 degrees and one minute? Or what?

Dan: No. All your questions are wrong.

And I wonder why Laura doesn't seek my advice more often.

But let me explain what I was trying to get at. Baking conditions can vary significantly from kitchen to kitchen. Some ovens run cold, others hot. Which means cookies baked to perfection in 12 minutes in one oven can burn to a crisp in another.

Furthermore, baking conditions can vary meaningfully even in the same kitchen: Is it a hot summer afternoon, or a cold winter morning? Did you leave your ingredients out on the counter for an hour while you did something else, warming the shortening, milk and eggs? Do you obsessively check your cookies while they bake (uh, like I do), thereby wasting your oven's heat? Any of these factors can impact a recipe's results.

Therefore, if you're baking something for the very first time, or if you're baking in a new kitchen, be sure to observe the following three rules:

1) Be aware that something unexpected could happen in your baking results.

2) Follow your recipe and cooking times to the letter, but test bake a mini-batch first. Don't risk an entire sheet of cookies.

3) Check the results. If you need to make an adjustment, tweak one--and only one--variable. Start by adjusting the cooking time.


Why adjust the cooking time rather than the temperature? Because it's the easiest variable to adjust on the fly. If things come out underdone, add 1-2 minutes to the cooking time. If they come out overdone, subtract 1-2 minutes. [Protip: Always remember to err on the side of undercooking. You can always put underdone cookies back in the oven. Burnt cookies are lost to humanity forever.]

Laura's mistake was making assumptions about the oven in our new kitchen--and tinkering with multiple baking variables--before she even tested anything. This is a recipe for sadness... and tiny little slabs of carbon. If you start making multiple changes before you've even tested a single cookie, how can you know what the proper time and temperature should be at all?

What I was trying to say when I tactlessly told Laura "all your questions are wrong" was that you can't know what variable to tweak... until you know what variable to tweak. Do a test batch first.

Know this, and you'll never screw up a batch of cookies again.

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Oatmeal Cookies

Ingredients:
1/3 cup butter
2/3 cup Crisco or vegetable shortening
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cups oats

Directions:
1) Thoroughly cream shortening and brown and white sugars. Add eggs and vanilla and mix well.
2) Sift flour with baking soda and salt, add to creamed mixture. Stir in oats with a sturdy spatula and combine well.
3) Form dough into cylindrical rolls about one-and-a-half inches in diameter, wrap dough in wax paper or foil and freeze.
4) To bake, first preheat oven to 350F. Slice frozen dough into (roughly) 1/4-inch thick slices, place onto a parchment paper-lined (or greased) cookie sheet, and bake for approximately 10-12 minutes at 350F until lightly browned.

Makes about 40-50 cookies... with dough left over for eating.

Related Posts:
Mint Melts: Teaching Kids to Cook With an Easy Cookie Recipe
Cookbook Review: The Cornbread Gospels
The Muffin Blogroll: 12 Great Muffin Recipes You'll Love to Bake


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11 comments:

MaryMcK said...

Very scientific! Also remember that one cooky may bake at a different rate from 2 dozen cookies. And that if you use Crisco in your cookies instead of butter, burning them beyond recognition is the best fate for them. Kidding. Kind of.

The Calico Cat said...

Kind of as a follow up to the previous comment with a dig at Crisco...

I love oatmeal cookies (chewy ones, not crispy ones) do they have to use shortening?

chacha1 said...

BUTTER. :-)

Alton Brown did a Good Eats whole episode on how to achieve crispy cookies or chewy cookies. I should have DVRd that one. I like 'em chewy.

Sally said...

You don't have to use Crisco to get a chewy cookie. This recipe is excellent, though I do think the original (from Quaker Oats) might have used Crisco.

http://smittenkitchen.com/blog/2009/02/thick-chewy-oatmeal-raisin-cookies/

Regarding oven temperature: The first and only thing I would do would be to get an oven thermometer. I think most serious cooks recommend that you always have one. That way you can adjust as needed. I always have one in my oven.

MaryMcK said...

The recipe Sally references looks like a good one for achieving a chewy cooky. A half cup of butter to 2 cups flour is the ratio I've found to be good for this (adjust for oatmeal). Also, once you scoop the dough onto the cooky sheets, pick up each dough blob and roll it between your palms to make it round. It gives the baked cooky a nice appearance AND a crackly surface.

Daniel said...

Great questions on butter vs vegetable shortening/Crisco. I bet there's an upcoming post I can write on this subject.

What we've found: using 100% butter, with its lower melting point, tends to produce cookies that lose their shape and flatten out too much in the oven. Again, this is just our experience with this recipe. Crisco combined with butter tends to improve the cookies' structure, yet you still get that good buttery flavor too.

Again, though, this is just me and my opinion--and the ratio of 1/3 butter and 2/3 Crisco is a solution for *this* specific recipe. Other readers' mileage (and other readers' cookie recipes) will vary. :)

DK

Autumn said...

For awesome oatmeal cookies, make them oatmeal raisin, and soak your raisins in the eggs for about an hour prior to mixing. They stay soft even if you overbake them cause your toddler tried to "help" you by emptying the garbage can. . . that had the raw chicken wrappings and egg shells.

MaryMcK said...

Dan, there are ways around that that don't involve Crisco - e.g., using baking powder instead of soda for cookies prone to spread (such as sugar cookies). Never found that to be a problem for oatmeal cookies though.

Not a fan of hydrogenated shortening, that's all.

NMPatricia said...

Am I the only one who actually tried these cookies? They were really good. The only thing I did different was to put 1/2 whole wheat pastry flour and 1/2 unbleached white flour. Usually I think cookies with only butter taste better but these are REALLY good. I also use Spectrum Organic All Vegetable Shortening Non-hydrogenated (and yes, I know how Dan feels about organic stuff).

However, I might choose to disagree with Dan's premise about how long to bake things. As I baked successive batches, I baked them less and less - usually about 1 minute less per batch. I only usually bake 3-4 batches at a time because of my cookie tin. LOL I think the bottom line is you have to watch the cookies.

Daniel said...

Right on Patricia. They *are* really good cookies.

And thanks for sharing your context on the time per batch. Probably because everything heats up incrementally as you go (the dough, the cookie sheet, etc) and that means less oven time needed to get the same level of doneness. You're absolutely right: you pretty much just have to watch the cookies. :)

DK

Sally said...

I started using butter exclusively for my baking a couple of years ago and I've not had trouble with cookies spreading.

I just found an article at Mel's Kitchen Cafe about using butter in cookie recipes:
http://www.melskitchencafe.com/2013/06/the-great-cookie-experiment-butter-temperature.html