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