The Dread Spread
Flat cookies were all too familiar to me growing-up. I made chocolate chip cookies most Fridays as a kid and could never figure out why they never looked like the puffy, chewy ones on the package. Yes, they still tasted the same, but that just wasn't the point.
I now know that the "dread spread" can be due to a number of reasons, but most likely one of the following four:
1. The oven is too hot - Yep, no matter what the dial or digital readout says, it may not actually be 350 degrees inside the oven, whether it's your brand new double stand alone or grandma's old wall unit Kenmore. The solution here is an oven thermometer that you can pick-up pretty much at any drug or grocery store or even on line. If you are having issues with other items cooking too fast (or slow), this indeed may be the problem. I think this was one of the primary culprits for me growing-up, although it may also have been the margarine (below)
2. Too much sugar. I'm no Alton Brown, but I do know that once the sugar heats, it releases all the liquid it has absorbed, and sugar is a voracious absorber! So if you don't measure precisely and think it doesn't matter because the more sugar the better (totally reasonable thinking in my opinion), it may give you more than extra calories later. Solution? Measure all ingredients (by a scale if possible) before mixing. It's all part of something call mise en place which I will cover in other blogs, but in a nutshell it just means reading the darn recipe at least twice and then measuring and setting out your ingredients before mixing (I put mine on an extra cookie sheet). This goes for both baking and cooking. Yeah, I know, most of us do the measure and mix as we go, but this can really save missed ingredients and incorrect measurements and it doesn't take that much extra time.
3. Overly greased sheets. Instead of spraying or using butter or margarine to prevent sticking on a baking sheet, use parchment paper or invest in some silicone mats. Both work great and save on the sticking AND spreading. Oh, and don't spray the parchment paper or silicone sheets (unless, for some reason, the recipe specifically calls for it). My husband found out the hard way and came out with something like this (still tasted great though):
4. Soft Butter. Yes, using butter that's too soft (or margarine which contains more water than fat and adds to the spread) can make for thin cookies, if not for a thin baker (tell me about it). The solution here is to chill the dough, even for 30 minutes and even if your butter is at room temperature and NOT too soft. I really do swear by this. If I have the time I chill, sometimes twice! Once after the dough is made and then again before they go into the oven. If you really want your cut-out cookies to keep their shape, chill! You can go straight from fridge or freezer into the oven. Just watch the cookies as the time to cook may vary from the recipe. In any event, when you start smelling them, check!
So good luck and happy baking. Keep experimenting and keep trying. And if you still end-up with a flatter cookie than expected, don't despair and don't throw away! It's all in the name and marketing. Instead of chocolate chip cookies, call them "Chippy Crisps" or re-name thin sugar cookies or snickerdoodles, "Sweet Flatbreads". Be creative and positive and no one will know any different (as long as they taste the same of course!).
For more about flat cookies (and other great baking tips) see this blog at one of my favorite sites, King Arthur Flour .