Are boxes of Girl Scout cookies tempting you from every corner of the office? Many of us wait all year for a taste of our favorite Samoas, Trefoils and Thin Mints — buying a few boxes for ourselves along with a few extras to give friends and family. But you don't need to chase down a Girl Scout (or wait until their cookie sale season commences) to give the gift of cookies. “Cookies should be a quick and easy thing,” says Megan Garrelts, the co-owner and executive pastry chef of Rye and Bluestem in Kansas City, Missouri. “They’re a great gift for any occasion because everybody loves fresh baked cookies.”
Since I wrote the cookbook "Cookies & Beer" in 2015, I’ve learned that cookies make for great apologies. They can also be baked in a pinch when you’ve forgotten to buy a gift or as a last-minute crowd pleaser for a get together (any kind of gathering, really). The key to making a great cookie at home is being (slightly) picky about your ingredients and maintaining the right equipment in your kitchen. From the basic ingredients to keep around for cookie-ish occasions to some useful tools to aid your baking, Garrelts offers up tips and insights she's picked up from experience — and I'll throw in a few from my own.
In this article
- Best ingredients for cookies
- Best tools for cookie-making and preparation
- Best kitchenware and bakeware for cookies
Best cookie ingredients to keep on hand
Spices have a way of getting tucked into a corner of a shelf and getting forgotten. But spices and leavening agents — ingredients like baking soda and baking powder, which make dough expand and cookies rise — have a shelf life. When those ingredients get stale, they lose their potency. As a result, the chance that your cookies won’t turn out well increases.
Baking soda, a common ingredient in cookie recipes, is an alkaline powder that causes dough to rise. Arm & Hammer Pure Baking Soda has a handy change by date on the side, so you can mark when you purchased it. “You need fresh leveling agents and spices,” Garrelts says. “I use the comparison to makeup. Every six months, you change out your mascara. Your nutmeg needs to be thought of in the same light.”
When purchasing common baking spices, like cinnamon and nutmeg, buy smaller quantities so they're not sitting around for a long time. Grab a Sharpie and mark the date on the jar so you don’t have to think about when you bought it. Then, you can make Garrelt’s Oatmeal Cherry cookies.
Look for an aluminum-free baking powder like Rumford Baking Powder — it ensures you won’t get a metallic aftertaste in your cookies.
While fresh dry ingredients are important, there are also a few key places in a recipe where you should be willing to stretch your budget. “Use real vanilla extract,” Garrelts says. “It tends to be twice as much as imitation vanilla, but the flavor is worth it, especially with chocolate chip cookies where there may not be that many ingredients.” Real vanilla extract, such as Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract, will be designated with the word "pure."
Every six months, you change out your mascara. Your nutmeg needs to be thought of in the same light.
Megan Garrelts, pastry chef
The other two items where I’m always willing to pay more for flavor are chocolate and butter. For chocolate chips, I regularly use Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate chips. They bake evenly and are delicious in cookies. The chocolate doesn’t overwhelm spices and plays nicely off the sea salt I tend to sprinkle on top.
I use unsalted butter, unless a recipe specifically calls for salted butter, because I can always add a sprinkle of salt on top of a cookie after it comes out of the oven. Garrelts opts for Kerrygold unsalted butter because of its consistency and quality, she said. I always keep a few bricks of Costco’s Kirkland brand organic unsalted butter in my fridge.
Best tools to prepare and make cookies
If you want to be successful with your cookies, start with the right tools. I have zested oranges without a grater and chopped chocolate with a dull bread knife — I don't advise either. The frustration of not having good equipment takes the joy out of baking and makes it more likely that you’ll make a mistake with a recipe.
A microplane, easy to hold and maneuver around a lemon or orange, is how I douse my cookies with some zest, the flavorful exterior of citrus fruit.
Cookies are really forgiving, so don’t be afraid to experiment. Just change up the ingredients a bit and you might find something really interesting.
“You need a really good microplane and y-peeler,” Garrelts says. “You don’t need a really fancy peeler with a lot of stuff going on, the classic y-peeler is what every every line cook in a restaurant uses.” Make sure both kitchen tools are sharp and free of rust before you use them.
You should also find a knife you love. Garrelts is partial to her Wusthoff serrated knife. “It’s great for slicing frozen cookie dough or chopping chocolate,” she says. “It’s my favorite pastry knife.”
The right knife is the one that works for your hand. I find myself often reaching for the least expensive knife in my drawer, the Pure Komachi serrated sandwich knife. This steel knife is lightweight, helps slice bar cookies and can be used as a spreader in a pinch.
Now that your ingredients are peeled and chopped, you’ll want to have a stand mixer on hand. “My go-to is the standard KitchenAid mixer,” Garrelts says. And if you’ve saved time with a mixer, use it to your advantage. Chill the dough in your freezer for 30 minutes before baking. Garrelts says that cold dough will give your cookies a better shape and texture.
6. Beater Blade
“And there’s a new paddle with the scrapers on the sides that’s really awesome,” Garrelts notes. The paddle — the Beater Blade — is a KitchenAid attachment that scrapes the sides of the bowl while it mixes the dough. The pointed tip also hits the bottom of the bowl, helping to fold together all the ingredients.
While an electric mixer is sure to save you time (and sore arms), you can always cream together butter and sugar in a pinch by hand with a spatula like this highly-rated model from OXO.
Best kitchenware and bakeware for cookies
When I first started baking, I liked that cookies offered me a built-in back-up plan. If the first sheet of cookies didn’t work out — much like the first pancake of the morning — I had another chance, a plan B, waiting on the counter.
The Williams and Sonoma’s Goldtouch line that Garrelts uses solves that problem by offering two cookie sheets, along with a wire rack for cooling. “The cookies tend to stick less and the wire racks are slip resistant,” Garrelts says.
You can use parchment paper or silicone mats like a Silpat Baking Mat — which is designed to conduct heat evenly — to prevent cookies from sticking to your baking sheets.
When it comes to getting your dough onto the baking sheets, you can use an OXO cookie scoop or portion out the dough on a digital kitchen scale — I use an Ozeri Pronto Digital Kitchen and Food Scale and then roll the cookies out by hand.
The versatility of cookies means that they can be made in a variety of ovens. Bakers are using air fryers and smart ovens, in addition to conventional ovens. Even astronauts can make cookies in space. Back on earth, Garrelts recommends an oven with a convection setting. Her home kitchen oven is an American Range. “I always use a convection oven for baking cookies,” Garrelts says. “If you’re in the market for a new oven, get one that has convection because it regulates the heat better.”
Convection ovens have a fan and exhaust system to regulate heat more evenly, meaning you can avoid cookies that are too brown on the edges and too soft in the middle. You can find an array of convection oven options (at various price points) on Amazon and at Walmart, Home Depot, Sur la Table and elsewhere.
Of course, you don't need an entire new range to cook with a convection oven. Plenty of countertop models will give you the same cooking properties and features. The relatively affordable COSORI 12-in-1 Oven will give you a convection oven on top of a slew of other features, including an air fryer, rotisserie and dehydrator.
Once you’ve mastered the basics, the sky's the limit when it comes to cookies. Garrelts regularly swaps passion fruit for oranges or macadamia nuts for walnuts. She’s still thinking about a chocolate chip cookie made with rye flour and brown butter. “That cookie was different. It made me want to know what was in it,” Garrelts said. “Cookies are really forgiving, so don’t be afraid to experiment. Just change up the ingredients a bit and you might find something really interesting.”
More kitchen and cooking recommendations
- Buying a smart oven? One cookbook author shares her tips
- Best 16 gifts for a smart home
- 26 best cookbooks to give (and get)