Well, it's that time of year again: Determined bakers are suddenly going to decide Santa deserves no less than a 10,000-cookie buffet, and aim to tackle all the fun ideas they've been filing away for the past few months.
Any way you slice it, that level of baking will always involve a solid investment of time, but whether you approach it like a marathon or a few short sprints can make all the difference in the world. By distributing the work (and cleanup) of cookie-baking over the course of a few days, you can make that experience a lot less stressful, messy, and chaotic, and a lot more fun.
Here are four easy steps to de-stress your holiday baking plans.
Cookie Prep Tip #1: Make a Plan
While there's nothing wrong with just grabbing a handful of your favorite recipes, it's worth taking a moment to consider how various recipes will work together before you embark on an epic cookie quest. Look for combinations that can deliver a nice range of flavors, textures, and techniques. For example, here's a nice mix: crunchy gingersnaps (drop cookies), frosted cutouts (rolled sugar cookies), and buttery spritz (piped cookies).
The gustatory advantages of this arrangement are obvious. As with a good cheese plate, offering a selection of flavors and textures keeps things interesting. But variety can also help with prep, as it keeps individual tools and machines from being tied up while a long line of similar cookies is waiting to be made.
Cookie Prep Tip #2: Make Ahead
Nothing beats a freshly baked cookie, and the best way to coordinate the freshness of several recipes is to knock out their collective prep in advance. With a few exceptions (say, piped meringue kisses), most cookie doughs are happy to live in the fridge for up to a week, and many will actually improve with age. So you can spread the work of making cookies over the course of a few days or weeknights, then save the fun of baking for a lazy Sunday afternoon.
The average cookie dough is fairly low-moisture, which means the leavening agents aren't quick to react (you can read more on the mechanics of those reactions here and/or here). Still, you're always better off safe than sorry, and there's a rad trick to ensuring your cookie dough doesn't lose any oomph in the fridge: Don't combine the leavening agents with the flour; mix them into the sugar instead.
That way, when you cream the butter and sugar together, the leavening agents become coated in cold fat, a subtle waterproofing effect that prevents moisture from triggering the release of carbon dioxide until the cookie dough starts to melt in the oven, so the cookies puff just like they should. It also ensures the most perfectly homogeneous distribution of ingredients, so it's a good way to incorporate the spices and salt as well.
This trick won't work in recipes that call for melted butter (for example, Kenji's chocolate chip cookies and my oatmeal cookies), but it's a handy fix for any cookie dough that involves creaming butter and sugar.
Cookie Prep Tip #3: Prepare for Chilling
For rolled cookies, divide the dough in half, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate as a flattened disk. This isn't to jump-start the rolling process so much as to ensure the dough softens at a more even rate when you're ready to roll. Most doughs will crack and crumble if rolled straight from the fridge—although a few are specifically designed for that purpose—so I recommend standing the disks at room temperature to restore the butter's plasticity, which typically happens at around 65°F/18°C (slightly colder if the dough contains lots of invert sugars, like molasses or honey).
For drop cookies, it's vital to portion the dough prior to refrigeration; otherwise, you'll have to wait for a giant mass of dough to soften before it can be scooped. If the dough is fairly stiff, you can drop the pieces straight into a zip-top bag. For softer, squishier doughs, it helps to pop the portioned dough in the freezer until firm.
You can bake the portioned dough straight from the fridge if you prefer a thicker cookie, but bear in mind that this will invalidate the recipe's suggested baking time. Otherwise, let the dough stand at room temperature until softened, which will happen when it reaches about 70°F (21°C), then bake as directed.
Cookie Prep Tip #4: Get Your Mise en Place
If a cookie dough isn't amenable to refrigeration, you can still speed up the process by scaling out your ingredients in advance. Having all the sugar, salt, seasoning, and leavening prepped and ready to go gives you a sort of DIY cookie mix. Just dump it in a bowl, add the softened butter (or whatever other ingredients your recipe calls for), and have at it. Most recipes call for flour and other dry ingredients, like cocoa powder or ground nuts, to be added last, so it can be helpful to have these bagged and ready to go as well.
This type of advance prep is particularly helpful if you plan to do some baking with children, at a friend's house, or in a group setting where you may get chatty and distracted—did I add the baking soda, or just the salt? This is something I always do when I visit my parents, so I can give the gift of freshly baked Christmas cookies without having to cart down my scale.