Eight baking experts talk about their favorite tools and equipment
During the holidays, I’ve been accused of getting carried away with cookies, but who’s to say that baking five batches in one night is too much? If you’re planning to bake up a storm this year, I have some advice for you: Before you get started, before you even start fantasizing about which recipes to make, take inventory of your cookie baking equipment. You don’t need a lot for cookies, but having the right type of pans and gadgets can really make a difference in efficiency and in the quality of your final cookies.
Here are the favorites of some pastry chefs.
“I can’t live without parchment. I line every cookie sheet with parchment, even if the recipe suggests baking on an ungreased sheet, as many chocolate-chip cookie recipes do. I never have to worry about sticking, and clean-up is easy. And if I have to use the same pan for subsequent batches, I just slide the parchment with the baked cookies off onto a rack for cooling and then slide a new sheet with raw dough right onto the pan.” — Dede Wilson, author of Christmas Cooking for Dummies and Appetizers for Dummies
Parchment is affordable, and you can buy it in rolls that will fit the width of half sheet pans. Even better, King Arthur Flour’s Baker’s Catalogue sells parchment in already-cut rectangular sheets.
A reusable alternative to parchment, Silpat silicone baking mats are amazing. They’re a breeze to clean and will supposedly last for 2,000 uses. (That’s a lot of cookies, but I haven’t yet seen a worn-out Silpat.) Matfer makes an almost identical product; both brands are imported from France. I’ve tested them side by side, and both work flawlessly. If you use one of these silicone mats, be aware that they retain heat much longer than parchment and handle them with oven mitts to be safe. And they’re not cheap. They cost as much as or even more than most high-quality cookie sheets, and for serious baking you’ll need at least two mats. Four would be even better.
“My new best friends are mini ice-cream scoops for scooping uniform-size cookies. They make it easy for kids to have success in the kitchen, too.” — Gale Gand, executive pastry chef and partner of Tru in Chicago, cookbook author, and host of the Food Network’s “Sweet Dreams“
If you’ve ever made a tray of cookies and found that some are overbaked and others are underbaked, this tool may be the solution. Uniformly scooped cookies will bake up evenly every time — no more feeding the burned cookies to the dog. Just scoop the dough and use the lever on the handle to plop the ball directly onto the cookie sheet. The Baker’s Catalogue sells scoops in teaspoon and tablespoon sizes.
“I rely on my angled offset spatula for holiday cookie baking. I use it to make sure that my dough doesn’t stick to the counter when I’m rolling it out, and then to transfer cut cookies to baking sheets.” — Lauren Chattman, author ofMom’s Big Book of Baking and Icebox Pies
Do you avoid making rolled cookies? They can be tricky because of their butter-rich dough, especially as the kitchen starts to warm up. A simple solution is an angled offset spatula. I like Ateco spatulas: they’re angled just right for ease of use, and the blade is extra thin to minimize damage to delicate cookies. Just don’t forget to prepare your cookie sheets as directed before you start shaping your cookies. And, of course, use the spatula to transfer the finished cookies from the baking sheet to the cooling rack.
“Oven thermometers ensure accurate baking temperatures, critical with most cookies. You can’t rely on the oven’s temperature gauge.” — Marcel Desaulniers, author of Death by Chocolate
You probably know that older ovens with dial controls have always been prone to less-than-accurate results, and unfortunately, you can’t totally rely on your oven’s gauge, even if you have a newer oven that features a digital thermostat. If your oven is too hot or too cold, it doesn’t matter if you’re using the very best brand of cookie sheet and watching the kitchen timer like a hawk. Fortunately, oven thermometers are affordable and available everywhere. Hang one on your oven’s middle rack, set the oven’s thermostat to 350°F, and wait for at least 30 minutes. Check the thermometer (leave the oven door closed and turn on the oven light for the most accurate results) and don’t be surprised if it’s off by 25 degrees or more — just adjust your oven controls accordingly. Check the thermometer every time you bake, just to be safe.
“There’s nothing like a good-quality, professional bench scraper for cutting, cleaning, and even shaping doughs. Go down to a restaurant-supply store and get one with a nice thin blade. You’ll save money and get a good quality tool, too.” — Wayne Harley Brachman, author of Retro Desserts and host of the Food Network’s “Melting Pot“
A bench scraper is indispensable. If there isn’t a restaurant-supply store in your area, look for scrapers in kitchenware stores. If you’re making lots of rolled or refrigerator cookies, your scraper will get plenty of use scraping up bits of dough, shaping and cutting blocks of dough, and slicing refrigerated dough logs into cookies. I like stainless-steel models with rolled handles for durability, but Oxo makes one with a comfortable rubber handle, plus it has a ruler on the blade so you can measure cookie sizes and dough thicknesses.
Speaking of measuring, I thought measuring spoonswere measuring spoons until I saw these from Cuisipro, which are cleverly designed to sit on the countertop without tipping over. That means you can set a tablespoon down on any flat surface, add vanilla extract, and let it just sit there until you’re ready to add it to the batter. If you’re using a hand mixer or mixing by hand, having your ingredients measured and ready is essential. Also handy are irregular-size measuring cups and spoons from Amco. These 18/8 stainless-steel cups are sold in a set of 2/3-, 3/4-, and 1-1/2-cup measures. I find that I use my odd-size cups even more than my standard ones.
“I would find it hard to live without my KitchenAid 5-quart mixer. It’s more than 22 years old and has never skipped a beat. I can mix anything quickly and easily in it. I can’t imagine making cookies without it.” — Carole Bloom, author of Cookies for Dummies and Chocolate Lover’s Cookbook for Dummies
Carole’s sentiment is most likely universal among avid bakers. You just turn the mixer on and let it do all the work while your hands are free to get the next ingredient ready, prep the cookie sheets, or start cleaning up. The rotary action of the mixer ensures that all your ingredients are properly combined, so you don’t waste so much time stopping the mixer to scrape down the sides of the bowl (although on some models, you do need to scrape down to the very bottom to be sure those ingredients get incorporated correctly). The heaviness of a stand mixer means you don’t have to worry about the machine “walking” on the counter.
But size does matter. KitchenAid’s 4-1/2- and 5-quart stand mixers were the standard for decades. You can find 250-watt, 4-1/2-quart models in most department stores, and the 300-watt Ultra Power models are available in gorgeous colors to coordinate with your kitchen décor.
You may find that you need a bigger mixing bowl, especially when you’re baking double batches of cookies for the holidays. KitchenAid now makes two mixers that come with a 6-quart bowl — the 475-watt Epicurean and the 525-watt Professional. These heavy-duty mixers are worth the extra expense if you do a lot of baking. If you need something even larger, the 650-watt Kenwood KM800 Major Classic stand mixer has a 7-quart bowl.
One last suggestion about stand mixers — buy an extra bowl. If you’re baking more than one batch of cookies, or making sandwich cookies, you’ll save a lot of time if you don’t have to wash out the bowl every time you need a clean one.
“Sturdy baking sheets are always important, but never more so than during holiday baking time, when my oven cranks out tons of cookies. I love Doughmakers baking sheets. They have that wonderful pebbled surface for even browning, and the coined edge makes them super-sturdy — there’s no warping.” — Abigail Johnson Dodge, Fine Cookingcontributing editor and author of Williams-Sonoma Desserts
Abby added that Doughmakers’ “great grand” size (14×20 inches) is probably too big for most home ovens. The “grand” is the size of a standard half sheet pan (14×17 inches), and the biscuit size (10×14 inches) is handy, too. After her rave review, I had to try them myself. My cookies slid right off, as if I’d used parchment or a silicone baking mat. Most nonstick pans have a sprayed-on coating that scratches easily and wears out over time, and cheaper pans will rust when the surface is scratched and the steel interior is exposed. (Avoid at all costs the cheap pans sold in supermarkets.) Doughmakers’ pans are made of aluminum, so they won’t rust. The pebbled surface also allows air to get beneath the cookies, so they brown more evenly than with most pans.
Of course, if you use parchment or silicone mats, many brands of high-quality cookie sheets will suffice. I recommend Chicago Metallic’s Commercial pans. They’re built to the highest standards, and they offer a good value for your dollar, too. Jellyroll-style sheet pans have a wire rod inside the rolled edges to prevent warping, and their terrific heat conductivity ensures even baking.
“Cookie cutters are a holiday essential. I have more than a hundred of them, because there’s nothing more fun than biting off the head of a gingerbread camel or the points off a shortbread star. And whimsical shapes are, of course, an excuse to use brightly colored sugars and sprinkles.” — Carolyn Beth Weil, baker, instructor, and co-author of The Baker’s Dozen Cookbook
I have wonderful memories of baking cookies with my mother when I was a kid. Now, baking cookies with my daughter and sharing them with friends and family is our own holiday tradition. We have a large assortment of cookie cutters, but my daughter is a big fan of our Wilton cookie press. I make dozens and dozens of cookies in all different shapes with the press, and she’s in charge of decorations.
Don’t forget to stock up on the sprinkles, sugar crystals, and other cookie toppings, and start some holiday traditions of your own this year. Have some fun while you’re at it.
Sources for cookie baking equipment
Look up The Baker’s Catalogue (www.kingarthurflour.com) for sheets of pre-cut parchment. The sheets perfectly fit a half sheet pan; 41 square feet of paper costs $14.95. The Baker’s Catalogue also carries Zeroll teaspoon and tablespoon cookie scoops for $19.95 each, as well as sprinkles and sugar crystals. Cooking.com sells a range of offset Ateco spatulas starting at $1.95, as well as cookie cutters and Cuisipro measuring spoons ($9.95). Try Williams-Sonoma (www.williams-sonoma.com) for stainless-steel bench scrapers, which start at $8, as well as Silpat nonstick baking liners, ranging from $23 to $46. Chef’s Catalog (www.chefscatalog.com) carries Doughmakers baking sheets starting at $17.99. Kitchen Emporium (www.kitchenemporium.com) sells Chicago Metallic cookie sheets starting at $12.95. Contact KitchenAid (www.kitchenaid.com) for more information about its stand mixers.