Christmas cookies

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Cookies. Nothing says the holidays like some homemade baked goodness. For many families, it’s a holiday tradition.

“Making cookies is a great thing to do with family and requires very little tools,” says TJ Quinn, “culinary colonel” at Kitchen Kettle Village. “The process is fun, and the results are delicious.”

Sara Taylor, co-owner of Taylor Chip Cookie Co. in Lancaster, agrees.

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“Cookie baking can be super fun, especially if you make it less about the baking and more about the time you get to spend with people,” she says.

If cookie baking has been on your list of holiday ideas, but you’re not sure where to start, you’re in luck. Here’s a primer from cookie-baking experts on how to make the process go smoothly and how to avoid some common stumbles.

What are some ingredients you should always have on hand to whip up cookies easily for company or an unexpected drop-in?

Quinn recommends the following: All-purpose flour, brown sugar, white sugar, eggs, baking powder, a solid fat (butter, margarine, lard, shortening, coconut oil) and items to mix in, such as nuts, chocolate chips and toffee bits.

Taylor says chocolate chip cookies make an easy go-to recipe and suggests keeping ingredients on hand including quality chocolate.

“We personally use Wilbur and love the flavor that it gives the cookie,” she says.

Think ahead and prepare extra dough for future use, Taylor recommends, adding, “Make a double or triple batch and freeze the dough for whenever it’s needed.”

What if I’m missing an ingredient? Can I substitute something?

“Any fat can do the job and are mostly interchangeable between the types, but if substituting an oil for butter you will need to use less oil than what the recipe calls for butter,” Quinn says. “Sugars are almost irreplaceable but brown and white can be interchanged for different flavor and texture profiles and small amounts of invert sugar (like corn syrup, molasses or maple syrup) can supplement a sugar in case you are running short, although this will make a chewier cookie.”

And, as a substitute for eggs, consider applesauce, he says, noting, “Applesauce can be used in place of eggs in certain cookies where the eggs’ main focus is adding moisture not leavening.”

What’s the best way to measure ingredients?

“Use dry measuring cups for dry ingredients and wet measuring cups for wet ingredients,” Taylor says.

Dry cups allow you to level off ingredients with a flat edge, ensuring the correct amount of ingredient is used. Dry cups typically come in sets ranging from a ¼ cup to 1 cup.

Wet measuring cups are typically glass or plastic with a handle and allow liquid to be poured in and measured.

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How do I know if my baking soda and baking powder are still good?

Both products tend to hang around a while in cabinets since most recipes call for only small measurements of each.

It’s easy to test freshness, Taylor says.

“If you aren’t sure whether or not it’s good, put a drop of each in hot water,” she says. “If it bubbles, it’s still good.”

How can I make sure my cookies don’t stick to the cookie sheet?

“Most recipes call for greased or parchment-lined cookie sheets to prevent sticking, so that is generally what I would suggest,” Quinn says. “Silicone mats are cheap and reusable these days, but they will impact the baking of cookies since they act as an insulator and the bottoms of the cookie will get less heat than if it was more directly on a pan.”

If you choose to use a silicone mat, he says, check the underside of the cookie when the baking time is up and add extra time in 1- or 2-minute intervals until they’re done.

If the recipe provides a range of cooking time, how should I set my timer?

Go for the lowest time first, Taylor suggests.

“We prefer to always under-bake, but we like our cookies gooey,” she says.

Plus, she adds, “You can bake more, but not less.”

And be aware that cookies may continue to bake while they sit on the hot cookie sheet you’ve taken out of the oven, she says.

Are there are “secret” cookie-baking tips the pros know that the average person might not?

There are plenty of tips pros use, Quinn says. Among his favorites:

— When working in large batches, let the sheet pan fully cool before adding the next batch of cookies. This will give consistent baking across all batches.

— Halfway through the baking time, rotate the tray 180 degrees in the oven to help mitigate hot and cold spots. Don’t sacrifice a whole tray of well-baked cookies just to get one that was in a cold spot.

— Scrape the mixing bowl after every addition. This will keep the entire batch uniform.

— Keep all ingredients at room temperature for easy mixing. Room temperature butter makes for easy creaming and the eggs will incorporate and give better leavening when they are at room temp.

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— If you have a problem with a cookie rising too much or it’s too tough, try blending all the dry ingredients in your mixer, then slowly adding the softened butter and finally finishing off with the liquid ingredients. This should give a more tender cookie due to less gluten formation and it should have a more uniform rise.

— Always weigh your ingredients on a kitchen scale.

— For drop cookies, use a trigger style cookie scoop. This will make every cookie the same size.

— Most cookie doughs are freezable so they can be made ahead and then thawed so you can prepare ahead for the holiday season.