All that dashing and dancing in the kitchen adds up to a lot of time around the holidays. Anything you can do ahead is bound to help.
That may be enough motivation to make cookie doughs in advance and stash them in the refrigerator, ready to bake.
But how about this: Your time-saver may be a flavor booster. Making cookies in advance may improve them.
In the last few years, cookie recipes have been cropping up that harness the idea of building flavor and texture by letting things wait a little.
“I think you can taste a difference,” says Sue Gray, manager of product development for King Arthur Flour. “There are changes happening. Exactly what they are is hard to pin down. Probably a bunch of little things are happening.”
The idea of letting cookie dough sit in the refrigerator, not just for a couple of hours but for as long as several days, came to my attention in 2008, when food writer David Leite wrote a story for The New York Times on his quest for the perfect chocolate chip cookie.
He discovered that Maury Rubin of City Bakery in New York let cookie dough rest for 36 hours before baking.
After hearing that, Leite went back to the source, a 1953 cookbook by Ruth Wakefield, the originator of the Toll House cookie, and noticed that her recipe called for letting the dough rest overnight. Apparently, the step was dropped when Nestle put the recipe on bags of semisweet morsels.
After trying it, Leite decided it did make a difference. The dough was drier and firmer, and the cookies developed sweet, toffee-like flavors.
I played with the idea a little more last year, when I was working on a crunchy pecan chocolate chip cookie. Several baking sites touched on the idea of letting creamed butter, sugars and egg sit for a few minutes before adding flour. The sugar melts a little, leading to a crispier cookie.
For the holidays, I decided to look further. What I learned is that there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence, but not a lot of proof of what exactly is happening.
Making cookie doughs in advance is common in bakeries, says Megan Lambert, a senior baking instructor at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, N.C. She and her mother used to own a bakery in Raleigh, N.C., the Flour Shop.
“You make a huge batch of cookie (doughs) and then you just pull from that.”
But in her classes, cookies usually are baked the same day they’re mixed. She does notice a little difference, she says, particularly a sharper flavor from the baking soda, which hasn’t had a chance to mellow.
Even though doughs are commonly made in advance in bakeries, there’s not a lot of research into the difference, says Gray of King Arthur.
“So anything I say, I can’t prove,” she says. Still, she does think something is happening with the flavor.
“There’s so much happening in doughs,” she says. “Anytime you make something, giving it some time for the flavors to develop, for water to become evenly absorbed, can’t hurt.”
Food science writer Harold McGee agrees. In his new book, “Keys to Good Cooking,” he included this point:
“To develop more flavor, refrigerate doughs for days wrapped airtight. Refrigerated doughs slowly break down some starch and protein, and make progressively darker and more flavorful cookies.”
Kenji Lopez-Alt has worked with doughs made in advance and he notices differences, too. Chief creative officer for the food website Seriouseats.com and a former editor with Cook’s Illustrated, he’s writing a book based on his Serious Eats column The Food Lab, where he tests cooking theories.
“Definitely, the way the dough handles (changes),” he says. “Letting it rest, you end up with a drier dough that I find a little easier to measure and scoop. When you bake it, it’s a flavor difference. A little sweeter, a little more complex.”
The difference starts with the liquid in the egg, which hydrates the starch in flour. Giving the flour more time to absorb that liquid makes the dough firmer, but it also lets enzymes in the flour and the egg yolk break down carbohydrates into the simple sugars fructose and glucose. Separately, they taste sweeter and they caramelize faster when baked.
While some theories claim that long refrigeration lets gluten relax in cookie doughs, both Gray and Lopez-Alt discount that. There’s not that much gluten development in cookie dough.
And not all cookies can sit, of course. Meringues and macaroons, based on foamy egg whites, can’t wait.
But doughs based on flour, sugars, butter and egg are made for waiting. Cookies with strong flavors, such as ginger or peanut butter, can benefit from time to ripen.
Cookies are small things, made from simple ingredients using simple techniques. So small changes, like waiting times, can do big things.
“You start with such simple ingredients,” says Lopez-Alt. “It’s really the process and the details of technique that are going to have the biggest effect.”