How the Frozen Cookie Crumbles

Looking for a way to satisfy his cookie cravings without dragging out his mixer each time, Richard Northrup, of Medford, Massachusetts, wondered about the best way to prep them in advance. Is it better to freeze raw dough and bake them off as needed, or should he freeze baked cookies and thaw a few at a time?

The answer, it turns out, depends on the style of cookie. We tested two varieties—oatmeal drop cookies and slice-and-bake sugar cookies. And in each case, we tried two approaches. First, we baked the cookies, then froze them and later thawed them. Second, we divided the raw doughs into individual portions, froze them, then baked them from frozen. With the sugar cookies—which are made by rolling the dough into a log, then slicing it into rounds—we found that freezing already-baked cookies left them dry and crumbly when thawed. We had far better results when we froze raw slices of the log, then baked those direct from the freezer. But with the drop cookies, we found the difference in freezing methods was negligible. Frozen portions of raw dough baked directly from the freezer and thawed fully cooked cookies were equally delicious. Our suggestion: Since cookie recipes vary greatly in sugar and dairy content—the likely sources of the differences in our tests—we suggest freezing individual portions of raw dough and baking those as needed, the technique that gave us reliable results in both cases.

Blame the Bakeware, Not the Baker!

Not all bakeware is created equal—or so suspects Marissa Schmitz of St. Paul, Minnesota. Her brownies and quickbreads reliably require far longer to bake than recipes specify. She thinks her bakeware may be to blame: Her kitchen is stocked with only glass pans. She wondered if she would get different results using metal.

Indeed, the material that a pan is made of does affect how foods cook. Metal is a far better conductor of heat than glass, so food in metal pans cooks more quickly. The color of your pans plays a role, too: Dark-colored metal pans absorb and distribute heat more quickly than light-­colored pans. To suss out what this means for baking, we prepared pound cakes using loaf pans made from glass, light-colored aluminum and dark nonstick-­coated aluminum. As expected, the cake baked in the glass pan had the lightest crust, with relatively little browning. The dark nonstick pan had the darkest crust, to the point of overbaking. The lighter aluminum pan fell somewhere in the middle. Our takeaway: Glass pans run less risk of overbaking, but also make it harder to achieve a rich, dark, flavorfully browned crust. By the same token, when baking with dark nonstick pans—unless you are using a recipe that was specifically designed for this type of bakeware—it’s a good idea to reduce either the temperature or baking time (or both) to prevent tough, overbaked crusts.

Best Bet for Better Buttermilk?

Christy Avery, of Seattle, Washington, gets mixed results when using premium buttermilk rather than typical supermarket buttermilk. Some baked goods turn out great, while others fall flat. She wanted to know whether premium buttermilk is worth seeking out and, if so, what’s the best way to use it?

As the name suggests, buttermilk is the byproduct of making butter. In traditional production, cream is churned into butterfat and buttermilk. The latter gets its signature tangy flavor from naturally occurring lactic acid-producing bacteria. This acidifies the buttermilk, which reacts with leaveners to produce lighter, fluffier baked goods. Today, most conventional buttermilk is made by culturing nonfat or low-fat milk with bacteria and adding stabilizers and thickeners. To see how the different styles of buttermilk affect baking, we made cornbread using three varieties: conventional cultured low-fat buttermilk; premium buttermilk, such as Kate’s (made the old-fashioned way, as a butter byproduct); and a common homemade buttermilk substitute, which calls for mixing whole milk with lemon juice. We found that the premium buttermilk yielded the moistest, most flavorful cornbread, while the homemade buttermilk substitute came in a close second. We got similar results with a vanilla snack cake. In both cases, our least favorite was the conventional buttermilk, which produced chewy, slightly tough baked goods. Pancakes were an anomaly, cooking up lighter and fluffier with conventional buttermilk than with either the premium or homemade versions. Our conclusion: For everyday use, such as pancakes, conventional buttermilk probably is fine. But for tender, flavorful baked goods, premium buttermilk (or the homemade substitute) may be a better approach.