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Cookie Dough Spreads Too Much

Q: I have a wonderful spice cookie recipe that I would love to modify to allow me to make gingerbread shaped cookies instead of round, drop cookies.  The dough spreads too much during rising to keep the shape.  It also is very hard to work with. Is there a simple way to modify the recipe while keeping the same taste?

-- Laura

There are a few things that you could try that might help.  First, and easiest, is to refrigerate the dough before baking.  If possible, I would recommend rolling and cutting the shapes and then refrigerating for at least an hour.  If that isn't convenient, then refrigerate the dough for two hours, or more, and then roll out enough for one cookie sheet at a time, cut and bake immediately.  Also, always let the cookie sheet cool down between batches, otherwise it will warm the dough before it goes into the oven, which would defeat the purpose of cooling it in the first place.

I assume, since the recipe doesn't specify otherwise, that you are using all-purpose flour.  The ingredient ratios look a little off to me so  I would be inclined to use about a 1/2 cup or more additional flour.  You could try using 1/2 cup of cake flour for the addition.  Chances are that the cookies will be a bit paler in color, but they may  not spread as much.

One thing that you may already be doing is replacing the shortening with butter.  If so, you should remember butter goes from hard to soft to liquid over a small range of temperatures.  Shortening has a higher melting point than butter, 115°F (46°C) vs 95°F (/36°C), and stays firm over a wider range of temperatures.  Substituting butter for shortening would mean that the cookie dough becomes softer at a lower temperature allowing it to spread more before the dough starts to set.  It is a good idea to always use the kind of fat specified in the recipe when making cookies.

You could also try reducing the sugar by one or two ounces, and see if that helps.

Finally, you might try replacing some of the baking soda with baking powder.  A general rule of thumb is that you need about one half to one teaspoon of baking soda to combine with the acid in one cup of molasses.  This isn't exact because molasses varies widely in its composition, but it would suggest that you only really need about 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda.  Some of the excess baking soda will break down, giving a bit more lift to the cookies, but it also will leave a bit of a soapy taste.  The excess baking soda reduces the acidity of the dough, which may help improve browning, but encourages spreading.  Changing some of the baking soda to baking powder will increase the acidity, which will encourage the dough to set faster and therefore spread less.  It will take some experimentation to get the exact ratios, but I would suggest replacing the 2 teaspoons of baking soda with 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda and 1 teaspoon of baking powder.  If the cookies rise too much, reduce the amount of baking powder.

Unfortunately, there is no easy guide to making cookies that says use this much of this and this much of that to get a particular result.  Because the various ingredients act and interact in different ways, you will need to play around with these suggestions until you find the combination that works.

The firmness of your dough could be affected by how soft you cream the shortening, the size of egg that you are using and the protein content of your flour.  The shortening should be creamed until it is light and fluffy, which may take a couple of minutes at medium speed in a stand mixer, and for most recipes an egg is assumed to be of large size, unless stated otherwise.

The protein content of your flour depends on a number of factors, including the type of flour you use, and where you live.  The hardness of flour varies with geography.  Harder flours, like bread or all-purpose flours, absorb more moisture than the same volume of softer flours, like cake flour, making a stiffer dough.  See Flour Power? for more details on protein content of flour.

For readers who are interested, here is the recipe that was provided:

Spice Cookies
3/4 C Butter Flavored Shortening
1 C Sugar
1/4 C Molasses
1 Egg
2 C Flour
1/4 Tsp Salt
2 Tsp Baking Soda
1 Tsp Cinnamon
1 Tsp Cloves
1 Tsp Ginger

Cream sugar and shortening.  Add molasses and egg, then dry ingredients.  Roll into small balls and dip into granulated sugar.  Place 2" apart on greased cookie sheet.  Bake at 375 until brown on bottom.

Note that it works best if the dry ingredients are combined in a separate bowl and then added to the other ingredients 1/4 at a time, scraping the mixing bowl between additions to be sure that everything is blended.  After 3/4 of the flour is added, check for consistency.  If the dough is too soft, add more flour, a spoonful at a time, until you reach desired firmness.

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