Why Did My Cookies Spread?

It's a calm weekend day, and you find yourself with some time on your hands. Then – boom! It hits you out of nowhere: the craving for a fresh-baked cookie! And for once in your life, you've got all the ingredients in your kitchen, and the motivation to create havoc in the kitchen and make a batch of fresh homemade cookies.

You get your cookie dough mixed, scooped, and placed in the oven. The house begins to smell like that magical combination of butter and sugar, a glass of milk gets poured, and the timer finally goes off. Upon opening the oven door, you discover, in horror, that your cookies have spread and become a wafer-thin Pangaea cookie. The discovery is devastating. So you go to Google and type in “why do my cookies spread and get flat.” You might even do this in all caps, but we’re not judging. And, thanks to search engine optimization, you end up finding this blog. 

Don’t worry. Those Pangaea cookies crumble incredibly well and make for a perfect topping on a bowl of ice cream. But most importantly, we hope you haven’t given up on making a future batch of cookies. That’s why we've gathered our best cookie baking tips to achieve the perfect cookie texture at home. Below we outline the basics for the perfect cookie: a fluffy, dense cookie with crispy-chewy edges that lead into a soft, melty center.  

Cookie Sheet, Sheet Pan, or Baking Sheet

Start with a quality baking sheet. After many years of baking at my home and in commercial settings, I've learned that not all sheet pans are created equal. Many pans are purchased based on the promise of being easy to clean or scrub off burnt on casserole bits, but what matters most is how well it distributes and holds heat. A sheet pan should be durable and evenly distribute heat. If it cleans well that’s a bonus. Because the reason you buy it isn’t to clean it. It’s to bake amazing cookies with it. Check out Southern Living Magazine's 8 Best Cookie Sheets for Easy Baking.  

Ingredient Temperature Matters

You know those two pesky lines in just about every baking recipe, "ensure all ingredients including butter, eggs, and milk are at room temperature." Do not skip this step! Let's break down the outcomes of using cold ingredients or melted butter.  

  1. When allowed to come to room temperature, the butter and eggs cream together into a light and fluffy base for a light and fluffy cookie.  
  2. Creaming together cold butter and eggs restricts the amount of air in the batter, and the result is a hard thick, deconstructed stick of butter. The lack of air in the mix causes a dense, flat cookie.  
  3. When you use melted butter, no air is incorporated, and therefore nothing rises in the oven. 

PRO TIP: to speed up the process of letting butter come to room temp, cut it into small cubes and let rest for about 20 minutes. Place cold eggs in warm water for about the same time. 

Preheat The Oven

If you skip this step, you deserve to go straight to cookie jail – even if you followed the rest of the recipe perfectly. 

Just like the witch in the Wizard of Oz, cookies in a cold oven scream, "I'm melting!" As the temperature in the oven rises, the butter in the cookie melts before the flour and other ingredients have time to bake and solidify. The same thing goes if the oven is too hot or too low. 

So, step one is to be patient and wait until the oven temp is right and always preheat your oven to the desired temperature.  

Measure Correctly

Unlike making grandma's famous spaghetti, baking isn't a dash of this, a pinch of that, or a glug of anything. Baking cookies is a delicate science that requires accurate measurements. Unlike her cornbread recipe, if you ask for grandma's cookie recipe, and I bet she tells you the same thing.  

When measuring dry ingredients, make sure you use measuring cups for dry ingredients and vice versa for wet ingredients. While volume may not be drastically different, the ease of measuring allows for a super clean and accurate process. This article explains the differences very well! 

The golden rule of dry ingredients: under no circumstances should you ever pack, tap, or press your dry ingredients into a measuring cup. Brown sugar is one of the only ingredients you pack in a measuring cup. Always gently scoop the ingredients in the cup and level the top with the back of a butter knife. Too much flour makes a hard, dry cookie, and too little flour makes a thin, wet cookie.  

Forming, Baking, and Cooling

You've reached the end, and you're almost ready to bake your cookies. When forming your cookies, instead of making discs, aim for something like a large marshmallow. You want a taller scoop. As the cookies bake, they slowly spread out. If you’re rolling out and cutting cookies, cookie dough scraps should only be re-rolled twice. Overworking your dough can also cause them to spread. After forming the cookies, the recipe will tell you whether to chill the dough or not. Do not skip this step if your recipe calls for it!

Bake your cookies on the center oven rack. This placement is the Goldilocks zone for even heat distribution. 

Leaving cookies on the baking sheet to cool will also send you to cookie jail. When left on the cookie sheet they can continue to cook and spread. Instead, transfer the cookies to a wire rack or even a room-temperature plate. If you have a second round of cookies to bake, let the pan come back to room temperature before placing your next round of raw dough. You should be able to guess what the outcome is if you don't. 

Don't let this deter you from making a second batch of cookies. While this was a lot of words, here it is in 25.

  1. Select a quality cookie sheet 
  2. Preheat your oven 
  3. Measure accurately  
  4. Form tall dough balls 
  5. Bake on the center rack 
  6. Allow to cool off the pan 

As always, we’d love to see how your baking adventure turns out! Tag us on social media using @thesweetestbooth!