Ina Garten's 16 Most Essential Cookie Baking Tips

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The Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten, knows her way around a kitchen. Before she became the host of a television show on The Food Network, she finished a career in nuclear energy policy and migrated to Long Island, New York, where she bought and ran a specialty foods store called Barefoot Contessa. She eventually left the business in 2003 and entered the food media world as a cookbook author, television host, and celebrity chef. Garten has written over 10 cookbooks and most recently came out with her own line of food products based on the recipes in her publications.

While most of her tips and tricks are centered around savory dishes and entertaining, Garten does have a sweet spot for some recipes — especially cookies. Her cookbooks inspire home cooks to get creative and elevate classic baked favorites like cookies to new heights. Ina Garten's best advice for making cookies can satisfy all the tastes in your household and change how you think about this humble treat.

Leave your butter on the counter overnight

One of the major mistakes bakers make is not using room-temperature ingredients. It's always important to keep your ingredients on the warm side to ensure every component incorporates easily into the dough and is evenly distributed. Plus, creaming rock-solid butter with sugar is nearly impossible. 

The night before making cookies, Ina Garten will pull her butter out to bring it to room temperature. When she's ready to bake the next day, the butter will be perfectly soft but not melted. Butter can remain at room temperature for one to two days, so you won't have to worry about getting sick from your cookies. 

But what do you do if you forget to pull your butter out of the refrigerator? There are numerous methods for softening butter, including cubing it into small pieces to increase the surface area exposed to the air. You should avoid melting your butter in the microwave because it will only make for greasy, oily cookies. 

Freeze your cookie dough before baking

The best advice for cookie bakers everywhere? Chill, chill, chill. Ina Garten's prep tip for the perfect cookie dough is to always put it in the freezer for at least 15 minutes before baking. This tip ensures the cookie dough bakes evenly and has the perfect decadent texture you desire. Garten pre-portions each of the dough balls before baking and freezes the entire sheet pan. Once her oven is finished preheating, she can easily transfer the cookies straight into the oven to bake. In the words of Ina Garten, "How easy is that?" 

The chilling step is essential to help the cookies retain their round shape and to help any butter that may have gotten oozy solidify. Letting the dough rest can actually help cookies taste better, too, because chilling causes the moisture content of the dough to decrease, thus concentrating the flavor. Less moisture can make the sugars concentrate — which will contribute to a browner cookie. 

Use a cookie scoop for perfectly portioned cookies

Cookie scoops take the guesswork out of shaping your cookies. Ina Garten's trick for making perfectly-sized cookies is always to use a cookie or an ice cream scoop. In addition to this tool, the Barefoot Contessa uses a ruler to ensure the preciseness of her scoops. She advocates for a 1¾ inch diameter for each of her rounded cookie scoops. While taking a ruler to your baking sheet might seem like overkill, the extra step has its merits. 

Getting each cookie to have the same size and shape results in a more even bake and noticeably rounder cookie. To ensure her cookies bake evenly, Garten also spreads her cookies out even more after she freezes her cookie dough. Garten will put four scoops of cookie dough per cookie sheet pan to ensure that each has adequate room to spread once heat is applied. 

Add salt to enhance the flavor of your cookies

Not only does salt belong in your cookie dough, but also on top of your cookies. Garten uses sea salt or fleur de sel on her famous giant crinkle chocolate chip cookies. She adds this special salt sprinkle after baking the cookies to prevent them from absorbing the crystals. 

Salt is the simple addition that will make your homemade cookies taste sweeter. When our tastebuds detect salt, it will simultaneously heighten the body's detection of sugar. This makes the caramelized notes in the cookie more pronounced — and more delicious. It's important to remember salting the top of your cookies does not mean skipping adding it to your dough. The salt helps strengthen the proteins in the dough and produces a chewier cookie. While you can just use standard table salt for your dough, add a sprinkle of coarse ground sea salt flakes to the top of your cookie for the ultimate textural masterpiece. 

DIY your vanilla extract

You shouldn't underscore the importance of a good vanilla extract in your cookie dough. And with Ina Garten's ultimate vanilla extract recipe, you'll never have to worry about using a plastic bottle imitation version again. Garten's homemade vanilla extract is 37 years old. The Barefoot Contessa adds 12 vanilla bean pods to a Mason jar and fills it to the brim with vodka. She submerges the beans entirely in the alcohol to extract the flavorful vanilla notes from the seeds. 

The extract must sit for at least a month before it is usable, but Ina Garten recommends steeping it for as long as possible. She regularly adds more beans to the container to ensure she has enough to last for all of her baking needs. A quality vanilla extract like Ina Garten's makes all the difference in cookies. The vanilla will provide a complex aroma and depth of flavor to cookies — from the classic chocolate chip to gingersnaps. 

Avoid making meringue cookies on rainy days

Ina Garten has faced many formidable recipes and tricky ingredients in her career, and meringues are an ingredient the chef treads cautiously with. In an episode of Barefoot Contessa, Garten shared her recipe for meringue Chantilly with viewers. 

Garten explains that rainy days are the worst weather for making meringue anything — including cookies. "Everybody's had meringues that are sort of chewy. It's because there's too much humidity in the air. It really makes a huge difference. It's surprising, but it's true," she explains. Humid or rainy weather impacts the protein denaturing step of making meringues, making the dessert sticky and chewy rather than light and crisp. 

If you're set on making meringue cookies, Garten recommends making the dessert on a light, dry day and storing the cookies in an airtight container until ready to serve. Or, when all else fails, try a different type of cookie instead. 

Add vanilla beans to your dough for better flavor

Ina Garten doesn't just step up her cookie-baking game with her 37-year-old homemade vanilla extract. Ina Garten adds both vanilla beans and extract to baked goods to amplify the vanilla flavor. This combination will make your cookies less bland and will boost the flavor of the other sweet ingredients in the recipe. 

To prepare the vanilla bean for the cookies, scrape the inside of the pods and beat the seeds into the butter and sugar. Alternatively, you can add vanilla bean paste to the batter. Vanilla paste differs from vanilla extract; the paste is a blend of vanilla extract (vanilla beans in alcohol) and vanilla powder, made from the insides of a scraped pod with a binder, like sugar or corn syrup. If you use paste, you'll get tons of satisfying specks of vanilla in your cookies and a more robust flavor. 

Bring warmth to your shortbread with spices

Shortbread cookies are the plain Janes of the cookie world. They're kind of dry and a bit dull — but Ina Garten knows how to step up the humble shortbread into something truly magical. 

Per a recipe published in her "Go-To Dinners" cookbook, Garten pairs the buttery structure of a shortbread cookie with autumnal spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. "I like spices that you aren't quite sure what it is, but it's familiar in some way," Garten said when explaining her rationale for the recipe. 

Garten has also published a slightly different variation on the spiced shortbread cookie with cardamom. "[It's] more of a Scandinavian thing," she comments. This is not the version of the recipe that Garten widely uses, though, because she notes to Yahoo! Finance that different cardamom varieties imparted different flavors on the cookie. Instead, she recommends cookie enthusiasts stay within the familiar bounds of the warming trio of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves — it will taste like you're baking an apple pie. 

Store-bought is (sometimes) fine

One of Ina Garten's most widely-known mantras is "Store-bought is fine." It's good to know that this sentiment carries over to cookies, too. Tate's Bake Shop is the brand of store-bought cookies Ina Garten swears by. These cookies are even featured in Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa shop with her other favorites — like Rao's homemade tomato sauce and sriracha. She even recommends that folks vacationing in the Hamptons check out the original Tate's Bake Shop in Southampton. 

Eating a Tate's Bake Shop cookie is a very visceral experience because these cookies are crisp, thin, and deliciously buttery. Although the brand is no longer independent since being bought by food conglomerate Mondelez International in 2018, the Barefoot Contessa still recommends that her fans stock up on every flavor of the cookie. Besides snacking, Ina Garten uses her favorite grocery store cookie as the base for her mocha chocolate icebox cake. 

Cut shortbread cookies before baking

It would be much easier if all types of cookies were as "drop-and-go" as the classic chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin. But to make Ina Garten's crispy shortbread cookies, you'll have to dedicate the time and the precision to cutting out evenly-sized cookies. While most cookie recipes recommend that bakers cut the cookies out after the dough has been baked in a baking pan or lipped sheet, Garten has a different way of doing things. 

After chilling the dough and rolling it out, Garten cuts the individual fingers out using a cookie cutter. To help crisp up the edges of the cookie, she also bakes the cookies at a higher temperature than other recipes (350 degrees Fahrenheit), rather than the standard 300 or 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Although the cookies tend to puff slightly more than if they were cut post-bake, the flavor of her shortbread is sublime. The higher heat also crisps the edges of the cookie beautifully and promotes a more golden color. 

Add instant coffee granules

Every celebrity chef has their own secret ingredients — easy one-add ways to elevate dishes to new heightsInstant espresso powder is one of Ina Garten's secret ingredients and the pantry staple she uses for bakery-level cookies. As she explains in an episode of "Barefoot Contessa: Back to Basics," "instant coffee granules are one of those magic things that really brings out the chocolate flavor."

But doesn't a fresh cuppa also do the same? While coffee and chocolate may be a match made in heaven, adding instant coffee granules to your cookie dough ensures that the granules will dissolve their flavor into the cookie dough without disrupting the critical hydration ratio of the batter. If you bake with regular coffee or espresso, you're bound to make the batter too wet and prevent the cookies from keeping their shape. Instant coffee, or its more intensely flavored cousin, instant espresso powder, can be creamed with butter and sugar or dissolved into vanilla extract. You can also use instant coffee to make a flavorful glaze, such as with Garten's recipe for black and white cookies. 

Bang out your dough for bakery-worthy cookies

Make some noise for a delicious cookie recipe! No, seriously, you'll need to make noise for Ina Garten's hack for bakery-level crinkle cookies. After Ina Garten prepares and freezes her chocolate chip cookie dough batter for 15 minutes, she bakes the cookies for a mere 10 minutes. She takes the slightly-puffed cookies out of the oven and quickly bangs them on the stovetop until the center of the cookie deflates. Then, she bakes the cookies for three minutes, pulls the cookies out of the oven, and repeats the same process every three minutes until the cookies are finished baking. After 18 to 20 minutes, the cookies will be golden brown, soft, light, and delicious. 

So why make such a racket for these cookies? The repeated banging of the sheet causes the partially-baked dough to form satisfying ripples. Freezing the dough is critical for this type of cookie because it will prevent the cookies from forming crinkled layers and promote spreading. The cookies also have to be sizeable; cookies that are too small won't have the characteristic ridges or gooey center. 

Use more than just chocolate chips

Although semi-sweet chocolate chips are a go-to for chocolate chip cookie recipes, Ina Garten recommends stepping across the threshold into premium chocolates or more robust baking chocolates. Her favorite brands include Lindt bittersweet chocolate, which adds texture and a more complex flavor rather than solely sweet chocolate chips. Semi-sweet or milk chocolate also tends to get lost with the cookie dough's sweetness, while bittersweet chocolate adds a chocolate element without making the cookie too sugary — if there could be such a thing. 

Another type of chocolate you can add to your homemade chocolate chip cookie recipe is baking wafers. Using these wafers instead of chips is one of the essential tips you need for making the ultimate chocolate chip cookie. The cocoa butter in these wafers increases the chocolate's melting point, which means you'll have gooey pieces of chocolate spread throughout your finished cookie. 

Slightly underbake the cookies

Homemade cookies should never be tough and crunchy. The ideal texture for a cookie is soft and decadent, so when you take a bite, the cookie has a little bit of give to it. In an episode of her show, "Barefoot Contessa," she comments, "I know some people like their cookies thick and chewy. I like mine crisp on the outside and creamy on the inside ..."

Ina Garten's recommendation for achieving this ideal cookie texture is to underbake the cookie slightly. When she's making her chocolate chunk cookies, Garten opts to bake for exactly 15 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. "When the time's up, take them out," Garten explains. "They will seem underdone, but they won't be. Trust me."

So how do you tell when your cookies are done besides just looking at the timer? Properly baked cookies are typically golden brown in color and do not retain an imprint if you touch them. 

How you organize your oven matters

Getting the proper bake is the last step to having the perfect cookie. And getting the proper bake starts with how you organize your oven. 

In a Q&A portion of "Barefoot Contessa," one of her fans asked Ina Garten if she had any luck with baking two sheets of cookies in her oven simultaneously. Garten went on to explain her method of organizing. It starts by making sure the cookies are in the center of the oven where the air is circulating better. She also noted that when baking cookies, she'll rotate the pan halfway through the cooking time and switch top sheets to bottom sheets in order to account for the spots where an oven is warmer.

If she's baking multiple racks of cookies at the same time, as the fan suggests, Garten shares that she will always adjust the racks to ensure even spacing. She cautions against overcrowding, which can reduce the air's ability to circulate throughout the oven.

Use your freezer or refrigerator to make cookies on demand

On the Ask Ina portion of her website, one of her fans asked Ina Garten if they could refrigerate a roll of pecan shortbread dough and cut it at a later time. Her response explains that if the dough is chilled for too long and subsequently warmed up, it can cause the outside to be significantly harder than the center — which causes numerous issues with the bake. Instead, Garten recommends that the baker roll out the dough, cut it into shapes, and refrigerate or freeze the cookies for when they're ready to pop them in the oven. 

Freezing pre-cut cookies is an easy way to have cookies on-demand for when company comes over or you're just craving a single cookie for yourself. Frozen homemade raw cookie dough can last six to 12 months in the freezer but only a few days in the refrigerator.