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What went wrong with your cookies? 8 common baking mistakes explained

February 3, 2022

For many of us, cookies were one of the first things we learned to bake. And while some cookie recipes are nearly fool-proof, others seem nearly impossible.

There are a surprising number of things that can go wrong when you bake cookies, so we’re breaking down the top 8 most common problems you may face.

Why did my cookies spread so much?

A little bit of spreading is common and normal for most types of cookies, but sometimes cookies spread out of control or completely lose the desired shape. There are a few common causes of spreading:

  1. The baking temperature was too low. Double-check your recipe to make sure you had the oven at the correct temp, and try an oven thermometer which may reveal that your oven isn’t reaching the proper temperature, or is heating unevenly.
  2. Not enough flour. If you didn’t add enough flour, it can cause the cookies to spread because the fat-to-flour ratio is incorrect. You may want to try a different recipe that calls for measurements in weight to ensure that your measurements are precise.
  3. Too much sugar. Too much sugar is another common reason that cookies spread too much. Double check your recipe or try a different recipe if you think too much sugar is the cause of your troubles.
  4. Too much leavening. Too much of your leavening agent (typically baking soda and/or baking powder) can also cause cookies to spread. You can try adjusting the recipe yourself and reduce the amount, or try a different recipe.
  5. Too much liquid. There is a fine balance of liquid to fat to flour to sugar in cookies, and when there is too much liquid your cookies will spread undesirably. 
  6. Your dough wasn’t cold enough. It’s common for cookie recipes to call for the dough to be chilled before it’s baked. If you skip that step or don’t chill for long enough, your cookies may spread too much.
  7. You over-creamed your butter and sugar. Most drop cookies call for your butter and sugar to be creamed together. However, when you over-cream (or if your butter is too soft), it can compromise the spread of your cookies.

Why didn’t my cookies rise?

Some cookies that spread too much also haven’t risen properly, but this is not always the case. If your cookies fell flat, one of these issues might be to blame:

  1. Not enough leavening agent. If you don’t add enough baking soda and/or baking powder to your cookies, they won’t rise. Double-check to make sure that you included your leavening agent, and that your measurements were accurate.
  2. Your leavening agent is out of date. If your baking soda or baking powder is too old, it may not be as effective. Typically you want to replace baking soda every three months to ensure you get the perfect rise every time.
  3. Liquid balance is out of whack. If you have too much liquid in your recipe, your cookies may spread too much and fall flat. This is a common issue if you used a larger egg than your recipe called for (XL vs L), or if the eggs you used were just larger than the typical egg of that size class.

Why are my cookies cakey?

Most cookies should be either perfectly crisp, or chewy and delicious. If your cookies come out cakier or dryer than you expected it might be because of one of these problems:

  1. Too much flour. Too much flour, or using the wrong type of flour is most commonly the cause of cakey cookies. 
  2. Too much leavening. Using too much baking powder might lead your cookies to rise too much, making them cakey rather than chewy.
  3. Too much egg. Too much egg can also cause your cookie to rise more than you’d like. This is common when your eggs are larger than usual, or you use the wrong size of egg.

Why are my cookies hard?

Even if your cookies are supposed to be crisp, they should never be hard or tough. If your cookie is too hard, it may be caused by:

  1. Overbaked. Obviously baking your cookies for too long can make them hard or tough. If your cookies are browner than you’d expect, bordering on burnt, you may just need to take them out of the oven a couple minutes sooner.
  2. Baked at too low of a temperature. It might seem counterintuitive, but baking at too low of a temperature can cause cookies to be hard or dry. 
  3. Flour too strong. If your flour is too “strong” (a high-gluten variety of flour) or if you overmixed your dough, it can cause your cookies to become hard. Make sure you are using a lower gluten variety of flour, and that you mix the ingredients only until they are just combined.
  4. Not enough liquid or fat. Cookies that have the improper balance of flour to sugar to liquid to fat can go wrong in any number of ways. If your cookies are hard, it’s likely that you do not have enough liquid or fat in your recipe.

Why did my cookies stick?

There’s nothing more frustrating than when you pull fresh cookies out of the oven and they look perfect, only to lose half of them when they stick to your baking sheet. Here’s what it means when your cookies stick:

  1. Pan is improperly greased. If you are cooking straight on a baking sheet, make sure that it is properly greased. Using parchment paper can help reduce sticking, and you can double-up by lightly greasing your parchment paper.
  2. Too much sugar in your recipe. Sugar and mix-ins like chocolate chips can become caramelized and stick to the sheet. To mitigate this, reduce the sugar or add-ins, or try greasing your sheets more thoroughly.
  3. Using aluminum foil. Baking your cookies on aluminum foil might seem like a good idea because it makes cleanup much easier, but cookies often stick to foil. Swap the foil for parchment paper, and lightly grease the parchment paper if you’re extra concerned.

Why are my cookies crumbly?

Unless you’re baking a melt-in-the-mouth shortbread, you probably don’t want a crumbly consistency for your cookies. Your cookies might be crumblier than usual because:

  1. Wrong type of flour. Using cake or pastry flour can sometimes cause your cookies to be crumblier than you’d like. Most recipes call for all-purpose flout.
  2. Too much fat. Butter makes your cookies tender and irresistible, but adding too much can make them crumbly. Make sure your fat balance is correct, and the fats you are using (typically butter or shortening) are at the correct temperature.
  3. Not enough eggs. Not using enough eggs (or using eggs that are too small) can throw off the moisture balance in your dough and cause your cookies to be crumbly and dry. 

Why are my cookies wet?

Wet or goopy cookies can be a total disaster — and mess. Here are the most common causes:

  1. They are underbaked. Try giving them a couple more minutes and see if they firm up.
  2. Too much liquid in the recipe. If your cookies just don’t want to set, it’s likely because the balance of liquid to fat to sugar to flour is off and you have included too much liquid.

Why are my cookies so pale?

Most cookies should turn out toasty and lightly browned, so it’s a big disappointment when they are pale. There are only two major things that cause pale cookies:

  1. They are underbaked or baked at too low of a temperature. Underbaked cookies have not had the chance to caramelize and brown, and similarly cookies baked at too low of a temperature will fail to brown. If your cookies also seem slightly wet, continue cooking them for an extra minute or two to see if they darken.
  2. Not enough sugar. The caramelization of sugar is one of the reasons that cookies brown when they bake, so recipes with a lower proportion of sugar may not brown as much.

It seems amazing that so many things can go wrong with such a simple type of baked good, but once you’ve learned to diagnose common problems it’s easy to perfect the art of cookie-baking. What it ultimately comes down to is finding the right balance between fats, liquids, sugar, and flour, and nailing a precise bake time and temp. 

And ultimately if you get it wrong, never be afraid to try, try again!

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