Tips to Keep Cookies From Spreading

chocolate chip cookies

Several of you had asked about how to avoid cookies from spreading out during baking, which can be rather vexing…especially when you’ve gone through all that trouble of getting the counter all covered with flour, then rolling ‘em out, and cutting them into all those nifty shapes.

So here are some tips…


Whip It Good…Not!

When a cookie or cake recipe asks you to ‘Cream the butter and sugar’, what you’re doing is whipping air into the butter, using the crystals of sugar to scrape and build tiny bubbles that will expand later in the oven when the heat causes the water to steam and enlarge the bubbles. Whew!

This is great for airy cakes that you want to rise beautifully to majestic heights, but for most down-to-earth cookies, you don’t want them to expand while baking. So just beat the butter and sugar long enough just until they’re well-blended, which should take no more than 30 seconds on low-speed in a standing electric mixer.

Bah! To The Buttered Baking Sheet.

Butter’s slippery stuff, and your poor cookies don’t stand a chance against its slick disposition. So I never butter or grease baking sheets for baking cookies. Instead, I recommend lining your pans with parchment paper, aluminum foil, or using a non-stick baking sheet or a Silpat non-stick silicone baking mat, one of the greatest inventions ever.

And here’s a cleaning tip: You can run those greasy silicone mats through the dishwasher.

Get Stronger.

Weak flour, like cake flour and some all-purpose flours, are great for light cakes, airy biscuits, and tender pastries, but cookies need a bit of ‘chew’. A stronger flour, higher in protein and gluten, will make for slightly firmer cookies that retain their shape. One brand available is King Arthur flour, available at Trader Joes and at their excellent web site.

One caveat: Your cookies won’t be as tender as those made with softer flour. But for cut-out cookies, which you shape with cookie cutters, this may be the best way to ensure success for those butter-rich little elves and manorahs.

Ban The Butter?

Ok. That’s not something I strongly recommend, since I don’t like shortening. And I don’t care that your grandmother made the best pie crust ever with it.

Good for her.

If I’m gonna make cookies, I’m going to use pure butter. But since butter is roughly 19% water, when it’s baked in the oven, that water evaporates and saturates the flour in your cookies, which can cause spreading. (And which is why crusts made with shortening or lard are more tender.) Still, I’m willing to sacrifice a bit of that tenderness for the flavor of butter anyday.

But if you must switch to vegetable shortening, I recommend one without trans-fats.

Save The ‘Super-Fine’ For Beyoncé’s Bum.

Believe it or not, sugar becomes a liquid ingredient once heated. This is something you’ve probably witnessed if you’ve ever made caramel, when you warm sugar gently and it melts to a clear liquid before caramelizing.

And remember the low-fat craze? Everything was loaded with lots and lots of sugar, and calories (which is why no one really got thinner while eating boxes of cookies). More sugar was added to those baked goods to make them wet and moist, in lieu of fat.

Most ordinary sugar is fine to use, but avoid super-fine sugar of sugars called ‘Baking sugar’ for cookie doughs. They’ll melt too quickly and cause the dough to be wet and spread-i-licious, which isn’t really what you want.

Chill Out. Well, Actually Chill-In.

Anything soft is gonna spread more rapidly in the oven.

So if you’re making cookies that are individually shaped, like Chocolate Chip Cookies, form them into individual rounds and chill them thoroughly. Then remove the rounds of dough from the refrigerator or freezer just before baking.

Similarly, if you’re making slice-n-bake cookies, store the logs of dough in the freezer. Then slice them while the dough is cool and bake them right away. Similarly with roll-out cookies, roll them out and cut out the cookies. Chill thoroughly before baking.

And check the temperature of your oven; too low of a temperature can prolong the time it takes for cookies to bake, giving them too much of a head-start in the race against spreading.

More Baking Tips and Related Links

Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe (Ready for Dessert)

How to Prevent Cookies from Spreading

Is Sifting Necessary?

Why You Should Use Aluminum-Free Baking Powder

American Baking Ingredients in Paris

When to Use (and not Use) Corn Syrup

How to Make the Perfect Caramel

14 comments

  • That there is one pretty little treatise on baking cookies. Definitely one to print out and save. I think I’ve made each of those mistakes at one time or another. You’re my baking guru!

  • Ah, David. You must be wearing your Santa’s elf hat today! Very welcome advice.

  • David, how generous of you to always share your professional tips with (some of us) mere mortals! Now I really can kick myself even more for not cancelling another engagement to take your class at Sur La Table in Chicagoland late last year.

  • wait a minute…when were YOU looking a beyonce’s bum? and here i thought this post was about cookies.

  • Hi David -
    This is some great advice! Have you experimented baking cookies with any of the higher-fat content butters that I’m seeing out there? We bought a case to play with from our dairy distributor, and so far have been getting great yeild out of it terms of pie-crusts and laminated doughs (ie croissants). I’m wondering if it’s gonna make a heart attack cookie :)
    –kris

    ps – We use a small ice-cream scoop or melon baller to keep our cookies more uniform sized.

  • perfect timing for the advise!!!i shall print & refer to!!!! i found you by way of C is for Cooking to Simply Recipes to you!! I have a ton to do for christmas and I can’t seem to get started because i am so intrigued by your site!! (someone bring me water and a snack, i’m not leaving the computer for a while)(hee hee)

  • Excellent advice, rendered in a very readable manner. I wish you’d come speak to my college journalism students about online writing — you do it well. I’m preparing my final this weekend and I’m tempted to make your cookie post part of it.

    I’d rather be baking, to tell the truth.

  • This will be the first entry in my bookmarks under Recipes: Cookies. If it saves just ONE batch of cookies, it’s all worthwhile.

  • Thanks for those David! Very very useful. All makes sense when you sit down and think about it… but of course you are not sitting in the kitchen pondering physics prior to popping cookies in the oven (OK, so maybe if you’re Heston Blumenthal you do…) ;-)

  • I’m an avid, insane cookie baker at Christmastime,and your tips are wonderful. I second the motion of using butter. If I’m going to spend all this time making a cookie, it’s going to be as bad for me as possible!

    Interesting tip on the sugar/butter creaming. I just did a recipe that wanted me to cream the sugar and butter for 4 minutes (‘until light and fluffy’)…the cookies didn’t spread, though…

    Thanks for the tips!

  • These ideas are TERRIFIC, thank you so much. I love Google! All I did was type in “cookies that don’t spread” and I got you. Now I am going to learn all sorts of things! Better bake my cookies first,…

  • Hey you come up #1 in a Google search for “cookies don’t spread”.

    My question is how could I get cookies to spread more? I am experimenting with using sprouted whole wheat flour. My cookies come out great but they don’t spread a whole lot. They’re good… just wondering if there is something I could add or do differently to help them spread a bit more so they’d come out a bit thinner, flatter and not as small.

    Thanks, David!

    Ann Marie

  • Thank you for addressing one of my most perplexing baking issues. Where on earth have you been all my life???????????

  • A few years ago, when baking our favorite chocolate chip cookies, even though using exactly the same recipe that I’d always used, the cookies started spreading on the baking sheet. They tasted fine but the were so thin that they looked terrible. This year at Christmas, I started searching the internet for a reason and a “cure”. I found your site, which gave me several different possiblities. While mixing my batter for the holidays, suddenly it hit me what the problem was. I had begun using a silicone baking sheet just about the timeframe that the batter began spreading. I decided to bake without it and WA-LA!! My cookies turned out beautifully for the first time in years. I have never had a problem with any kind of cookies except chocolate chip and I’ve never seen any blog, etc. that implicated the silicaone baking sheets, so I decided to send you an email. Hopefully you’ll share this with others who are having a problem with spreading cookies.