By Abbie Sommer
I’ve been on a quest for the perfect cut out cookie recipe for the holidays. In my mind, the perfect cutout cookie is a light golden brown with sharp edges. It should retain its shape and not spread beyond recognition. The icing on top should cover the surface without flowing over and should have a glossy sheen. Not only should the cookie look good, but it also has to taste good. In this article I will share tips on how to get the perfect cutout cookie using science.
Graphic by Abbie Sommer
Unlike a drop cookie, cutout cookies are meant to look like a certain shape. Small features such as snowflake crystals and reindeer hooves need to stand out. The ability for a cookie to retain its shape comes from its ingredients and environment.
The main factor to consider when making no-spread cookies is the dough viscosity. Viscosity is the measure of how thick or thin something is. During baking, components in the dough melt and cause the cookie to spread. At the same time, other components are thickening and increasing dough viscosity.
Graphic by Abbie Sommer
The basic sugar cookie dough is made up of flour, sugar, and fat. There may also be eggs, salt, and other flavors added.
Use a medium-protein flour like all-purpose.
Flour can vary by protein content. Flours with lower protein content, around 8-10%, are generally used for cakes that require little gluten development. Flours with higher protein are used for things like bread. The proteins in flour, glutenin and gliadin, form gluten, a structure that can entrap air. This is what makes it good for things like bread. However, gluten can toughen a softer structure like cake.
Cookies made with wheat flour with a lower protein content generally spread faster than those made with a higher protein content (Miller & Hoseney, 1997). In one study protein content was negatively correlated with expansion rate and cookie diameter (Doescher et al., 1987). In cookie making, the dough is not kneaded sufficiently or with enough water to make a sufficient gluten network. However, during baking the gluten undergoes a phase transition from glassy to rubbery. This allows the gluten to move and form a web strong enough to stop the cookie from spreading (Miller & Hoseney, 1997). Using this theory, we can expect cookies made with a higher gluten flour, like bread flour, to spread less than ones made with a lower gluten flour like cake flour. All-purpose flour is somewhere in between these options. It is not necessarily recommended to use bread flour in cookies because the texture will likely be firmer. This is great if the cookies are just for show, but I’m assuming you want to eat them. All-purpose flour is a great compromise, and you were probably using it anyway. You could also try increasing the ratio of flour in your recipe to limit dough spread, as this increases gluten and starch content and viscosity.
Graphic by Abbie Sommer
Use granulated sugar.
So, if we aren’t really changing the flour, what else can we manipulate? There are two types of sugar commonly used in cookies, granulated sugar and powdered sugar. The amount and type of sugar can also influence cookie spread. Smaller sugar particle size, like in powdered sugar, increase cookie spread (Boz, 2019; Koh & Noh, 1997). Additionally increasing sugar concentration generally makes sugar cookies spread more until about 75% by weight where the sugar binds too much water to allow for spread (Doescher et al., 1987). For the least spread, larger particle size should be used. However, the same article that noted the differences in spread also noted that sensory panelists liked the cookies made with smaller particle size sugar better. Yet again there is a toss up between texture and appearance of cutout cookies.
Use at least some shortening.
The final ingredient that could be manipulated is fat. In cookies, fat generally comes in the form of butter, margarine, or shortening. Butter and margarine contain some water, generally up to 16%. Shortening does not contain water. The additional water may lower the viscosity or thickness of the dough. Dough viscosity has been shown to impact spread, with greater viscosity limiting spread (Jacob & Leelavathi, 2007). Increasing moisture content may also impact the glass transition temperature of the gluten. Adding additional water lowers the temperature needed to transition between the glassy and rubbery state, allowing gluten to form a network. One study tested the impact of moisture content on cookie spread and found that cookies with greater moisture content initially spread faster but also set quicker than those with lower moisture content (Miller et al., 1997). This shows that fat moisture content likely does not impact cookie spread overall.
Yet, different fats also have different melting points. The sooner the fat melts, the more time the cookie has to spread before it sets. This is because the starch may not have enough time to gelatinize and the gluten network is yet to form when the fat melts. A list of approximate fat melting points is below.
|Melting Point (°F)
|Melting Point (°C)
Shortening melts at the highest temperature and generally produces cookies that spread less. This has been demonstrated for me when my mom puts butter-flavored Crisco into her chocolate chip cookies instead of butter. Don’t tell her I told you her secret. Her cookies are much thicker and fluffier than ones I have seen made with butter. For cutout cookies, I recommend using at least some shortening. You can use half butter/half shortening if you want that buttery flavor. Using butter-flavored shortening can also help with the taste.
Image from silviarita from Pixabay
Chill the cookie dough.
Cutout cookie spread can also have to do with temperature of the dough and the oven. If the dough is chilled ahead of time, so is the fat. Some websites say that chilled fat will melt slower, letting the cookie set before the fat melts and limiting spread (Jampel, 2019). In her experiment, Jampel found that chilled cookies spread less and that duration of chilling had an impact (Jampel, 2019). Additionally, in literature there was some association between dough resting time and cookie spread (Gaines et al., 1988). So, chilling the cookies for longer could lower the temperature, but also allow flour components to hydrate. The hydrating of the flour and gluten may help them set quicker in the oven. I recommend rolling and cutting the dough before chilling. This will increase the surface area around the cookie and make them chill faster. It is also pretty hard to roll out chilled dough, and by the time you do it will have warmed up.
Bake at a slightly hotter oven temperature.
The oven temperature can also impact cookie spread. One study found that the optimal temperature for sugar snap cookies was 190°C or around 375°F (Panghal et al., 2018). The sugar snap cookie is a basic sugar cookie that is often used in cookie research as a model system. They found that increasing baking temperature above 190°C led to less spread but also very dense and hard cookies (Panghal et al., 2018). 375°F would likely be a good temperature to reduce spread but also maintain optimal texture.
Roll the dough a little thinner.
Finally, cookie thickness can impact spread. Increased cookie thickness leads to increased spread (Panghal et al., 2018). This one is simple; gravity causes flow of the cookie ingredients which leads to a wider cookie diameter.
To sum it up, there are many factors that impact cookie spread and the perfect cutout cookie. Using all-purpose flour, granulated sugar, and at least some shortening can help the cookie retain its shape. Without changing the recipe, you can also refrigerate or freeze the cookies for around 1 hour before baking and use a slighter higher oven temperature around 375°F.
Boz, H. (2019). Effect of flour and sugar particle size on the properties of cookie dough and cookie. 2019(2), 120–127.
Doescher, L. C., Hoseney, R. C., Milliken, G. A., & Rubenthaler, G. L. (1987). Effect of Sugars and Flours on Cookie Spread Evaluated by Time-Lapse Photograph. Cereal Chemistry, 64(3), 163–167.
Gaines, C. S., Donelson, J. R., & Finney, P. L. (1988). Effects of Damaged Starch, Chlorine Gas, Flour Particle Size, and Dough Holding Time and Temperature on Cookie Dough Handling Properties and Cookie Size. Cereal Chemistry, 65(5), 384–389.
Jacob, J., & Leelavathi, K. (2007). Effect of fat-type on cookie dough and cookie quality. Journal of Food Engineering, 79, 299–305. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jfoodeng.2006.01.058
Jampel, S. (2019). Why Are My Cookies Fat? Food52. https://food52.com/blog/18820-why-cookies-spread-how-to-stop-it-with-tests-videos
Koh, W. B., & Noh, W. S. (1997). Effect of Sugar Particle Size and Level on Cookie Spread. Journal of the East Asian of Dietary Life, 7(2), 159–165.
Miller, R. A., & Hoseney, R. C. (1997). Factors in Hard Wheat Flour Responsible for Reduced Cookie Spread. Cereal Chemistry, 74(3), 330–336. https://doi.org/10.1094/CCHEM.19184.108.40.2060
Miller, R. A., Hoseney, R. C., & Morris, C. F. (1997). Effect of Formula Water Content on the Spread of Sugar-Snap Cookies. Cereal Chemistry, 74(5), 669–671. https://doi.org/10.1094/CCHEM.19220.127.116.119
Panghal, A., Chhikara, N., & Khatkar, B. S. (2018). Effect of processing parameters and principal ingredients on quality of sugar snap cookies: a response surface approach. Journal of Food Science and Technology, 55(8), 3127–3134. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13197-018-3240-9
SMF Blog Writer
After graduating with a B.S. in Food Science from Purdue University, Abbie decided to move one state over to pursue a Masters from Ohio State. Her research is focused on soy-based functional foods for use in clinical trials. When she’s not making thousands of soft pretzels (for science, of course), you can find her training for half marathons or experimenting in the kitchen. Recently, Abbie has developed a passion for sourdough and treats her starter like a child. She also has a recipe blog (Sommer Eats) as well as an Instagram account (sommer_eats), where she posts somewhat healthy but always delicious recipes.