A couple of tweaks can make any cookie recipe taste bakery-quality.

By Darcy Lenz
December 12, 2020
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I know you should “never say never.” Which is fair, but I can say with complete confidence that I very rarely (as in, I can’t recall the last time I did) follow any cookie recipe to the letter. Whether it’s from the back of the chocolate chip package or the pages of a tried and true cookbook, there are at least two details I change.

This isn’t because I believe the recipe won’t produce tasty results as is. Rather, experience tells me that deviating from the prescribed measurement on two key cookie ingredients will generally yield cookies that taste like they were baked by a pro. It’s a graceful upgrade that will leave those lucky enough to sample the fruits of your labor wondering, “Dang, why do these taste so good?” 

They may or may not be able to put their finger on it. But you’ll know. 

The Two Ingredients I Almost Always Increase

Being a recipe developer and having spent a fair amount of time poking around test kitchens, I know that most cookie recipes are written to satisfy the appetite of as many people as possible. The quest to please in recipe writing, especially when it comes to baking, is both entirely understandable and worthwhile. Baking feels intimidating for plenty of cooks as it is… you don’t want to throw people off or make them nervous when they look at the ingredient list for a basic chocolate chip cookie. You want to set them up for success at all costs. But in this general aspiration to appease the masses, we seem to have reached an unspoken “safety zone” for two very important ingredients: salt and vanilla extract. 

It is my recommendation that you bust out of the safety zone. 

Salt

When it comes to salt, for a recipe producing 2-3 dozen cookies, what you will most typically see is ½ teaspoon. Occasionally ¼ teaspoon, and sometimes a whole teaspoon — but the apparent safe space is ½ teaspoon. And when I see that is the case, I immediately opt to generously double it, and I may just throw some flaky sea salt on top of the cookies as a finish too. I know I’m not the first to tell you, salty helps sweet shine; they are one of the finest power couples in the culinary world. And if, up unto this point, you’ve baked your buttery shortbread cookies without paying much mind to their salt content, please try adding an extra pinch and proceed to revel in the results. 

That said, do remember that it’s crucial to pay attention to the type of salt your recipe calls for. The three varieties you will most often encounter in baking recipes are: salt, kosher salt, and flaky salt (typically only used for “finishing”). In a recipe, just “salt” = plain old table salt. Some bakers prefer to use table salt because the finer granules are more easily dispersed throughout the dough or batter, and you’ll very often see table salt called for in baking recipes. Of course, plenty of home cooks — myself included — have a container of kosher salt handy in the kitchen and naturally reach for it. 

What you need to keep in mind is that 1 teaspoon of table salt packs a saltier punch than 1 teaspoon of kosher salt (due to the size of the granules). Thus, if a recipe calls for table salt, and you’re using kosher, you will want to be a little more generous in your measurements. Conversely, if your recipe calls for kosher salt and you’re using table salt, deploy a touch of restraint in your measurements — even if you are going to bump up the salt from what’s called for. 

And if your recipe asks that you sprinkle flaky sea salt (often referred to by a popular brand name, Maldon) on top of your cookies before or after they go into the oven, and you don’t have this salt variety on hand, I would not advise replacing it with table salt or kosher salt. They won’t have the same effect. However, if you take this into account when you’re amping up the salt content of the dough, you should be all good. 

Vanilla Extract

More often than not, the cookie recipe you clip from a magazine, find in a cookbook, or pull from a blog is going to call for 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract. I don’t care how many cookies it makes, that seems to be the standard. I assume the safety zone for vanilla emerged less from concern about going overboard and more from a hesitation to call for too much of a relatively pricey ingredient. And I get it; if a recipe calls for a substantial amount of an expensive ingredient, I’m generally inclined to bypass it too. 

The thing is, increasing that amount of vanilla — going so far as to double it — will do the flavor of your cookies more good than you’d ever think. Whether it’s a cut-out cookie, peanut butter cookie, chocolate chip cookie, oatmeal cookie or beyond, intensifying the vanilla essence deepens the net richness to a degree that’s worth splurging on the extra splash. It is a subtle but noticeable shift that will certainly set your cookies apart.

The one caveat I can think of pertains to cookies that call for more than one flavored extract. If a recipe calls for vanilla extract, in addition to almond extract (or another flavor), I’d stick with the measurement provided to avoid a vanilla eclipse. 

With that, I invite you to try boosting these two staple ingredients in your next batch of cookies. If you aren’t pleased with the difference, I owe you a bottle of vanilla.