Chilling cookie dough: does it make a difference?

Why refrigerate chocolate chip cookie dough – or for that matter, any basic drop cookie dough – before baking? Does chilling cookie dough really make any difference?

The short answer: yes, chilling cookie dough prior to baking does make a difference.

But the story behind that “yes” might surprise you.

I recently tested this question with a batch of chocolate chip cookie dough. Understand, though, that these results can be applied to other kinds of plain drop cookie dough: sugar cookies, snickerdoodles…

First I baked some of the cookie dough immediately, without any chilling.

Then, I put the dough in the fridge and continued to bake cookies over the next 10 days, at regularly spaced intervals.

The result?

Test: chilling cookie dough @ via kingarthurflour

Chilling cookie dough for just 30 minutes makes a big difference.

The cookies pictured above are the same size, weight-wise. But look at the difference in spread – the cookie dough that was refrigerated spread less.

The cookie dough without refrigeration also browned less.

So, the longer the dough is chilled, the more the cookies change?

Results: chilling cookie dough via @kingarthurflour

The longer you chill cookie dough, the smaller the changes become.

Call it the law of diminishing returns. The major difference is between no chilling at all vs. chilling for 30 minutes. After that, the baked cookie continues to evolve – though very gradually.

Test: chilling cookie dough @ via kingarthurflour

Over time, chilling cookie dough produces cookies with darker color and more pronounced flavor.

Here you see the beginning and end of the test: clearly the cookie baked from dough chilled for 10 days spread less, and is darker in color. Its flavor is also more pronounced; our taste testers couldn’t identify any particular flavor note that stood our above the rest, but simply noted that the 10-day cookie “tastes better” than the cookie baked on day #1.

My personal evaluation is that the cookies baked immediately tasted rather flat; and their texture was soft and rather doughy, without being chewy. Cookies baked after chilling the dough (for as little as 30 minutes) became chewy, and progressively more flavorful.

So, what does chilling cookie dough do, exactly?

1. Chilling cookie dough controls spread.

Chilling cookie dough before baking solidifies the fat in the cookies. As the cookies bake, the fat in the chilled cookie dough takes longer to melt than room-temperature fat. And the longer the fat remains solid, the less cookies spread.

In addition, the sugar in the dough gradually absorbs liquid. If you bake the dough immediately, before sugar has a chance to absorb much liquid, that liquid remains “free” in the dough, and promotes spread. Think of this in terms of thin vs. thick pancake batter: the more liquid in batter, the more it spreads, right? Same with cookies.

Test: chilling cookie dough via @kingarthurflour

That’s fresh dough, at left; three-day-old dough, at right. The longer the dough chills, the drier it becomes.

2. Chilling cookie dough concentrates flavor.

As the dough chills, it gradually dries out, concentrating the flavors of all the ingredients. Think of watered-down lemonade, vs. lemonade with less water: dull flavor vs. bright, tangy flavor. Same with cookies.

Something else happens as the dough rests: part of the flour breaks down into its component parts, including a simple carbohydrate, sugar. Thus, since sugar is a flavor enhancer (like salt), the cookies may taste more flavorful, as well as sweeter.

3. Chilling cookie dough changes texture.

Again, it’s not really the chilling, but the dough gradually drying out, that’s responsible for texture change. The drier the dough, the more concentrated the sugar.  And a higher percentage of sugar creates cookies with chewy/crisp (rather than soft/doughy) texture.

Result: chilling cookie dough @ via kingarthurflour

So, enough with the science; let’s enjoy one of these fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, shall we? At the end of the day – or even after just 30 minutes – there’s simply nothing finer.

Do you have any chocolate chip cookie tips to pass along? Please share in “comments,” below.

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Jessica Richman

    Like Gloria, I often make my dough one day and bake it the next. I portion my dough (using a scoop) as soon as I make it, and then refrigerate it. The next day (or a few days later) I can go directly to baking without having to fight with stiff dough. I also freeze some of the portioned dough after I’ve let it sit in the fridge for a few days.

    Reply
  2. June

    I shape all dough in a log and refrigerate overnight. That way, I can easily pull sections off the log for rather uniform cookies. Some dough (without chips, especially) can be cut with a knife to get perfectly uniform cookies. Easier than a scoop, in my opinion.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi there, Maria! Chilling your oatmeal cookie dough will soften the oats a bit, but shouldn’t cause them to absorb too much moisture. Happy baking! Morgan@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi there, Alexis! Chilling your cookie dough can help to yield a softer cookie as it will prevent to dough from spreading as much, but we’d suggest also checking out our tips for soft cookies from our Cookie Chemistry blog article as well. We hope this helps and happy baking! Morgan@KAF

  3. Leash L. Loo

    Thanks for this article – super interesting. Can I infer that it’s ok to use cookie dough that’s been in the refrigerator for 10 days? Or for the purposes of this experiment did the dough get kept in the freezer for some of that 10 day stretch? I have peanut butter choc chip cookie dough that’s been in the fridge for 9 days and I want to make sure it’s still usable before I bake it 🙂

    Reply
  4. Benjamin Unger

    Thank you for this fascinating article. Could you tell us a few more details about your experiment and testing? Did you make one large batch of dough on day 0 and then subsequently bake from that batch immediately, at 30 minutes, 60 minutes and each subsequent day up to day 10? Or, did you make a batch of dough on day 0 and store it and continue that process each day until day 10 when all the doughs were baked and compared at the same time? Each way of running this experiment has trade-offs. The 1st uses exactly the same ingredients but makes it harder to compare the cookies against each other because they were baked on different days. The 2nd compares cookies all baked at the same time but introducing a different potential confounder of not using exactly the same ingredients and mixing/prep techniques. Given the choice, the 2nd would seem to introduce fewer confounders. Can you share your thoughts and approach?

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Benjamin, here’s what it says in the post: “I recently tested this question with a batch of chocolate chip cookie dough… First I baked some of the cookie dough immediately, without any chilling. Then, I put the dough in the fridge and continued to bake cookies over the next 10 days, at regularly spaced intervals.” So that’s how I did it. I feel that this method actually introduces fewer confounders, considering the point of the test was to see how chilling THE SAME cookie dough for varying amounts of time affects the final product — which is what I did. For each bake, I used the same oven, heated to the same temperature (checked with dual in-oven independent thermometers), for the same amount of time. I think the test was as valid as I could make it, given I’m a home baker and not working in a lab. Thanks for connecting here — PJH@KAF

  5. Trish

    I bake my chocolate chip cookies 6 minutes then rotate trays and move tray that’s on top rack to the bottom rack and the tray that’s on bottom rack to top rack. Bake 4 more minutes.

    Reply
  6. Gloria Caruti

    I do refrigerate my doughs .. I make 8 different cookies for Christmas,,, I am 76 and slightly handicap,, I find if I do All my batters one day & refrig,, I eliminate all the bowls, utensils, measuring spoons & cups,,, the Mess… Next day I take out All my batters , which are marked with directions,, and Bake all day . I do my Pigmoli & Struffoli Fresh.. 🎅🏻🎄

    Reply
    1. Eileen

      May I ask a tip where to transfer my cookie dough for chilling? I don’t have a lot of space in my fridge, can I transfer it to a ziplock plastic to freeze for 4 hours or overnight? Let it cool down first?i am baking orders. Doesz doubling the recipe affect the outcome of the cookies in taste and texture?Thank you in advance!

    2. The Baker's Hotline

      We hope Gloria answers too, Eileen, but just in case she doesn’t, we wanted to help. If you can’t chill the dough in the fridge for a few hours, it’ll only need about 30 minutes in the freezer to get the same effect. If you leave them in longer, they’ll freeze solid and you’ll have to bake them for a few extra minutes, potentially needing to press them down halfway through baking. (A metal measuring cup sprayed with pan spray works well for this.) Doubling recipes can sometimes change the outcome so you’ll want to do a test batch to make sure you like the results. Annabelle@KAF

    3. Eileen

      Hi Gloria! Did you transfer your dough in a Ziplock or a plastic covered containers? Thank you!

    4. Andy

      Eileen,

      I would recommend against the freezer – not just because you’ll need more time to cook, but because you’ll still want to be able to scoop the dough! Scooping can get tough even after an hour or more in the fridge, much less 4 hours plus in the freezer.

      I keep my dough stored in the mixing bowl with some sealing plastic wrap over it, but a ziploc bag should also work fine. Storing in the bowl is more a convenience for when it comes time to scoop – the dough will be quite firm and a stiff metal bowl is easier to grip. If you’re storing for 4+ hours, the fridge should easily be cold enough.

    5. Bakers Fancy

      I just read your response and think it’s a fantastic method Gloria! Thanks for sharing!

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