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. Wendy

    I make all the drop cookies for a bake shoppe. I drop them, press slightly so they are like “pucks” and flat on sheet cake pans. I can then criss cross pans and freeze overnight. Each kind are bagged and they wont stick together. They just pull out what they need to bake off daily. I make any glazes, or toppings they need, and refrigerate and they use as needed. I have all kinds available whenever they need them!

    Reply
  2. Gail Rose

    Find my cookies spread too much when I microwave the butter to soften it. Even if only a few seconds, the spread is way too much even after chilling/ freezing.
    So lessons learned—don’t microwave the butter first!

    Reply

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