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. The Baker's Hotline

      Indeed it does, Allison. You can either thaw your dough out in the fridge or bake it directly from the freezer. If you’re going to bake them frozen, we’d recommend flatting them slightly into more of a hockey puck shape rather than a ball before freezing. Otherwise, the center can have a hard time spreading out in the oven. Annabelle@KAF

  1. Hazel Peterson

    Refrigerating your cookie dough is great. It allows you to mix several kinds and refrigerate the dough.

    You can clean up the mess from mixing the dough before you ever think of heating the oven. You can also wait for a cooler day if it is a very hot summer or can mix ahead of time and wait until just before you need the cookies so they are freshly baked. You can also choose to bake just a few of each kind so you have a plate of assorted fresh cookies for guests or to take.

    I like to refrigerate almost all cookies I make. I wrap the dough in plastic wrap so it takes up less room. Unless it is a cookie that is to be sliced, I bring it out and let it warm. Warming is important as I use butter which gets very hard in the refrigerator. Then, I make uniform balls.

    If I am baking several kinds to take somewhere, and they all bake at the same temperature for about the same time, I will put plastic wrap on my table and fill it with balls ready to go on the cookie sheet. That way, I can bake them in less time, having the oven hot a shorter time.

    A friend once asked how I got all of my cookies to be so perfect and uniform. When she made drop cookies, they were never uniform

    I have a cookie stamp that I use for peanut butter cookies and for sugar cookies for a change, I will sometimes put cocoa in my sugar cookies, press them with the stamp and sprinkle colored candies on them.

    Reply
  2. Jeni

    I’ve chilled my cookie dough for an hour to a little more than an hour and they are perfect! I also opt for lard vs butter. Makes a terrific cookie!!

    Reply
    1. mwc

      wow! so good to know this. I render my own lard & have used it in molasses cookies but not these, thanks for the tip.

  3. April

    I refrigerated my dough for 24 hours and it tasted too sweet and I tasted too much vanilla. Any way to combat this if I need dough the next day? If I babe it within 30 min of chillling it’s perfect. But next day it’s way too sweet.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We’re surprised to hear you found the cookies to be too sweet the next day, April; our taste testers described the flavor of chilled cookie dough as deeper, more complex, and incredibly satisfying. Your taste buds may just be picking up on these differences and noting them as additional sweetness. In that case, consider reducing the sugar by 10% to 15% in the dough if you know you’re going to make it ahead of time and chill. The cookies shouldn’t be compromised because of this slight reduction, but the flavor should taste more balanced. We hope this helps, and happy baking! Kye@KAF

  4. Lori

    Do you recommend dropping the dough onto the baking sheet and then chilling overnight, or is it ok to leave the dough in a bowl overnight and then drop the chilled dough onto baking sheets?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      To save your wrists, Lori, we’d recommend scooping the dough before you freeze it. Or, plop all of the dough into a log on some parchment paper and roll it up tight. The next day, you can slice off discs and bake them that way rather than scooped. Annabelle@KAF

  5. Holly

    Yay! I’ve been looking for more info about this since loving the results from aging my Toll House cookie dough. Is there any particular type of cookie that should not be chilled overnight?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Anything egg-white based would be something you’d want to bake right away, Holly. Think macarons, meringues, etc. If you can squish a dough like you can a chocolate chip cookie dough? There’s a good chance chilling it won’t be a problem at all. Happy baking! Annabelle@KAF

  6. Makua

    Thank you so much! The recipe I was working from said the dough would be stiff but mine was sticky. It was better after refrigerating it for a bit. Again thanks! I love baking but I failed at making cookies every time. For different reasons (one time my cookies rose like a cake and stayed that way…) Anyway, this was a huge help 🙂 You have no idea

    Reply

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