Why chill cookie dough?

In the process of making zucchini-raisin cookies for a book club meeting today (we’re discussing The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester), I encountered an instruction in the recipe about chilling the mixed-up dough for at least an hour before baking the cookies. I’ve run into this before, but it seems to appear inconsistently. So I wondered: why do some recipes call for chilling the dough and others do not? Since you’re going to bake the dough at 350+ degrees anyway, does it matter whether it starts out at room temperature or fridge temperature? Won’t it just take them longer to bake?

Apparently not. Googling suggests that there are two main reasons cited for chilling dough. One applies to cookies that will be rolled out and cut (like sugar cookies), especially if they use butter for their fat source. Butter at fridge temperature is much easier to work with than butter at room temperature, which is sticky. And of course, even if you start out with butter you pulled from the fridge, by the time you’ve beat it with eggs and sugar and other ingredients, it’s likely to have warmed up and been dashed into tiny pieces that are quite squishy and sticky. I was already familiar with this concept from my previous experiences making pie crusts, although I’ve never chilled that dough after mixing it either (maybe I should try that).

But the cookies I’m making aren’t rolled cookies. It turns out that there’s a more subtle reason for chilling drop-cookie dough. This applies to cookies with flour (which explains why recipes for other kinds of cookies may not recommend chilling). Chilling permits the gluten strands in the flour to relax, avoiding a “rubbery” consistency in the final product. (The same reasoning is behind the advice to let pancake dough sit after mixing and before dropping it on the griddle.) The elapsed time may also permit the flour to absorb more of the moisture in the dough, so the cookies don’t spread out so much when baking.

So how long should you chill the dough? My current recipe says “Cover dough and chill for at least 1 hour or overnight.” One hour or overnight? Isn’t that kind of a broad range? (Whoever could possibly mix up cookie dough and then wait until the following day to bake it?)

David Leite of the NY Times conducted the experiment I would have done (although he used chocolate chip cookies), saving me the trouble, and reported on his results in “Perfection? Hint: It’s Warm and Has a Secret”. He mixed up dough and then baked batches that had been chilled for 12, 24, and 36 hours. He reports:

“At 12 hours, the dough had become drier and the baked cookies had a pleasant, if not slightly pale, complexion. The 24-hour mark is where things started getting interesting. The cookies browned more evenly and looked like handsomer, more tanned older brothers of the younger batch. The biggest difference, though, was flavor. The second batch was richer, with more bass notes of caramel and hints of toffee.

Going the full distance seemed to have the greatest impact. At 36 hours, the dough was significantly drier than the 12-hour batch; it crumbled a bit when poked but held together well when shaped. These cookies baked up the most evenly and were a deeper shade of brown than their predecessors. Surprisingly, they had an even richer, more sophisticated taste, with stronger toffee hints and a definite brown sugar presence. At an informal tasting, made up of a panel of self-described chipper fanatics, these mature cookies won, hands down.”

But how did they compare to going straight from the mixing bowl to the oven, with no chilling at all? No data. Also, I spot a methodology problem: although he ensured similar dough consistency by mixing all of the dough at the same time, the increasing chill durations meant that the baking happened at different times. While careful to control for the same cookie sheet, same oven, and same oven temperature, this has to mean that the 36-hour-chilled cookies would be fresher and have an obvious edge over the 12- and 24-hour-old previously baked cookies. To get all of the cookies to come out of the oven at the same time, you’d need to mix up separate batches (hopefully consistently!) at 36, 24, and 12 hours before the baking extravaganza.

No time for that today! My cookies won’t get 36 (or even 12) hours of chilling this time around. But I’ll have satisfied the minimum requirement. Maybe I can do the full experiment another time.

25 Comments
14 of 19 people learned something from this entry.

  1. jim said,

    May 8, 2010 at 1:52 pm

    Butter at fridge temperature is much easier to work with than butter at room temperature, which is sticky.

    Interestingly, the chocolate chip cookie recipes in “The Best Recipe” and Alton Brown’s “I’m just here for more food” recommend having the butter at room temperature. (URI goes to the “chewy” recipe) AB actually says “butter shouldn’t be worked with until it’s at least 65°F”

    I’d be interested in tasting your future experiments on this. :-)

  2. wkiri said,

    May 8, 2010 at 2:00 pm

    Interesting — do they give a reason for the room temperature butter?

    It’s also a question of what point in the recipe you’re at. My recipe also says to use “softened” butter when beating it with the sugar and egg. And the Alton Brown recipe you mention also says to chill the dough after mixing it. So I guess you want it sticky when mixing, but firm when baking. Since the butter necessarily succumbs and melts in the oven, maybe it’s a timing thing — it melts a bit more slowly and allows the other ingredients to firm up before the cookie spreads out in a thin puddle?

  3. Midnight said,

    May 8, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    I have the same problem with waiting even an hour before cooking a batch (happened last a few days ago with some bacon cookies). Of course, my comparison between the “right away” and the “control your stomach for a day” varieties mostly stems from pre-made cookie dough or Break-n-Bakes, which taste good after being in the fridge for a long time, but still can’t beat the taste of homemade ones.

    As for butter, this last time we microwaves what we needed until it was extremely soft, and the cookies turned out better than last time… Maybe just a strange occurrence due to the excessive amounts of bacon inside?

  4. Scott said,

    May 10, 2010 at 11:18 am

    (Learned something new!)

    I’m confused. Why would anyone ruin perfectly good cookie dough by BAKING it?

  5. Kiri said,

    May 10, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    I’m still nauseated by the concept of bacon cookies.

  6. Scott said,

    May 10, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    ;-) They can’t be as bad as bacon chocolate.

  7. Terran said,

    May 14, 2010 at 11:58 am

    (Learned something new!)

    Nice analysis! Yes, I had run into this question before, though not investigated it so thoroughly. :-) Most prominently, my Mom used to make “icebox cookies” around Christmas. This involved constructing the dough, rolling it in wax paper into long cylinders, and freezing the cylinders over night. The resulting “cookie dough logs” could be sliced cleanly into proto-cookie disks. I think the core issue there was a texture/sliceability question; I’m not sure if flour relaxation was a consideration.

    I have heard of the flour relaxation issue. It also shows up when making flour-thickened sauces (such as béchamel). Flour is surprisingly tricky stuff! I had not tried the cookie chilling technique myself, but it makes sense. Of course, in our case, we also have the altitude variable to contend with… *rolls eyes*

  8. Double Chocolate Peanut Butter cookies | Eclecticisms said,

    December 28, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    [...] Here’s an interesting post about chilling cookie dough. [...]

  9. Val said,

    January 23, 2012 at 7:50 pm

    (Knew it already.)

    Great post with lots of info! The more I’ve been baking and blogging the more I look into why we have these rules in csome recipes and not in others. Chilling the dough does help relax the gluten and rolled or drop cookie dough is much easier to work with so the cookies don’t spread too thin and burn.

  10. Renee said,

    February 21, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    I did know about chilling cookie dough but not about the flour end of it. I must confess my cookie doughs do usually have a “resting” period but not always in the fridge. And I do have a fabulous recipe that actually calls for melted butter, and now that I think about it a good portion of the dough in my last batch did sit in the fridge for a few days.
    Thanks for this post, I stumbled upon it in my search to find out if I really need my current dough to sit in the fridge for 8 hours or overnight…4 might be pushing it today. ;-)

  11. Sarah said,

    March 10, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    Even though this original post is kind of old, I’m glad to find this. I have a GREAT chocolate chip recipe from a friend. In his instructions he says it’s ‘crucial’ to chill the dough for several hours or over night. I never knew why, but did it anyway. I love how they always turn out as a result.
    Interestingly enough in the chilling experiment describe, it’s mentioned the brown sugar taste came through a lot more. in my recipe i choose to use dark brown sugar over light–mostly because it gives the cookies a really delicious rich flavor!
    I’m so glad there are cookies coming out of the oven in 2 minutes!

  12. recipewarrior said,

    September 15, 2012 at 8:11 am

    (Learned something new!)

    My thanks are to everyone i wasn’t sure about chilling homemade chocolate chip cookie slice and bake dough my recipe said cut flour and i wasn’t sure what it meant so i googled and found that it means to chill but i wasn’t sure for how long i’m making these for my grandchildren and i’m excited and i love to bake and i want to cut cost by making my own cookies and i can also be a step ahead for the holidays can’t wait to taste them i going to extend the chilling process as long as i can again thanks alot.

  13. ella said,

    September 19, 2012 at 3:15 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    thanks so much u helped me get back ground reaserch for my science fair project. it’s called how to make the best cookies.the purpose of the experiment was to find out if letting cookie dough sit for 48 hours before baking it makes th the cookies taste better. THANK YOU!!!!!

  14. Kathy said,

    November 23, 2012 at 1:55 am

    Hello everyone, sorry this may be a silly question but, would someone tell me if I could roll cookie dough, cut it into shapes with my cookie cutters and then freeze on parchment paper, in order to unfreeze, bake and decorate later on?? I want to participate in my daughter’s Christmas school bazaar but as I will be preparing many other last-minute food, I wonder if I could save some time, having the cookies ready to bake. How long can the dough be chilled? I’ve read on the internet some doughs can rest in the freezer for up to 1 month, is this true? thanks a million for your comments!

  15. Sandra said,

    December 14, 2012 at 9:53 am

    (Knew it already.)

    HELLO! Has anyone ever tried crocheting? Its quite fun!! Great way to pass the time! And it makes a great xmas gift!

  16. Naomi said,

    January 13, 2013 at 12:32 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    I would like to conduct and experiment using 2 batches of cookies. 1 mixed up using melted butter and 1 mixed up with softened butter. Than roll into balls and place both in the fridge overnight.The next day I would take 2 from the melted batch and 2 from the soften batch and allow to get to room temp, about 10 and 10 more mins whilst waiting for the oven to preheat. I would than place the 4 room temp cookies on a pan along with 2 cold from the melted batch and 2 from the soften batch. Just to see how things would turn out. I would drop a color into each batch to tell them apart. I would like a slightly flattened cookie but would also like to find the best way to keep the cookies soft.

  17. Molasses cookies « Baking and Math said,

    January 18, 2013 at 5:50 pm

    [...] I did chill the dough for half an hour while I cleaned up for the party.  If you’re curious, this has a pretty good explanation for why one should chill dough.  There’s a lot of discussions out there, but as far as I’m concerned, chilling makes [...]

  18. Naomi said,

    January 31, 2013 at 1:55 pm

    (Knew it already.)

    I make my fair share of cookies, and I’m always throwing different ingredients together–usually whatever’s in my cupboards–but the “chill your dough” thing is a trick I picked up rather than reading it in a recipe, so I come at this from a slightly different position than this article. I was talking to a neighbor lady about puffy cookies and trading tips to get that perfectly fluffy cookie, and she suggested chilling the dough, because the fat in the dough, once chilled, is harder to heat, and the steam created from the heating of this chilled fat puffs up your cookies. We never did talk about how long the dough should be chilled for (no less than an hour, obviously) but I’ve personally never gone longer than four hours.

  19. crystal said,

    March 6, 2013 at 4:38 am

    (Learned something new!)

    I didnt understand why at first but I worked on it and with refrigerating it also takes less flour to avoid sticking

  20. Cindy said,

    May 3, 2013 at 4:55 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    Great article. So, I am in a time crunch. Who isn’t when baking cookies? I will do my own experiment. I will refrigerate some of the dough and roll 1/2 of the Biscochitos cookies tonight and then the other 1/2 in the AM. Some will only get 2 hours of fridge time; some will be ‘overnight’ as the recipe states. I feel this will give the anise time to mingle with the dough. I best get to cleaning the bowls and dishes mess. Why, if there is so much work in making cookies, do we all fuss about calories? I will let you know which version tastes better. Another thing to ponder: calories expended vs. consumed in cookie baking.

  21. Adeline said,

    September 5, 2013 at 2:22 am

    (Knew it already.)

    Having read that article from the NY times, I too did try to refrigerate my choc chip cookie dough – often times more than a day as I don’t have that much spare time. I absolutely love the cookies that have been chilled as it does give a richer flavour.

    On one occasion, when I had finally gotten sick of waiting and decided to simply pop the freshly baked cookie dough into the oven… the cookies did not taste as nice as those that have been chilled. I totally regretted that move. Those not picky about the flavour probably would not notice it, like my mum and dad. But it annoyed me that it didn’t taste as good and I just wasted time waiting for them to be out of the oven. Left the remaining cookie dough back into the fridge and waited a couple more days before I baked them and they were back to the way I love them :)

  22. Hannah said,

    November 7, 2013 at 4:07 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    Thanks! I am only thirteen, but I love baking! This will help!

  23. Olivia said,

    February 6, 2014 at 1:14 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    I looked at this website for my science fair project at school. I am going to be doing the exact same experiment. This helped out a lot. Are there any other website you would recommend for finding info on this type of experiment?

  24. Sonya said,

    February 11, 2014 at 10:42 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    Thank you; this was very helpful! I wanted to see if I could shorten the chilling for cheddar crackers but you inspired me to follow the recipe :)

  25. Angela said,

    November 19, 2014 at 6:39 pm

    (Knew it already.)

    I realize this is old; however, on the off chance anyone still wants to know why butter should be at room temperature before adding to the dough…..it is because it traps air better…same reason eggs should be at room temperature. End result…better cookie. Too bad did not stumble across this sooner. Could have given Olivia (commenter from 2/6/14) more ideas for her science project.

Post a Comment

I knew this already. I learned something new!