Tips

why did my cookies spread?

This is the most frequent cry of despair I get from the comment sections of cookie recipes on Smitten Kitchen and the truth is that there are many, many factors that can cause a cookie to spread. But the biggest one? Temperature. Dough that is too warm or soft will spread more than dough that is cooler, so if you’re working in a very warm kitchen, putting your dough in the fridge for 15 minutes or longer before using it will help prevent spread. Butter that is too warm or soft is also a major culprit. When a recipe calls for “softened” or “at room temperature” butter, you’re looking for butter that you can make an impression in by poking it with your finger, but that impression shouldn’t stay. (Source). A baking sheet that is still warm from the last batch will encourage cookies to spread before they even begin to bake.

There are factors beyond temperature too. A greased cookie sheet promotes spreading; one tip is to flour it after you grease it to hinder spread, or to use silicone paper or a Silpat mat instead. Because sugar liquefies as it is heated, a more sugary cookie (with less flour and/or fat in it) is more likely to spread than one with a lower proportion of sugar. When a recipe says to “cream” your butter and sugar together, just beat it long enough to combine the ingredients — about 30 seconds on an electric or stand mixer, says David Lebovitz — so you do not whip too much air into your cookies, causing too much expansion as the air bubbles steam in the oven. (With cakes, there’s no such limit on airiness.) Finally, at higher altitudes, cookies with baking soda in them tend to spread more.

Lastly, it is worth noting that butter, which melts at your body’s temperature and is nearly one-fifth water, spreads more than margarine, and both spread more than shortening. Now, all cookie recipes on Smitten Kitchen are all-butter (because I like butter’s melt-in-your-mouth feel and flavor above all else), so making sure that your butter, dough and baking sheets aren’t too warm is especially key.

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18 comments on why did my cookies spread?

  1. Amanda

    Also, a dark cookie sheet will cause them to spread more than a lighter one. I have two half sheet pans, one stainless and the other that dark non-stick material…while making a batch of shortbread cookies (with parchment paper on both pans) the dark pan’s cookies spread out waaaay more than the light pan’s. Lesson learned!

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  4. JMH_9

    I have been known to put my cookie sheets in the fridge before putting the dough on them. This is especially helpful between batches or in a small kitchen, sometimes they’re sitting too close to the preheated oven. Between this and my silpat mats no more spreading… so far anyway.

  5. Meg

    If you use parchment, why would the color of the baking sheet matter? I have experimented with shiny vs dark sheets as well. My experience is that cookies spread more on shiny. lighter sheets. I wonder if the thickness of the sheets matter?

  6. Donna

    I made my dough one day before baking and refrigerated it overnight. I used a Silpat. And still this batch (for some other reason) spread. Recipe was Maraschino Cherry and Dark Chocolate Chip Cookies (see http://www.closetcooking.com). Flavor was good, but they were almost like raw dough even though they were so thin. What did I do wrong?

  7. Sarah

    I recently made your crispy/chewy chocolate chip cookies which call for melted butter. I was worried about the cookies becoming paper thin because of this, but they were not. They did spread, but just the right amount. Could you comment on why melted butter is ok (at least in that recipe) even though “too-warm” butter can be detrimental in others?

  8. Araminta

    I second Sarah’s question above- why do your chewy c.c cookie recipe which calls for melted butter not spread as much? All this cookie science makes me scratch my head but I must know!!!

  9. Great tips! I’m at a high altitude and have lots of spreading issues. Any tips on combating the baking soda issue? Perhaps a substitute that would work better? Thanks!

  10. Doris

    Araminta, by melting the butter the water on it evaporated, so the result was pure butter, probably that prevented the cookie from spreading too much

  11. Maria

    …and now I know why my oatmeal raisin cookies spread paper thin: I “may” have over-creamed the butter while I was on the phone. Sigh. They taste divine but are super thin and don’t hold together well (they break when you try to get one from a plate). Live and learn.

  12. Stacey

    Thanks for the tips, Deb! I’m wondering why some of your recipes, like the Salted Chocolate Chunk Cookies (otherwise known as PMS/PMT cookies in our house) call for an entire 5 minutes of creaming the butter and sugar, rather than the David Lebovitz 30 second recommendation listed here. When should I just combine by creaming, and when should I extreme-cream my butter and sugar?

  13. Heather

    I was going to ask about the long creaming recommendation in the chocolate chunk recipe also! After reading that tip, I’ve been letting it goo for a long time!