The Most Common Cookie Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Ever think, "Why are my cookies flat?" Well, you might be making one of these common mistakes. Learn how to make cookies that are perfectly puffed every time.

Homemade chocolate chip cookies spread out to cool on a granite countertopPhoto: Shutterstock / Kelly vanDellen

Have you ever felt the disappointment of flat cookies? You know what I’m talking about: It was the perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe, the dough tasted delicious, and you used a #60 cookie scoop just like a professional, but when you took them out of the oven they looked more like lace cookies than something from Mrs. Fields. Granted, most of us have no trouble eating those pitiful-looking sweets, but they’re definitely not potluck-worthy. If you want happy cookies every time, steer clear of these small mistakes.

Mistake 1: Butter (or margarine or shortening) is too soft

Kitchens tend to get heated up during any baking extravaganza, which means the butter you left on the counter to soften might just get too soft. If butter has gone beyond the perfect level of softness, it will melt faster in the oven. When that happens, cookies will flatten before they’ve been able to set.

What to do instead: Thirty minutes is usually enough counter time for softening butter. If you want to soften butter quickly, cut it into small pieces and let it stand for just 15 minutes instead of using the microwave, where it’s more likely to get too soft.

Mistake 2: Using the wrong fat

Are you a serial substituter? Do you swap ingredients willy-nilly with complete disregard for how that recipe became tried and true? Of course, your cookies didn’t turn out–you didn’t follow the recipe! If you use margarine instead of butter or butter instead of shortening, chances are you’re going to be disappointed with the results. They melt at different temperatures and each has a different percentage of fat.

What to do instead: Use what’s called for in the recipe. After all, at one time, it was developed with love and a specific ingredient combination to give great results every time.

If you’re out of eggs, though, there are some legit egg substitutes to use in a pinch.

Mistake 3: Too much sugar

Sugar is solid at room temperature, but liquefies when heated. If you’re heavy-handed when measuring, that extra sugar means extra liquid and more spread when the cookies bake up in the oven.

What to do instead: Use a large spoon to gently scoop dry ingredients into a measuring cup, then level off with the flat side of a butter knife. Really, it’s important to measure all ingredients correctly, not just the sugar. Learn how to measure everything from flour and sugar to honey and shortening.

Mistake 4: Over-greased baking sheets

For most cookies, there’s enough fat in the dough to keep them from sticking to your baking sheets—no greasing required. If they’re greased unnecessarily, the dough will flatten too much as it bakes.

What to do instead: Grease baking sheets only if the recipe says so. If it does, just a light coating of cooking spray will do the trick.

Mistake 5: Wrong oven temperature

If your oven is too hot, the fat melts faster than the cookie is able to set up, and you end up with pancake cookies.

What to do instead: Always preheat your oven and invest in a good oven thermometer. Even new ovens can be incorrectly calibrated, so check the actual temperature every time you put a pan in the oven.

Mistake 6: Reusing baking sheets

If you’re like me, you’ll dovetail steps to make the least amount of dirty dishes humanly possible. Take caution, though, when reusing the same baking sheets. If your pans are still hot from the previous batch, the fat in the dough will start melting even before the cookies hit the oven. Plus, residual grease left on the sheet from the previous batch can lead to too much spread.

What to do instead: Always allow the baking sheets to come to room temperature between batches. I’m not going to go so far as to say wash the sheets between batches (ugh!), but if you have a problem with flat cookies after your first batch, you may need to wash away residual grease between batches.

Got grimy baking sheets? Here’s an easy way to revive them.

Mistake 7: Skimping on mix-ins

Why (why!) would you use fewer chocolate chips than the recipe called for? That’s cookie blasphemy. Whether you decreased the amount called for because you ran out and didn’t want to run to the store (poor excuse), or you were trying to save a few calories (worse excuse)—don’t do it.

What to do instead: If you’re short on the ingredient called for, mix and match add-ins to equal the total volume called for in the recipe.

Now, you’re ready. Go preheat the oven, set out the butter to soften (but not too much), and bake up a batch of perfectly puffed cookies that you’d totally sneak from Grandma’s cookie jar.

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Peggy Woodward, RDN
Peggy is a Senior Food Editor for Taste of Home. In addition to curating recipes, she writes articles, develops recipes and is our in-house nutrition expert. She studied dietetics at the University of Illinois and completed post-graduate studies at the Medical University of South Carolina to become a registered dietitian nutritionist. Peggy has nearly 20 years of experience in the industry. She’s a mom, a foodie and enjoys being active in her rural Wisconsin community.