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Baking the Perfect Biscuit

Do you feel frustrated when your home-baked cookies/biscuits don’t turn out as you expect? Why are Cookies (called biscuits in Australia) sometimes too hard, too soft, way-too-spread-out, or hard enough to use as a cricket bat?

cooking anzac biscuits

My investigations into this blight on the Home Baker led me to conclude that baking is a science, and pastry cooks and chefs who are required to replicate the exact same foods with the exact same textures and tastes every single time, have my endless admiration. For the path to creating the perfect biscuit is laden with pitfalls, and endless variables that are bound to confuse, frustrate and annoy the most patient and placid of us.

Not only do you have to achieve consistency at technique, control the uncontrollable variations in oven temperature and heat distribution, you also have to conquer such variables as appropriate shelf height and heat setting in multi-functional ovens, incorrect weighing/measuring of ingredients, the endless debate on whether to fold or beat, cover or uncover the cooked item, and the list goes on.

Something as simple as using low-fat butter or milk can drastically alter results. Nevertheless, it is useful to consider why things may have gone wrong. http://www.sunset.com had some answers for me:

  • Low-fat butter or margarine spread, which has about 20% more water, used in place of regular butter or margarine is often the culprit. Low-fat products can’t be used interchangeably with regular fats for baking without recipe adjustments.
  • Cookies also spread when you drop high-fat dough onto a hot baking sheet; the heat melts the dough, and cookies spread before they’re baked enough to hold their shape.


The way they measure ingredients and the real temperature of their ovens are the usual reasons cooks get different results from the same recipe.

Flour should be stirred to loosen and fluff it, then spooned gently into a dry-measure cup (the kind you fill to the rim), and the top scraped level. If you tap the cup or scoop flour from the bag, the flour gets packed down, and you can easily add 2 to 4 extra tablespoons flour per cup.
You can scoop up white sugar; it doesn’t pack. But you should firmly pack brown sugar into a dry-measure cup and scrape the top level.

Dry ingredients should not be measured in heaped-up cups or spoons; scrape dry ingredients level with the surface of the measuring tool.

Measure liquid ingredients with liquid-measuring (usually glass or plastic) cups.

Sunset.com

Controlling Spread in Cookies with Baking Soda:

Cookies spread across a cookie sheet when they have too little structure and cannot hold their shape. Whether this is desirable or not depends on what kind of cookie you wish to bake.
There are many ways to increase cookie spread: One way is to add a small amount of baking soda, as little as .25 to .5 ounces (5 to 15 grams) for 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) of cookie dough. This increases the pH of the dough, weakening gluten, and also weakening egg protein structure. With less structure, cookies spread more and have a coarser, more porous crumb.
Since moisture evaporates from a porous crumb more easily, baking soda often provides for a crisper crumb, as well.
Measure baking soda carefully. Baking soda increases browning significantly, and if used at too high a level, it leaves a distance salty-chemical off flavour. When working at high altitudes, omit baking soda from the cookie dough. The lower air pressure at high altitudes already encourages spread.

How to Ensure Baking Success in Using Ingredients

  • Check the expiry date on egg carton and other ingredients too.
  • Eggs should be at room temperature. The emulsion can be ruined if eggs or other liquids are too cold or too hot when they are added.
  • Measuring Flour: Too much flour can make some cookies rock-hard. When in doubt, err on the side of less flour. Use a scale if the recipe offers a weight equivalent. Spoon the flour into your measuring cup and sweep a spatula across the top to level it off. Don’t use the measuring cup as a scoop, or it’ll pack the flour, and you’ll end up with more flour in the cup than intended.
  • Nuts:  Smell and taste nuts before using. Oils in nuts can turn rancid quickly. Store any leftover nuts in the freezer for longest shelf life. 
  • Butter:  Make sure your butter is at room temperature, otherwise it won’t cream properly with the sugar. The terms “room temperature,” “softened” and “soft” mean different things. The temperature of the butter can make a difference in the recipe. Most cookie dough recipes depend on the emulsion that occurs when you cream butter and sugar together. This emulsion will not happen if the butter is too hot or too cold.
  • Room Temperature Butter: It should be pliable enough that your finger can leave a mark in it, without being soft and greasy. Set the butter out at least one (1) hour in advance.
  • Softened Butter: Will feel a little warmer to the touch, and it will be much easier to leave a deep indentation, but it should still be firm enough to pick up without falling apart.
  • Soft Butter: Will be too soft to pick up.
  • Microwave Butter: Do not try to microwave your butter as it will just end up too soft. If you don’t have an hour’s lead time, increase the surface area by cutting the butter into small pieces or shredding it on the large holes of a grater. It will then come up to temperature in approximately 10 minutes.
  • Unsalted Butter: Unsalted butter is generally recommended because some salted butters have more sodium than others.  Do not use low fat butter/margarine. Low fat margarine has 20 % more water.
  • Salt:  Use the full amount of salt called for in a recipe, especially is using unsalted butter. If you use salted butter, only use 1/2 the amount called for in the recipe. Don’t skip the salt, as salt brings out flavours and balances the sweetness in a recipe.
  • Sugar: The type of sugar used in your cookies can promote spread in baked cookies. To understand this, you need to know that sugar is a tenderiser which interferes with the formation structure. Sugars with a finger granulation promote more spread, (probably because they dissolve sooner, and only dissolved sugars will tenderise). Powdered sugar (confectioner’s sugar), when it contains cornstarch, prevents spread in cookies despite it finer grind.

Source: whatscookingamerica.net/Cookie/CookieTips.htm

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9 thoughts on “Baking the Perfect Biscuit”

  1. My best advice is to practise. I’ve read many useful articles on the why’s & how’s of baking but found that in the end, it depends on the recipe, the ingredients & where you buy & bake them.

    Case in point, Aussie recipes are ripe for failure by North American cooks because the cup size is different. 1 AUS cup is 250 and 1 US cup is 240ml. One cup of flour in Australia is 150g while one cup of flour in US is 120g … and then that differs according to how you fill the cup 😬
    The recipes say that the slight difference should’t matter … which is probably true in terms of edibility but 30-60g difference in flour will make a huge difference in texture for finicky cakes & cookies. This is why I always go for mass vs volume based measurements

    Then there is the matter of flour types … in Canada the everyday grocery store has 3 types of white flour – All purpose, Cake & Pastry and Bread. When I was in Singapore there was also Top Flour, Hong Kong flour along with a host of non-wheat based flours (rice, glutinous rice, sago, tapioca, potato etc) Add to that the climate & humidity differences … it’s a minefield of potential fails 🙂

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    1. I know what you mean about the minefield. That is why I started to investigate this. You do everything the same and yet one day – humidity intervenes and your crispy gingerbread/shortbread goes soft. It is maddening.
      I agree I prefer weight based measurement. I had measuring out butter in a cup! The differences in cups between American and Australian is significant and enough to account for many of my failures. What is Cake and pastry flour. Does it have baking powder added like Australia’s Self Raising flour – which doesn’t exist in the Scandi countries at all.

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      1. Cake & Pastry flour is made with soft wheat which has a lower gluten content than hard wheat. The soft wheat makes a much more tender crumb & texture in cakes & pastry. All-purpose four is made from a blend of soft & hard wheat, while bread flour is all hard wheat (witht the highest gluten content of the three.)

        Self rising is All-purpose flour which has salt and baking powder added. Here again there seems to be a difference between UK and US. In the US, self-rising flour has salt & baking powder, whereas in UK I see it’s only flour & Baking powder. Here in Canada, plain flour is the norm. Specialty packs of Self Rising Flour is available (for an inflated price) but I normally avoid it.

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      2. Thanks for the valuable and interesting explanation, Sandy. Self-raising flour in Australia only has baking powder added as far as I am aware. I prefer the milder taste rather than plain flour plus baking powder in recipes, but it is not a really big deal. For a while, I resisted buying self-raising flour but now I can see a value in it. Plus it is convenient. Nevertheless, I use plain flour plus baking powder when I run out of S-R flour. Then there is the whole castor sugar thing. Do you have that in Canada?

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      3. We don’t have Castor sugar in Canada. Regular white sugar is called Granulated Sugar and it’s normally available Fine or SuperFine. From what I see, Super Fine sugar is the same as Castor sugar but some places say regular granulated sugar can be pulsed in the food processor to get caster sugar.
        The powdered sugar used in frostings, is commonly labelled Icing Sugar and sometimes, Confectionary Sugar. What do you call it?
        … given the amount of differences in common grocery items – we probably have a whole blog post here 🙂

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      4. I was thinking a blog post too! There is normal white sugar, raw sugar, brown sugar, dark brown sugar (less processed and presumably more molasses), castor sugar, icing sugar and even demarera sugar – a bit like coffee sugar. Australians have a sweet tooth! But the one thing I can’t get here is pearl sugar. I brought a box home from Denmark!

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