The holidays are approaching, and more than one person has run into the problem that their drop cookies have spread from 2 inches in diameter to more than 3 inches in diameter, making the final cookie thin and crisp rather than fat and chewy.
Two years ago when I first started making cookies, I was occasionally disappointed in the final shape the cookie took after baking. I had some drop cookies that just plain got flat, and of course, they get crisper (crustier?) when they are thin like that. And I tried to make cut-out cookies, and the shapes would contort something awful during the baking process. I had to learn the causes of cookie spread so I could eliminate it. I will discuss several general areas that you need to investigate, but I don’t think you need to take all the possible steps in trying to reduce the spread; at one point, I found that the cookie spread was zero and the cookie looked just exactly like I had dropped it onto the cooking sheets.
Reduce the moisture in the dough.
One of the major contributing factors to cookie spread is moisture in the dough. That moisture might show itself as water, but it can also be hidden where you do not expect it. Butter has water in it; the amount can be as much as 20%, so that 8 ounces of butter could contain over an ounce of water. You may want to switch out the butter for shortening to help reduce the cookie spread.
And if your recipe is using oil instead of a solid fat, you may need to reduce the amount of oil and replace it with solid fat.
The same goes for liquid sweeteners; many of the vegan recipes use liquid sweeteners instead of sugar. Even crystalline sugar acts as a moisture, so you need to use as large a sugar crystal as possible- not powdered sugar but granulated sugar. You might need to reduce the brown sugar and replace some of it with granulated sugar.
Reduce the cooking pan action.
The cooking pan can act either to help spread, or reduce spread. If you are lubricating the cooking pan, don’t! You are making them slick and the cookie dough can slide more easily resulting in cookie spread. Instead, bake the cookies on silicon pads, or even parchment paper on the cookie sheet.
Thicker cookie sheets help reduce the spread of the cookie dough. Several years ago, a cookie sheet was introduced that had a double bottom- something called Air-Bake. This increases the time it takes for the bottom of the cookie to get hot and the ingredients to melt so that they can spread. This means the cookie sides will have a chance to crust before the dough melts and spreads. Before I had Air-Bake sheets, I had cookie pans that would nest, and used two pans nested to make the bottoms more insulated and slow down the heat onto the bottom of the cookie.
Reduce the time in which the cookie can spread.
Perhaps one of the best methods for reducing cookie spread is by reducing the amount of time the dough can spread. To do this, we want to put a crust on the edge of the cookie as quickly as possible after it goes into the oven so that the inner dough of the cookie can’t escape. There are a couple things that will help establish that crust quickly.
Raising the temperature of the oven (and shortening the total cook time) I often use an oven temperature that is 25 degrees different than what the recipe says, and in turn, I usually expect the cook time to be 5 minutes different. For some cooking, I decrease the temperature 5 degrees and cook 5 minutes longer; this is often cakes where I want the edges just inside the cake pan to cook slower so that the rise of the center dome is less pronounced. But with cookie spread, the direction is the opposite; I want the temperature hotter by 5 degrees and the cooking time less by about 5 minutes.
The second method for reducing the time the cookie can spread is to make certain the dropped cookie dough is cold in the center; this means that the edges will warm first, and crust, before the center of the cookie gets hot. So, after you have dropped your cookies onto the cooking sheets, put the cooking sheets in the refrigerator for at least 15 minutes, and maybe up to an hour. This was the trick that I learned with cut-out cookies that kept them from morphing into unidentifiable shapes.
There are a lot of other ideas that float around that have to do with making the dough; most chefs feel we amateurs use to the mixer too long. You can see that on cake mix boxes where the directions say to mix the batter for just 2 minutes. I have also read that we over-do the mixing when we cream the butter and sugar, and that makes for some cookie spread. However, I think you will solve your cookie spread mostly with just a couple of the ideas I have given you.
I would start by refrigerating my dropped cookies before putting them in the oven; I think this will do the majority of your job. If you still need some help, I would take one idea from each section above, like changing out the butter for shortening (they do have butter flavored shortening now), and using parchment paper on the cookie sheet instead of a lubricant.