Your expectations can be high when baking cookies, but they can quickly be shot down when reality kicks in and your cookies haven’t spread or flattened as much as you’d like.
Unfortunately, your cookies are a lost cause if they don’t flatten enough. Don’t get me wrong, they should still be perfectly fine to eat, but they don’t have that great stereotypical cookie appearance we all know and love.
If the cookies didn’t turn out how you expected, don’t be too concerned. It’s important that you figure out what went wrong so you fix the mistake and have better results next time.
When cookies don’t spread in the oven, it’s either because the dough was too dry or too cold. Dry dough doesn’t have enough moisture or fat in it to spread out, so it sets in that shape. Dough that’s too cold will start to firm up before the butter has a chance to melt completely.
Getting cookie dough perfect is about the ratio of the ingredients and the way it’s baked. Too much of one ingredient can throw off the entire cookie dough, meaning that it can either spread too little or too much. If the temperature of the dough or your oven isn’t right, it’s also not going to bake properly.
Reasons Why Your Cookies Didn’t Spread
You need to learn from your mistakes, so here’s what you might have done wrong and what you can do next time to fix it.
There Was Too Much Flour
A big mistake many beginner bakers make is adding more flour whenever something looks remotely wet or sticky. It seems to be that people are scared to handle sticky doughs or batters, so they throw extra flour in to try and help it.
The issue with this is that most recipes have the correct amount of flour, so adding more will just make them too dry to spread.
You see, when you’re adding additional flour, it’s soaking up the moisture from the butter and the eggs, so it’s going to be a stiffer dough that doesn’t spread easily.
Instead of adding more flour, just continue mixing until all the flour is hydrated and put the dough into the fridge for at least 30 minutes. This will firm up the dough, making it less sticky and therefore easier to handle.
Fix: Cut Back On The Flour
This tip is as obvious as they come. If your cookie dough is dry because it has too much flour, just cut back on the amount of flour you’re using.
Instead of adding all of the flour at once, you should aim to hold back a few tablespoons worth and see how the dough looks. If you can shape the dough without it tearing much or losing its shape, it’s most likely perfect.
Fix: Weigh Your Ingredient
Step away from the cups and pull out the scales. If you’re still using cups to measure most things, you can forget about getting good cookies every time. Since these measurements rely on volume, the amount of an ingredient you get can vary greatly depending on how much you pack it in the cup.
For example, a cup of flour is generally around 120g, but it can be at least 20g too high or too low if you’re not measuring it properly. This is the reason why recipes that use cups can end in disaster.
Start weighing your ingredients for great results every time.
There Wasn’t Enough Liquid
Okay, this is technically the same thing as too much flour, but it’s often caused by a different reason and has different fixes.
When talking about liquid, I’m referring to any sort of wet product that can go into a cookie dough.
Whether you’re not using enough egg, butter, or other fat, it’s going to cause the cookie dough to become dryer than it should.
Getting the ratios of the dough right is essential to making sure that it turns out like you expect, so it’ll easily be messed up if you don’t get this right.
Fix: Make Sure You’re Using What The Recipe Calls For
Follow the recipe properly to make sure you get the best results. Don’t do it by eye or guess the quantity to use or you’re asking for cookie dough that’s too wet or dry.
Also, use the same type of fat the recipe calls for. For example, you shouldn’t be substituting oil for butter as this can throw off the consistency of the dough and change the flavor. Although some fats can be interchanged, I wouldn’t recommend doing it unless you’re experienced with mixing them.
Fix: Get The Right Sized Eggs
As you should know, eggs can vary in size. When a recipe just calls for eggs, it generally means medium-sized eggs, so use them. If a recipe wants small or large eggs, it should call for them.
Using small eggs instead of medium or large eggs can lead to a dough that’s too dry. Likewise, using large eggs instead of medium or small can lead to a dough that’s too wet.
If you find that your dough is too dry even after the eggs, you can mix in an extra egg yolk or two for additional moisture and flavor.
The Butter Was Cold During Mixing
If you’re mixing/creaming the butter and sugar together, it’s best that the butter is melted, or at least softened.
Having soft or melted butter makes it much easier for it to be incorporated with the rest of the ingredients. Melted butter, for example, is able to be mixed in with the sugar to form a paste, which can then be easily distributed to the other ingredients.
When the butter is cold, it’s very difficult to evenly distribute it amongst the other ingredients. What often happens is the butter is left unevenly distributed, so there will be lumps in the cookie dough.
Since it’s not mixed in evenly, some parts of the dough will be dry and other parts will be too wet, which leads to a cookie that doesn’t spread properly during baking.
Fix: Melt Your Butter First
For very easy butter distribution, make sure to melt it before adding it. Once it’s melted, you should combine it with the sugar, then vanilla extract, eggs, etc. After all the wet ingredients are added, slowly incorporate your flour. This will lead to the butter being spread evenly amongst the dough, giving you better results.
Pro Tip: Brown the butter before adding it to the cookie mixture for additional flavor.
The Oven Wasn’t Hot Enough
If your oven isn’t running hot enough, the cookies won’t bake very well and may not spread. Unfortunately, a lot of home bakers struggle with their oven.
The most temperamental thing in your kitchen is most likely your oven. Whilst some people might have great ovens, a lot of people still have ovens that aren’t that great in terms of heat distribution or even getting to the right temperature.
The worst part about an oven is the fact that it might not even be getting the temperature you’re wanting it to. You see, over time, some oven thermostats lose their calibration, meaning the temperature can be way off.
An oven can be 50 degrees out or more, which obviously isn’t ideal for baking anything.
Fix: Check Your Oven’s Temperature
A tip I found extremely useful is to get an oven thermometer. These cheap little things give accurate readings of your oven’s temperature, which allows you to get an idea of how accurate your oven’s thermostat is.
The great thing about these is that they can be kept in your oven at all times, so you constantly have an accurate reading of the temperature. Even if it happens to break, you won’t need to spend much to get a new one.
Fix: Check The Type Of Oven You’re Using
If you’re in the UK and/or use a fan-assisted (convection) oven, it’s likely running at a different temperature than the recipe.
Unless you’re using a recipe that specifically states that a fan-assisted oven is being used, the recipe is probably using a conventional oven. The problem with this is that fan-assisted ovens run hotter than conventional ovens, so they’re more likely to cause problems.
Likewise, you may be using a conventional oven instead of a fan-assisted oven, so it wouldn’t get as hot as it needs to in order to bake the cookies properly.
Always check that the oven you’re using is appropriate for the recipe you’re following.
The Dough Was Too Cold
Although chilling the cookie dough can bring out more flavor, it’s important to remember that cold dough means that the cookies may take a longer time to heat up and therefore a longer time to bake through, especially if they’re large.
Since the dough is colder, the butter will be solid and the dough will therefore be firmer. As they bake, the exterior of the cookies will cook properly, but the interior will stay firm as the butter takes a longer time to melt.
By the time they’re finished cooking, the cookies may be slightly more flat on the sides, but have a lump in the middle since they couldn’t bake evenly.
Fix: Let The Dough Lose Its Chill Before Baking
If you’ve left the dough in the refrigerator for too long, it’ll be pretty firm, so you want it to soften slightly before you bake it.
Depending on the amount of cookie dough you have, you want to leave it out to warm up at room temperature for 30-60+ minutes. This will allow it to lose the chill and bake better.
Fix: Flatten The Dough Balls Slightly Before Baking
If the dough balls are quite firm, you can help them bake by pressing them down slightly. Instead of having them in the traditional ball shape, push them down into more of a puck. This helps them to spread out more evenly during baking.
You’re Using Baking Powder Instead Of Baking Soda
Unless you want to bake cake-like cookies that don’t rise much, you want to be using baking soda.
Baking powder tends to rise cookie dough upwards, which leaves it with a softer and fluffier interior and a hard exterior. This can be great for some cookies, but not if you want them to spread.
Baking soda helps the cookies to spread rather than rising upwards, so it’ll give you much more cookie-like results.
Fix: Find A Recipe That Uses Baking Soda
Hopefully, you’re not just confusing the two chemical leaveners. For those in the UK, baking soda is the same thing as bicarbonate of soda, so don’t make the mistake of using baking powder.
Instead of following the recipe you’re currently on, find another one that uses baking soda and your cookies will spread more. Most cookie recipes use baking soda since it’s much better.
Keep in mind that baking soda is 3-4x stronger than baking powder, so you can’t just interchange them.