Essential cookies: There is a certain Cookie Canon — the classics, the old reliables, the cookies that can appeal to a crowd. (Photo by Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post)

Essential cookies: There is a certain Cookie Canon — the classics, the old reliables, the cookies that can appeal to a crowd. (Photo by Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post)

9 essential cookies every home baker should know how to make

These basic recipes are a great way to learn a variety of baking techniques.

  • Wednesday, December 12, 2018 8:14am
  • Life

By Becky Krystal / The Washington Post

The world of cookies is a wonderful and wide-ranging place. We have options for almost any taste, diet and ingredient, inspired by a globe’s worth of flavors.

But we also believe there is a certain Cookie Canon. You know, the classics, the old reliables, the cookies that can appeal to a crowd. They’re also basic recipes that provide great ways to learn a variety of baking techniques that will serve you well no matter what other types of cookies you want to make in the future.

After combing through our archives — and after conducting a lot of taste tests — our team settled on these nine essential cookies.

Chocolate chip crunch cookies

Is there a more quintessential cookie than the classic chocolate chip? Something about a buttery, sweet dough punctuated with chocolate just makes magic.

This is a finely tuned, easy-to-make rendition with elements we like best in a chocolate chip cookie: Crisp edges, chewy centers, a good blend of chocolate and crunchy toffee bits.

Make ahead: The portioned cookie dough needs to be refrigerated for 1 hour, and up to 5 days, or frozen for up to 3 months. The baked cookies are best eaten the same day they are made, but they can be stored in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

1 6 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

⅔ cup granulated sugar

⅔ cup packed dark brown sugar

1 teaspoon kosher salt

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste

3 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

6 ounces milk chocolate, such as Guittard, chopped

6 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped

6 ounces Heath toffee bits (may substitute 1 regular-size Heath Bar, chopped)

Flaky sea salt, such as Maldon (optional)

Combine the butter, both sugars and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer or handheld electric mixer; beat on low speed for 30 seconds, then increase to medium speed and beat for 2 minutes. Stop to scrape down the bowl.

Beat on medium speed for 1 more minute; the mixture should be light and fluffy. Add the eggs and vanilla extract or paste; beat on medium speed for 3 minutes, stopping to scrape down the bowl down again, as needed.

Use a fork to whisk together the flour and baking soda in a bowl, then add to the dough. Beat on low speed to form a soft dough. Add the chopped chocolates and toffee bits, then beat on low speed until well incorporated.

Portion the cookie dough, about 1 tablespoon per scoop, into a bowl, cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or freeze.

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees convection or 375 degrees for a standard oven. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.

Arrange the dough portions on each baking sheet, spacing them 2 inches apart. Lightly flatten each portion and sprinkle with the flaky salt, if using. Bake (middle rack) one sheet at a time for 10 to 14 minutes, just until the edges are lightly crisped but the middles are still somewhat softened and domed. Let cool on the sheet for 5 minutes, then transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool completely before serving or storing.

Makes 30 cookies.

Variations: Use all dark chocolate or all milk chocolate instead of a combination of the two; use toasted chopped nuts or Reese’s Pieces instead of the toffee bits — or, for a fancy touch, 8 ounces of Valrhona dark chocolate crunchy pearls, available online.

— From Alex Levin, executive pastry chef of the Schlow Restaurant Group

Heather Chittum’s sugar cookies

At this time of year, the sugar cookie is ubiquitous. We wanted a cookie whose flavor would hold its own and be appealing enough to enjoy even without icing. These cookies are our platonic ideal for both eating and decorating. They’re sturdy (the pastry chef even made sleighs and wreaths out of them), crunchy and buttery.

This recipe makes a dough that, when chilled, is easy to cut with cookie cutters and produces firm, light-golden-colored cookies.

Make ahead: The dough needs to be refrigerated for at least 2 hours or overnight. It can be frozen in thin sheets for up to 2 months. Baked, un-iced cookies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 10 days.

3 cups flour, plus more as needed and some for the work surface

1 tablespoon plus ¾ teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon ground mace (optional)

¾ teaspoon salt

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter

2 cups sugar

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

4 large eggs, at room temperature

Combine the flour, baking powder, mace, if using, and the salt on a sheet of wax paper or parchment paper.

Combine the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer; beat on medium speed for about 3 minutes, until light and creamy. Add the vanilla extract, then stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the eggs one at a time (on medium speed), mixing well after each addition. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl. With the mixer on low speed, add the flour mixture in increments until just combined. The dough will be fairly soft but should not be sticky. Add flour as needed and mix just to incorporate.

Divide the dough into 3 equal portions. Flatten each portion of dough between 2 pieces of plastic wrap, which will help when rolling and cutting the dough. Chill for at least 4 hours, but preferably overnight.

When ready to bake, lightly flour a work surface. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (300 degrees for a convection oven).

Working with 1 portion of dough at a time, roll out the dough to a thickness of ⅛ inch. Use cookie cutters or templates to cut shapes; place the shapes on the prepared baking sheets, spaced at least 1 inch apart. If the dough becomes soft, return it to the refrigerator to firm up (20 to 30 minutes). Once the shapes have been cut and placed on the sheets, refrigerate the unbaked cookies for 15 minutes. Reroll scraps; refrigerate for 15 minutes before cutting into shapes.

Bake one sheet at a time for 10 to 14 minutes or until the cookie edges are pale golden. Transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool completely before decorating or storing. Repeat to use all the dough.

Makes 48 large cookies.

— From pastry chef Heather Chittum

Secret soft gingerbread boys

Gingerbread is another must-have in the holiday season.

This a re-creation of a popular gingerbread cookie — the baker wouldn’t part with his original recipe. The cookies are fragrant with spice, plump and slightly soft, yet not cakey. They are finished with a light, sugary icing that is reminiscent of doughnut glaze.

You’ll need a 4- or 5-inch gingerbread man cookie cutter.

Make ahead: The dough needs to be refrigerated twice; first, for 30 minutes, and then for 30 to 40 minutes or up to 12 hours (or freeze faster; see times, below). Pack the cookies flat, with wax paper between the layers, in an airtight container for up to 1 week. They can be frozen, well wrapped, for up to 2 months.

For the cookies:

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into chunks

⅓ cup corn oil or other flavorless vegetable oil

½ cup clover honey

⅔ cup light (mild-flavored) molasses

⅓ cup packed light brown sugar

3⅓ cups flour

2½ teaspoons ground cinnamon

1½ teaspoons ground ginger

½ teaspoon ground cloves

1½ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

Raisins or currants for the eyes and buttons

For the glaze:

1⅓ cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted after measuring if lumpy

1½ tablespoons corn oil or other flavorless vegetable oil

3½ tablespoons water

For the cookies: Combine the butter, oil, honey, molasses and brown sugar in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring, until the butter melts and the mixture just comes to a full boil; immediately start timing and cook for exactly 1 minute, stirring occasionally. Let cool slightly.

Combine the flour, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, baking powder, baking soda and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer or handheld electric mixer. Beat on low speed; working carefully to avoid splashes, add the cooled butter-molasses mixture, beating (low speed) until the ingredients are incorporated. Increase the speed to medium, beating until very well blended; if the mixer motorlabors, stop and complete the mixing by hand. (The dough will seem too soft at this point.) Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes or until the dough has stiffened and is barely warm.

Divide the dough into thirds. Roll out the portions a generous ¼-inch thick between sheets of parchment or wax paper. Stack the rolled portions (paper still attached) on a tray or baking sheet. Refrigerate for at least 30 to 40 minutes, or freeze for 20 to 25 minutes or until cold and firm. (The dough may be refrigerated for up to 12 hours, if preferred.) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners.

Working with one dough portion at a time (leaving the remainder chilled), gently peel away one sheet of paper, then lightly pat it back into place. (That will make it easier to lift cookies from the paper later.) Flip the dough over, then peel off and discard the second sheet. Using a 4- to 5-inch gingerbread girl or boy cutter, cut out the cookies. Using a spatula, transfer cookies to baking sheets, spacing about 2 inches apart. (If at any point the dough softens too much to handle easily, transfer the paper and cookies to a tray or baking sheet, and chill until firm again.) Gather up and reroll the dough scraps between sheets of paper. Continue cutting out cookies until all the dough is used. Very firmly press raisins into the cookies for eyes and front buttons.

Bake one sheet at a time (middle rack) for 9 to 14 minutes, until the cookies are slightly colored on top and slightly darker at the edges; it’s better to over-bake than under-bake. Cool on the sheet for about 4 minutes; then, use a wide spatula to transfer to wire racks set over a sheet of wax paper. Have all the cookies lined up and slightly separated before beginning the glaze.

For the glaze: Whisk together the confectioners’ sugar, oil and water in a medium saucepan until well blended over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, stirring, for 30 to 45 seconds or just until the mixture is smooth and becomes translucent. Stir to recombine the glaze, then use right away while it is still hot. (If the glaze is allowed to stand and cool, it may thicken and become sugary. In that case, add a teaspoon of hot water to thin it again, place over medium heat and continue stirring until the sugar dissolves. Immediately remove from the heat and use.)

Use a pastry brush or a paper towel dipped in the glaze to brush the cooled cookies until their tops are coated all over with an even layer, not too thick or too thin. Stir the glaze frequently to prevent it from separating. Let the glazed cookies cool completely, at least 1 hour; the glaze may become slightly sugary and flaky.

Makes 16-18 large cookies.

— Adapted from Nancy Baggett “The All-American Dessert Book” (Houghton Mifflin, 2005)

Classic peanut butter cookies

Much like chocolate chip cookies, there is a powerful nostalgia associated with peanut butter cookies. They’re the type of treat your mom might have left you for an afternoon snack, to be enjoyed with a glass of milk while running your fingers over the little nubs created by the crosshatch action of a fork.

These cookies are slightly soft and mildly chewy, with a satisfying peanut butter taste. We tested them with chunky peanut butter, but smooth/creamy works even better.

Tips: This recipe was developed to use traditional supermarket-style peanut butter. If you use all-natural peanut butter, grind your own or use low-fat or low-salt peanut butter, the cookies won’t turn out as described. For even softer cookies, you can use 8 tablespoons (1 stick) of butter instead of the ⅓ cup vegetable shortening.

⅓ cup vegetable shortening, at room temperature (see headnote)

½ cup granulated sugar

½ cup packed light brown sugar

1 large egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

¾ cup peanut butter (smooth or crunchy; not natural-style; see headnote)

1½ cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

Water (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners.

Combine the shortening, both sugars, egg, vanilla extract and peanut butter in a mixing bowl, stirring until smooth. Add the flour, baking soda and salt to the peanut butter mixture, stir gently until everything is well combined. It may take awhile for this rather dry dough to come together; and when it does, it’ll be quite stiff. Only if necessary, drizzle in enough water to make the dough cohesive.

Drop the cookie dough by tablespoonfuls onto the prepared baking sheets (a tablespoon cookie scoop works well here), leaving 2 inches between them. Use a fork to flatten each cookie to about ½-inch thick, making a crosshatch or other design.

Bake (middle rack) 12 to 16 minutes, until the cookies are barely beginning to brown around the edges; the tops will not be browned. Let them sit on baking sheets for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely before serving or storing.

Makes 24 cookies.

— Adapted from KingArthurFlour.com

Salted oatmeal cookies

There are a few vocal critics here who would prefer their oatmeal cookies not be sullied by raisins. I happen to love raisins, but I can sort of see their point. Once you add raisins, the cookies can turn into more of a raisin cookie than an oatmeal cookie. Ditto spices — cinnamon or nutmeg are often too eager to take over the party. Not in this recipe, though.

These cookies make the oats the star of the show in this chewy treat, with a restrained amount of cinnamon and a sprinkling of sea salt to round things out. If you want to add raisins, I won’t tell.

Make ahead: This is a great dough to make ahead and keep on hand to bake off a few when the urge hits. Refrigerate the dough for several days. The cookies can be stored in an airtight tin for up to 1 week.

12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 cup light brown sugar

½ cup sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1¾ cups flour

2 cups rolled oats (not quick-cooking)

Sea salt, for sprinkling

In the large bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter for a few minutes on medium-high speed until light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the sugars, baking powder, baking soda and cinnamon, beating until the mixture is well blended. Reduce the speed to medium and add the eggs and vanilla extract, mixing until well incorporated. Reduce the speed to low and add the flour and oats, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary and mixing just until they are incorporated. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and chill the dough for at least an hour before baking.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

Form the dough into golf ball-size balls and place about 2 inches apart on the baking sheet. Sprinkle sea salt generously on top of each ball of dough, as you would sugar. Bake 1 sheet at a time for 15 minutes or until the cookies are puffed and beginning to turn golden, being careful not to overbake. (The cookies should have a tender interior.) Transfer the cookies, still on the parchment paper, to a wire rack to cool completely.

Makes 18 cookies.

— Adapted from a 2005 DCist recipe

Cardamom-brown sugar snickerdoodles

A snickerdoodle is like the day-to-evening little black dress. It’s simple enough to be an excellent everyday cookie but with enough pizazz and spice to be right at home on a holiday table. (Fun fact via Stella Parks at Serious Eats: Snickerdoodles actually started as coffee cake.) The spice is usually cinnamon, but this recipe makes a brilliant, easy swap: cardamom.

Make ahead: The dough needs to be refrigerated for about 1 hour. The cookies can be stored at room temperature in an airtight container for about 3 days or frozen for up to 3 months.

2¾ cups flour

2 teaspoons cream of tartar

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 teaspoons ground cardamom

¼ teaspoon salt

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1½ cups packed light brown sugar

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

½ cup granulated sugar, for rolling

Sift together the flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, 1 teaspoon of the cardamom and the salt in a large bowl.

Combine the butter and brown sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer. Beat on medium speed for 1 minute. Increase the speed to high and beat until very light and fluffy, 2 or 3 minutes, stopping a couple of times to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Reduce the speed to medium and beat in the eggs, one at a time, and the vanilla extract. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl.

Add about ⅓ of the dry ingredients; beat on low speed until fully incorporated. Repeat 2 more times, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed, until the dry ingredients are incorporated.

Cover and refrigerate for about 1 hour, until firm.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, positioning the racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners.

Stir together the granulated sugar and remaining 1 teaspoon of cardamom in a medium bowl. Use a ¾-tablespoon scoop or a tablespoon to scoop small balls of dough, a few at a time, into the sugar-cardamom mixture, then roll the pieces to coat them and lightly roll them into balls between your palms, pressing the sugar mixture into the dough. Arrange the cookies 2 inches apart on each baking sheet.

Bake 2 sheets at a time for 5 minutes, then rotate the baking sheets top to bottom an d front to back. Bake for 4 to 6 minutes, until the tops of the cookies are crackled and the edges are just barely browned. Transfer to a wire rack to cool before serving or storing. Use a strainer to sift any extra cardamom-sugar mixture onto the cookies (this will keep separate any clumps of dough that might be left in the sugar).

Repeat to use all of the dough.

Makes 84 cookies.

— From Joe Yonan’s “Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One” (Ten Speed Press, 2011)

Brown sugar shortbread

Brown sugar happens to be the MVP in our favorite shortbread, the type of cookie that is simple but elegant and right at home with a cup of tea or coffee. In this recipe, the star ingredient lends more of a toffee flavor to the cookie, not to mention moisture, meaning it’s not quite as dry and crumbly as a more traditional shortbread you might find in, say, Scotland. Nothing would be amiss either if you wanted to add spices or garnishes to suit your own taste.

Make ahead: The shortbread can be stored in an airtight container for up to 5 days.

8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

⅓ cup sugar

⅓ cup packed light brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

⅛ teaspoon salt

2 cups flour

Position an oven rack in the middle of the oven; preheat to 325 degrees. Have an ungreased 9-by-13-inch baking pan at hand.

Combine the butter and both sugars in the bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer; beat on medium speed for about 1 minute, just until blended. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then add the vanilla extract and salt. Add the flour in 2 additions, beating just until incorporated.

Use your fingers or a sturdy rubber spatula to press the dough evenly over the bottom of the pan. Bake for about 40 minutes or until the shortbread is golden brown; start checking at 35 minutes. it will look darker than regular shortbread. The edges will be slightly darker; do not underbake. Transfer the pan to a wire rack; let cool in the pan for 5 to 10 minutes.

Use a sharp, thin-bladed knife to cut the shortbread, still in the pan, into 36 rectangles. Let cool completely in the pan before serving or storing.

Makes 36 cookies.

— Adapted from “Sweet Gratitude,” by Judith Sutton (Artisan, 2005)

Rum balls

There’s something particularly festive about boozy baked goods during the holiday season, which is why you often come across rum or bourbon balls right about now. Not that we’d turn down these rum balls at any other time of year, because they’ll bring that feeling of a special treat no matter when you serve them.

Start to finish, these potent treats can take as little as 8 minutes to make, and they taste even better in a day or two.

Make ahead: The rum balls can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days; they may need a renewed dusting of confectioners’ sugar.

1½ cups finely crushed vanilla wafers (from about 50 cookies)

¼ cup dark rum

¼ cup honey

2 cups finely ground walnuts

Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting

Combine the vanilla wafer crumbs, rum, honey and walnuts in a medium bowl, until thoroughly blended.

Shape into balls about ¾-inch wide. Dust completely with a light coating of confectioners’ sugar. (If you plan to freeze them, do not dust until they are defrosted.) Place in individual candy-size paper cups.

Makes 30-35 balls.

— Adapted from a 1970s Bacardi rum recipe booklet

Pecan sandies

A reliable nut-based cookie deserves a place in your repertoire. The wedding cookie/polvorones route is always an option — their snowball look is appealing for winter — but our taste test prompted us to settle on another variation: Pecan Sandies. With a wonderful, buttery, melt-in-your mouth texture and almost maple-y flavor from the pecans, these are a classic with good reason. Add bacon if you must, but a dusting of demerara sugar and sea salt is all the glam needed.

Make ahead: This is an egg-free dough that doesn’t need chilling time. The cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to 5 days, or frozen for up to 1 month.

Tips: Demerara sugar is a raw, coarse-crystal brown sugar that delivers nice exterior crunch and color. It is carried in most supermarkets. If you decide to use bacon, be sure to use a good-quality brand, such as Nueske’s or Benton’s.

1¼ cups raw pecan halves

18 tablespoons (2 sticks plus 2 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

2 teaspoons water

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 cups plus 2 tablespoons flour

Sea salt, for sprinkling

Demerara sugar, for sprinkling (see headnote)

Preheat the oven 325 degrees. Line a few baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners.

Spread the pecans on one of the sheets; toast in the oven (middle rack) for 10 to 12 minutes, checking on them after 8 minutes.

They should be fragrant and lightly browned. Cool completely, then coarsely chop to pea-size.

Combine the butter and granulated sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer or use a handheld electric mixer; beat on medium speed for about 3 minutes, until creamy and lightened. Stop to scrape down the bowl.

Add the water and vanilla extract, beating (low speed) to incorporate, then add the flour and chopped pecans. Beat until evenly incorporated.

Scoop the dough into 1-ounce portions (or use 2 tablespoons’ worth) to roll into 24 equal balls. Arrange them on the baking sheets, pressing each ball slightly with the palm of your hand. Space the balls at least 1½ inches apart.

Sprinkle each portion with a little of the salt and a liberal amount of Demerara sugar. Bake one sheet at a time (middle rack) for 16 to 18 minutes, until light brown on top and golden brown on the bottom. Transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

Makes 24 cookies.

Variation: Cook 3 slices of bacon, starting in a cold skillet over medium heat. Drain on paper towels, then chop into 1/4-inch pieces. Add to the dough along with the chopped pecans.

— Adapted from “Zingerman’s Bakehouse” by Amy Emberling and Frank Carollo (Chronicle, 2017)

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