Google Sugar Dot Cookies: Problems with Sugar Cookie Dough Spreading and How to Stop It!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Problems with Sugar Cookie Dough Spreading and How to Stop It!

What's a cookie baker to do when her cookie shapes spread? Go to the experts. That's where I started. I compiled a list of recommendations to help with my spreading issues. You can see that here.

Before I started my experiment - my biggest fear and actually what I believed could very well be my true problem was that my oven is to blame. I think that I can fix anything else. Fixing my oven sounds like a costly solution, one that I'm not willing to do right now.

So here's what I was doing before....
I used to use Sugarbelle's recipe, roll with flour, bake room temperature dough, oven set to 400.

Later, I used the same recipe, rolled without flour - between plastic wrap, baked chilled dough, oven set to 400.

My cookies were nice and lightly colored on the back, not much browning on the edges. I seemed to get inconsistent results on the spreading. In general, they were spreading too much for me. My cookies don't have anywhere near those perfect edges that you see on Sugarbelle's post and on all of those other amazing cookie blogs.

I decided to run some experiments. I decided to use Sugarbelle's recipe, keeping the baking powder at 2 tsp. I wanted my cookies light and fluffy. I wanted them to spread up, not out. I did add a bit more flour than I usually do so that it wasn't sticky at all. Her recipe calls for baking at 400 degrees. To keep the timing consistent, I'll bake all batches for 8 minutes.

The first thing I did was buy an oven thermometer.

Wow. Just plain old wow. The result was shocking.

I set my oven to 400 degrees. I heard the beep 10 minutes later and guess what the thermometer read? 300 stinking degrees. I tried to remain calm. So it takes a little longer to get to 400. No big deal. Everyone says to heat the oven for a long time before baking. I'll give it half an hour.

375 degrees. Worry starts to set in. At 55 minutes my oven finally reached about 390 degrees. Don't panic. Just set the oven to 410 and all will be well. Right? No. The dang oven got to 405 so I switched it back to 400 and decided to just get started.

So here's Batch #1. The raw dough.

I made the dough and let it rest for five minutes.
Rolled between plastic, no flour.
Room temperature dough.
Cut with a 2 1/4" cutter.

The dough was stretchy and difficult to move to the cookie sheet without distorting the shapes. I've never done it this way before. Hated it already.

Many cookiers say that over-crowding the pan leads to more spreading, so I crowded the cookies on the right and left plenty of room around the ones on the left.

The oven read 405. Reset it to 400 and put them in. *sigh*

Here's the result for Batch #1.

Difficult to see, huh?

Major spreeeeaaaaading problems.

They measure 2 5/8". Horrible! The scallops around the edges melded together quite a bit.

No difference between the over-crowded and not crowded cookies.

Batch #2.

I rolled out just-made, room temperature dough. No flour. Plastic wrap.
Chilled 20 minues.
The shapes were a dream to handle. No stretching.

My oven was now reading 390 stinkin degrees. Changed to 410 and popped those babies in. *sigh again*

Here's the result of Batch #2.

They may be the tiniest bit smaller than batch #1.
They measure 2 1/2".

No difference between crowded and not crowded.

Not good, but better.

A close up of the ones placed close together from batch #2.

Notice the bottom, left cookie, left edge. The scallops almost entirely disappeared. That side of the cookie isn't crowded at all.

Could it be my oven? Notice that it's brown on that edge. Hot spots in my oven?

Depression is setting in.

The backs of batch #2

Depression is seriously setting in.

The backs have never looked like this before.

Well of course they haven't. I've had my oven set at 400, not 410. I've been baking below 400 degrees. Who knows how much lower. It could have been a lot, especially if I started baking soon after (so-called) preheating.

Batch #3.

Room temperature dough from batch #1 but I re-rolled it using flour, between plastic.

I was hoping to firm it up a bit but still wanted to see what it did at room temp.

It was easier to handle this way than back at batch #1. Not as easy to handle as batch #2. Slightly stretchy dough.

(Is anyone following this? Ha!)

Changed my oven temp back to 410. Thermometer read 375. Uggggghhhh.

When I took them out of the oven, the thermometer read 390.

Crowded/not crowded were the same.

Brown edges.

These were measuring 2 1/2".

Better than batch #1. About the same as batch #2.

Very, very interesting.

Batch #4.

This is the rest of the dough from batch #3.

Rolled with flour between plastic but this time I chilled it.

Nice, firm dough. no stretching.

Batch #4 baked.

I had to do something about the browning. A lot of cookiers use the NFSC recipe. It calls for baking at 350 so I decided to try lowering my temp.

Oven set to 360. Actual oven temp 350 or slightly below.

Cookies measure 2 1/2".
More defined. Nicer scallops.
Things are looking better.

The backs of batch #4.

Much, much better.

Batch #5.

This is the same dough from batch #2.

Rolled with no flour, between plastic.


But I wanted to try it at the lower baking temperature.

Batch #5 baked.

Oven set to 360, actual oven temp is 350.

Nice and light in color.

Scallops aren't horrible.

Backs of batch #5.


It's looking like #4 and #5 came out the best. I wanted to compare them up close.

Batch #4 is on the top row. Batch #5 on the bottom row.

Very close. Look at that beauty on the top right. It's smaller than the rest and awesome!

The one on the bottom right is smaller than the rest of that row. I'm guessing that means that the right side of my oven is cooler and caused those to spread less.

Well I'm certainly not going to be using only one side of my oven, so I need to come up with a general conclusion here.

And that is....that Batch #4 is the winner. (The top row above.) The scallops are slightly more defined. The cookies may be the slightest bit smaller.

I must say that I'm surprised. Rolling with flour helps prevent spreading???? In all of my research on the topic (and that's rather extensive), I don't think that I've ever read to roll with flour to reduce spreading. Could it be?

Or could it be that I didn't have enough flour in my dough? I weigh my flour but I used a bit more this time.

Granted, there isn't a whole lot of difference between #4 and #5 but there is a difference.

I gotta say that I'm pretty shocked. I'm also pleased that I seem to be getting somewhere.

But I have to do just two more batches.

Many cookiers say that there seems to be more spread, the more you re-roll the scraps. So I took all of the scraps, let them come to room temperature, kneaded them together a bit, rolled between plastic, with flour.

Flour - my new secret weapon?

The oven had been on for a long time now and had gotten up to 360 so I reset to 355.

I opened the door and put the cookies in when it reached 350. Baked for 8 minutes, took them out and.....

Batch #6.

My first thought was, "Holy crap, those are beautiful cookies!" This is the best batch yet.

Gorgeous. Exquisite. Things of beauty. I think I'll frame them and hang them on the wall. There aren't enough adjectives in the English language to convey my feelings for these cookies. I think I want to marry them.

And they measure...2 3/8"!!!! Less than 2 1/2"! Just a tad larger than 2 1/4"! I know that you know what 2 3/8" means, I just can't believe it.

A beauty close up to show off their amazing curves.

Time for reflection. Why are these even better? They've had more flour kneaded in. They've been re-rolled once with flour. They've been chilled. They've been baked at a lower temperature.

There's just one more thing that I need to do. I'm going back to 400 degrees. I'm perfectly, completely pleased with the last batch. I'm just curious about decreasing the baking time at 400. I'm using the exact same dough as the last batch. 400 degrees for 6 minutes.

Batch #7.

Not bad. Not bad at all. They measure 2 1/2" just like many of the above batches but these scallops are much more defined.

Not as well defined or as small as Batch #6, but pretty good.

Shew. Has anyone read this entire thing? If so, you deserve a cookie. My head is swimming. If anyone else actually read this far, I wonder if it makes any sense at all.

One last picture. The gorgeous cookie on the bottom is from Batch #6. The one on the top is from one of the earliest batches. Quite a difference!

So let's wrap this up. The very best batch was rolled (actually re-rolled) using flour AND chilled. Baked at 350 for 8 minutes.

If you're experiencing spreading, I hope that this can somehow help you as it's helped me. Our recipes, our ovens, the way we do things are all different so I'm sure you'll have to run your own experiments but just maybe you'll find that lowering your oven temperature, using more flour, and chilling the dough will help you too. I hope so!

I'm quite unhappy that my oven isn't performing properly but I am quite thrilled that I may be able to get around it.

This whole oven temperature thing has rocked my world. I had no idea that my oven was performing this way. Who am I? What does this mean for all of my other baking? Whenever a time range is given for a baking recipe, I always end up baking for the longest time given. I thought that was normal. That's why they give a range, right?

I think I'm undergoing a baker's identity crisis right now. Am I babbling? Do I need to adjust the oven temp now for everything or continue on in the state of ignorant bliss that I was before? Everything (except my sugar cookies) was coming out just fine.

I'll have to do some baker's self-analysis on all of that.

In the meantime I think I'll just bask in the fabulousness of getting closer to non-spreading cookies. I can't wait to bake my next batch.

I had no real plans for these cookies, other than using them for scientific experimentation. I think I'll frost them with chocolate royal icing. Yum!

Edit: For an update on my cookie dough spreading problem, please see this post.

2018 Edit:  I've come a long way since this post!   I'm now teaching online, live video classes.  One of them is on this very subject.  Join me online for a class or two!


  1. Wow, that's a lot of work. Spread or not they taste great and look cool. ;)

  2. It was a lot of work but sooo worth it.

    Thanks Susie!

  3. I thank you for going through this all and so methodically! This is the best info I've found online pertaining to spreading issues and will be greatly helpful for me!

  4. Thanks Natasha! I hope you saw the follow-up here.
    I finally made a whole batch with no spreading!

  5. Wow - I could have written this exact post!!!
    (I'm not sure how I stumbled upon you....oh wait, I think it was on Sweetopia. I clicked on your chicks picture.)
    Actually I think I could have written your entire blog. LOL
    I am a new cookier, too.
    And I have been using all of the same "Pro-Cookiers" that you use.
    My children and sweet husband call this my new obsession - but they are certainly happy to reap the benefits.
    Anyway, I have tried lots and lots of sugar cookie recipes over the past few months. I wanted the one that TASTED the best.
    Hands down - the best (to me and my family) was Sugarbelles. I am only making that one now.
    But I went thru all the same steps as you on making it not spread.
    I agree - flour was a huge componant. I use a little extra in the dough, and I roll with a generous dusting of it!!!! I also found I had to stick it in the fridge first for about 30 minutes. And I like baking at 400; but my cookies are ready at 5 minutes!!!
    Curious - what royal icing do you use?

    So glad to stumble across you.
    Your cookies are darling.
    Whitney Booze
    p.s. - I don't have a "blog"; but I do have a family website created mainly for keeping friends and family up to date on our 3rd daughter (who had a severe brain injury 4 years ago.)....

  6. Whitney, It's kind of hard to talk about cookies after reading Suzy's story. What a sweet little angel. What you've gone through. I wish your family the best!

    On to cookies anyway...So interesting that we're progressing in our cookieing similarly! It's been a lot of trial and error. I'm finally finding things that work best for me and having so much fun with it.

    I was using Sugarbelle's dough recipe but she says that her recipe looses something with chilling. I HAVE to chill. I tried NFSC from Cake Central and I actually liked the texture better. It was chewier, not quite as dry. NFSC was the recipe that I got to stop spreading so I haven't gone back to see if I could get Sugarbelle's to not spread. I should do that.

    I'm not all that sure whose RI recipe I'm using! I think it's Sugarbelle's, but I only make 1 lb powdered sugar batches at a time.

    I wish I could see your cookies! If you open a flickr account or cookie blog, please let me know!

    It was so nice to meet you!


  7. Hi Dotty.
    Suzy is the little 'light in our lives'!
    And she LOVES my cookies!!!

    I will have to try the NFSC recipe!!!

    However, I DO now chill Sugarbelles recipe, and I have NOT noticed a difference in taste when I do.
    I'm going to copy some of your cookies!! I'll try to post pics on flicker one day.

    Suzy's class is doing 'transportation' next week; so I'm going to attempt some schoolbuses and airplanes.......
    Thanks for keeping up a great blog.

    Have a great weekend.

  8. I'll be re-trying Sugarbelle's recipe with more flour and chilling. Thanks!

    I sooo want to see your cookies! Please let me know if you open a flickr account!

    You have a great weekend too! :)

  9. Wow....I TOTALLY can relate to this post. Like you, my kitchen (sanctuary) is also my laboratory. I think we must have been performing the experiment at the same time. I have found that the amount of flour does matter. I was so completely frustrated on the spreading issue. Oh...and my manual for my new oven said NOT to use an oven thermometer....hmmm, that doesn't sound right, but who knows. Anyhow, I love SugarBelle's site, haven't tried her recipe "yet", but I have tried CookieCrazie and LOVE LOVE LOVE her recipe. I try to say away from eating them, but I do have my moments when I cave in and gobble them up. Maybe you'd like to try this recipe too :) Love your writings, wish I had a friend in Riverside, CA that I could share the experimental procress with...until then, I'll pretend you and all the other cookie goddesses are with me. Can't wait to learn from you all.

  10. Hi Maryann! So nice to meet you!

    I haven't tried CookieCrazie's recipe because she uses sour cream. One more thing to try to always have on hand! I'll bet they're delicious though. I should try them sometime.

    Yep, I think the amount of flour is key!

    Thanks for visiting!

  11. My sugar cookie recipe calls for 4.5 cups of flour but I find that if I simply add an extra 1/2 cup - 1 cup and then generously roll them out in flour they don't spread at all! I use more flour when I do numbers/letters, things I need really crisp edges on.

  12. Thanks for this great experiment.

    FWIW it sounds like your oven is performing perfectly normal. 1) Ovens take a long time to heat up. The pre-heat cycle most folks think of is actually measuring the temperature of the air, not the entire oven. Open the oven door, and woosh, out goes all that hot air. The rest of the oven, metal racks, walls, are still low temperature.
    2) The oven cycles on and off, often the temperature in the oven can be off by as much as 30 degrees in either direction. A really good oven set to 400 might vary between 380-410, a miscalibrated oven might vary more from 370-420.

    One tip I do to help even out the variation is to place bricks on my lower rack. These absorb lots of heat, and act like thermal capacitors to better regulate the temperature in the oven. Using bricks, I've measured my oven (set at 400) staying between 390-405. However, it does take a LOT longer to get the oven to temperature, more than an hour.

    Great article.

  13. I wish I had seen this when I did my first batch of cookies on Friday! I was house/dogsitting and found my friend's digital oven to be wayyyy different than my dial oven. I made 3 trial runs(photographed them all) just to get it right. The first run had some that were burned, some were definitely brown and they all spread. Some were more overdone than others which told me to keep the cookies to the right side of the oven, away from the hot spot. The second run came out just ok, still too brown on the bottom but better than the first batch. The last run were darn near perfection. Not a brown spot anywhere. The difference in that last batch was turning the oven down to 375 and chilling the cookies after cutting. Barely any spread, nice squared edges.

    I use Sugar Belle's recipe and even though I have a batch that has burned bottoms, I'll still get some icing together and give it a go. Sites like yours that post your challenges are exactly the kind of thing I'm looking for to guide me through my new hobby! Wish me luck on my first attempt at royal icing, I hope I've read up on it enough to achieve great results!

    Thanks a bunch!

  14. Apparently I missed Glenn's comment. Sorry! and Thank you! I now use a pizza stone in my oven to help hold the temp. Love it!

    Good luck with the RI! You sound just like me. I read EVERYTHING before jumping in then ran all kinds of experiments. It really helps to get the basics down then figure out what works best for you. Enjoy your new hobby!

  15. I know this is an older thread, but I had a suggested for the uneven baking in the oven. Mine is back vs. front. At the halfway point, I open oven quickly, rotate pan 180 degrees and close to set remainder of the time. Also, if your dough does like mine, the more times you re-roll, the crumblier it becomes. I keep some of the premade sugar cookie dough on hand and depending on how much crumbly dough I have, I add some of the store-bought dough. It brings it back to the right texture. I would say I use about a Tbls with 1 cup of crumbly dough. I hope this helps.

    1. Thanks for your input Tanya! I completely agree with the rotating of pans!

      Interesting about the crumbly dough. Mine doesn't do that. I no longer add flour as a I roll. Maybe that's what prevents it.


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