The Ultimate Cookie Handbook cover

The Ultimate Cookie Handbook by Tessa Arias – Book Review

Looking to improve your cookie baking game? Want to really understand how to improve your cookies? If so, we might have a great book tip for you!

Why do you buy a new cookbook? To gather recipes? Because it looks good? Generally speaking, I buy cookbooks for two main reasons. One, books that make it easier to find recipes without having to scroll endlessly. Books focused on a specific niche, whether it’s a cuisine or a type of food (e.g. cookies!) are great for this. Second, I enjoy buying books that teach me something new. Being a food scientist, I thoroughly enjoy deep dives into how our food works, as well as in-depth, but accessible, explanations of food. Even better if experiments (especially failed ones) are included! Books that satisfy both these needs are at the top of my wish list.

It’s why I was intrigued by Tessa Arias’ (better known as the founder and owner of Handle the Heat) Ultimate Cookie Handbook. On her website, she often explains why something should be done the way it’s instructed by sharing comparisons and test results, which I love. A great example of that was a guide to the ultimate chocolate chip cookie that she published years ago. This book brings the guide to a whole new level. It’s been amped up with more explanations, a beautiful layout, clear tips and tricks, and even more delicious cookie recipes to try. We were excited to start using it!

We received a free copy of The Ultimate Cookie Handbook with no obligation to write a review. All opinions are our own.

Using the Book

The best way to evaluate a cookbook is, of course, to actually use it. So, I got to work by reading the book from start to finish. Even though the recipes make up a little over half of the overall page count, it’s not what attracted me to the book. It’s the explanation of cookie science that precedes the recipes, that makes it so appealing. Having read about the role of ingredients and how to customize and troubleshoot my cookies, I wanted to then bake some cookies to bring this to life. It wasn’t easy to choose which cookie to make, they all looked great, thanks to the beautiful photography. I ended up choosing:

  • chocolate chip cookies: that cookie style serves as a key reference in the cookie science section
  • gingersnaps: which contained both a chewy and crispy version, which of course we wanted to test to see whether the theory worked in practice
  • brownie cookies: just because it sounded yummy
  • dulce de leche cookies: because we happened to have some dulce de leche left over from some earlier experiments
chewy gingersnaps
Chewy Gingersnaps from the book

Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookie

In the introduction, Tessa Arias shares why she became interested in the science and behavior of cookies. One of the reasons that jumped out for me is an observation she made when hosting a baking challenge on her website. Upon seeing the entries for the same recipe come in, she couldn’t help but notice just how different they were. Even though everyone had followed the same recipe. She started digging and quickly realized that there are a lot of factors that can influence how a recipe turns out, even if people are all following the same instructions!

Deviating from the recipe

It’s something I ran into while making these chocolate chip cookies! Despite having the intention to follow the chocolate chip cookie recipe to the t, I made some changes, some by accident, some on purpose. I accidentally mixed the brown butter with sugar only after it had cooled (even though the recipe says to do it when hot). I had to deviate from the recipe since I didn’t have chocolate chips, only chocolate wafers (whereas the recipe called for both). Nor do I own a cookie scoop, so I guesstimated the size of the cookies.

It’s these types of changes that are discussed in one of the first chapters of the book: the baking sheet you use, the scoops, the way you measure and mix. They can all have an impact on the cookie and Tessa Arias clearly explains how and why. This section especially helps you understand that even a perfect recipe can fail because of factors outside of the control of the recipe writer!

All of this highlighted that yes, you’ll probably deviate from recipes here and there, but, that’s ok. The cookie science chapters will help you overcome and correct these inconsistencies. For example, using the tips from the book, I adjusted the baking time of the brown butter chocolate chip cookies to adjust for a difference in dough portions.

brown butter choc chip cookies
The cookies didn’t look the same, but I know why (e.g. I didn’t use chocolate chips). They tasted great and looked similar enough.

Experimenting with the recipe

Of course, being the scientist I am, I couldn’t help but test a few other lessons that are taught in the earlier sections of the book. For the brown butter chocolate chip cookies, I decided to focus on baking mats & resting time.

Impact of baking mats on spreading

In the first chapter, the author discusses a range of tools that will improve your cookies. For instance, she highly recommends using weight measurements, not volumetric ones (I wholeheartedly agree with that!). She also recommends using silicone-coated parchment paper. I, however, am more a fan of using my Silpat mats (these are fiberglass mesh strengthened silicone baking mats). I can re-use them (less waste! especially since silicone-coated parchment paper is harder to recycle) and they fit perfectly in my baking trays.

Tessa Arias does warn that using these instead of parchment paper will increase spreading.

We did indeed find that the type of paper/mat below the cookies can impact spreading. Interestingly though, we found the opposite of what was stated in the book! Our particular silicone baking mats decreased spreading compared to parchment paper. It again shows how small differences can make an impact. We might have used a different parchment paper and silicone mat than the author did during testing. So yes, which mats you use is important and it’s worthwhile exchanging them if you’re not getting the spread of cookies you’re looking for!

comparing choc chip cookies
Brown Butter Chocolate Chip cookies. All varieties we made were delicious! It’s not super easy to see on this photo, but the parchment cookies had clearly spread out more.
Impact of resting

The cookie recipe advised to chill the dough at least 24h before baking. I was impatient though and decided to bake some immediately, and some the next day (>12h later, but a little less than 24h). I can’t say I tasted or saw a difference, which doesn’t mean there wasn’t one, I’m not a supertaster.

All in all, small changes can sometimes have quite an impact, whereas others might not be as important. You don’t always know in advance, but the book gives you more than enough ideas on what to change in case the recipe doesn’t turn out the way you expect it to.

Brownie cookie

One of my favorite chapters in the book is the ‘cookie customization’ chapter. It gives you tips and tricks for making a chewy, soft, crispy, cakey, thick, or thin. This brownie cookie is clearly an example of a very light and soft cookie. Thanks to the enormous amounts of chocolate (it’s the major ingredient of this cookie) the cookies are both chocolatey and light (which isn’t easy for chocolate-rich cookies that have a tendency to be heavy).

Thanks to the customization chapter I know that adding extra fat will make the cookies softer (cream cheese is given as an example. Also, I knew from reading that chapter that chilling would help prevent flat cookies, resulting is thick (but not too thick!) cookies. Delicious!

brownie cookies
My brownie cookies weren’t as glossy as the ones in the book, but tasted heavenly.

Impact of oven temperature

Of course, I did another experiment with these cookies. This time, I changed the baking temperatures and yet again compared the Silpat vs parchment paper. I got the same parchment paper vs. Silpat results as for the chocolate chip cookies, so here I’ll focus on the effect of temperature.

In hindsight, this might not have been the best cookie to experiment with temperature on. Since these cookies are already very brown and don’t turn browner in the oven, you can’t see any differences. Since I adjusted the baking time (colder was baked for longer), the cookies turned out quite similarly. The difference between the baking mats was bigger than that between temperatures!

comparing baking times for brownie cookies
Baking times: 160°C (320°F) – 10,5 min ; 180°C (355°F) – 9,5 min ; 200°C (390°F) – 7 min

Gingersnaps (chewy & crispy)

This is probably one of my favorite recipes, simply because it contains 2 versions: a chewy and a crispy one, putting into practice all the advice given in earlier sections!

In one of the science chapters, Tessa Arias does recommend increasing the granulated sugar content and using more butter (or less flour) to make a crispy cookie. And that’s the main difference between the chewy and crispy gingersnaps (apart from a minor change in baking soda/powder content).

I made both types and did indeed end up with a crispy and a chewy version. Even though I had expected a slight failure since I didn’t have the required molasses, and used a Dutch syrup alternative, it still worked out good!

Experimenting with baking times

One of the recommendations in the book for making a crispy cookie is to increase the oven temperature or increase baking time. The opposite is true as well, a softer cookie could use a lower temperature or less baking time. We decided to put this to the test, focusing on the baking time of the crispy cookies.

We tested both a 12 and 15 minute baking time. As expected, the longer baking time resulted in a crisper cookie, but, it did almost burn the cookie.

This is where I decided to have a look at another favorite chapter of mine, chapter 4 ‘cookie troubleshooting’. This chapter is similar to the cookie customization one, but, it focuses on things gone wrong with your cookie. It has tips and advice on how to resolve flat, uneven, crumbly, burnt, bland, greasy, and more cookie issues. Of course, the tip for burnt cookies was to reduce the baking time. Which I did, giving a perfectly crisp (not burnt) gingersnap.

comparing gingersnaps
Gingersnaps baked under different conditions, all were baked at 180°C (355°F).

Dulce de Leche cookies

Last, but not least, I made dulce de leche cookies. No experiments, nothing, just the cookies and they turned out great. They might have been the most delicious of the bunch. Soft, milky, sweet, rich, delicious and the perfect snack to re-read the book after having experimented with it.

Did I learn something new? For sure, yes. I might have known a lot of the cookie science facts already, putting them all together in one place really helps to see the bigger cookie science picture. Also, I never really realized that the acidity of cocoa powder should be taken into account when choosing between baking soda and baking powder.

Could the book contain even more tips and tricks? Sure, it could, but it might start to become overwhelming and its conciseness is one of the book’s strengths. It is 100% scientifically correct? No (e.g. most chocolate chips do not contain hydrogenated oils, otherwise they wouldn’t be allowed to be called chocolate chips), but almost nothing is perfect. It’s good enough for the goal it’s trying to achieve and for those looking for an accessible book, not a complicated textbook.

platter of cookie experiments
Our experiments!

Overall evaluation of the book

I very much enjoyed reading the book and baking some of its recipes. The recipes were good (and delicious), but it’s the cookie science chapters that set this book apart from others. It doesn’t just give you the recipes, it gives you the tools to make them and develop your own if you’d wanted to!

Of course, there’s not a single book that’s perfect, nor one that’s suitable for every single person. A few things to consider before deciding whether this book is the best fit for you:

  • This book focuses on so-called drop cookies. Cookies that you ‘drop’ onto your baking surface in a heap. The recipes do contain a few others types of recipes (e.g. sugar cookies), but the explanations and analysis of cookies do focus on drop cookies.
  • It’s written from a North American mindset, which of course makes sense seeing how the author lives in the USA. However, some ingredients may be a little harder to get in other regions or have different names (his is especially true for chocolates). Or, you may just prefer different types of cookies (though using her guidance, you might just be able to tweak the recipes in such a way to suit your personal needs). Also, are cookie scoops an American thing? Don’t think I’d be able to get one here? (I just use a spoon, works fine as well.)
  • Almost all recipes contain flour, butter, sugar. If you’re following a gluten-free, dairy-free, or sugar-free diet. This book is not the one for you.

We think this book is a great addition to our cookbook collection. So to end, a few other aspects that made us smile:

  • It’s dedicated to a specific topic. If I want to make cookies, I know I’ll have to grab this book. (It’s what I find a major disadvantage with books such as Cook’s Science, they cover so many random topics that I wouldn’t know when to look into the book).
  • It’s very well designed. Design isn’t everything, but it sure helps make this book a great read. Each and every recipe contains very clear photos (which makes choosing which recipe to make a lot easier).
  • All recipes are given in weight measurements (alongside the volumetric ones)! A great plus for an American cookbook, love it. It also makes it a lot easier to downscale the recipes. I made 1/2 batches for each of them since the original batch sizes were way too big for me.

You can buy the cookbook on the Handle the Heat website.

The Ultimate Cookie Handbook cover

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  1. I don’t really have a question, but would love a copy of the book. I’m a high school Foods Studies teacher and this book would be able to be showcased in my classes at all levels. My introductory students could simply make a recipe. My intermediate and advanced students could experiment with options to best develop their own version of a cookie recipe that they love. Fingers crossed!

  2. This book sounds great! I often find that I get different results when making the same cookies – sometimes they spread more, sometimes they’re chewy, other times crispier etc. One thing I’d love to learn more about is the effect creaming the butter and sugar has in cookies. For cakes, this step takes as long as 8 minutes to ensure a delicate and tender crumb. But for biscuits, do I just need to beat the butter and sugar until combined, or for a few minutes until slightly creamier? What does the length of time taken for this step actually affect – texture, spreading, chewiness, all of the above? This is one thing that I haven’t found a straight answer for from articles online.

  3. Do you need to let cookie sheets rest between batches of cookies.? If I take two trays out of the oven,and remove cookies, can I just add the next round of cookies? Or should I wait for five minutes for cookie sheets to cool?

    • Hi Susan,

      Great question, thanks for asking and joining the giveaway. And yes, it’s best to let sheets rest in between batches. Hot sheets will start baking and melting the bottom of your cookies while the tops haven’t started to heat up yet. That will increase the spread of the cookies (of course, if that’s what you’re after, you could use them, but you’re probably not :-).

    • Yes! Although I’m no high-altitude baking expert since I live at sea level.

      At higher altitudes, the air pressure is lower. As a result, the same amount of baking soda/powder will result in bigger cookies (or even collapsed ones) because there’s less air ‘pressing’ against the cookie dough! Also, moisture evaporates more quickly (due to its lower boiling point). However, the starch in cookies still sets in pretty much the same way (this is what firms up cookies).
      As a result, general recommendations are to increase the oven temperature and decrease baking time. This way the starch cooks faster, and water has less time to evaporate! Also, reduce baking powder & soda content to make up for their increased effectiveness.

  4. I’m a scientist so this kind of experimenting is right up my ally. It sounds so interesting!!! Plus cookies, yummmm!
    Does it happen to mention any word on high altitude baking?
    Great review of the book. I’d love to win one!!

    • Hi Kaylan,

      Great to see fellow scientists :-)! This book does not write about high-altitude baking, hope the comment above yours gives you some helpful thoughts. I would expect some of the recipes may need to be adjusted to higher altitudes, they work well at sea level.

  5. No question but really hope to win…this book has been on my wishlist but is a little out of the budget…hopinf to win the giveaway tho

  6. Such a great article! Very clear and concise, I’d love to have a copy of this book. My question is: how can I avoid cookies spreading too much? It’s an issue I’ve faced several times. Thank you so much in advance 🙂

  7. Hi, I was wondering if using meringue powder is the only way to make royal icing?
    I would love this cookbook! I love Tessa and all her recipes.

    • Hi Sara,

      Yes, there is an alternative! You can use egg white powder (which is just dried egg whites), liquid egg whites (if using fresh, keep in mind they’re not pasteurized) but also aquafaba. We’ve recently tried it with a soy protein powder (Versawhip 600K) and that works well also (though it needs some added flavoring), we haven’t gotten to writing this one up yet (work in progress :-)). But if you’re interested I can send you what we tried.

      We’ve discussed the science behind royal icing quite extensively here.

  8. I see different recipes for different egg amounts or egg whites vs egg yokes. Whats the difference?

    Thank you!

  9. What’s the difference between baking powder and baking soda? I’ve been wanting a copy of this book for awhile!!! I’m excited to up my cookie game!!!

    • It is a great book Haley :-)!

      This question is a great one as well and we’ve written a whole post about it :-)! In short: baking powder = baking soda + an acid. So they’re very similar, baking powder just contains a few additional ingredients alongside the baking soda. As a result, you don’t have to add acids to baking powder whereas you should to baking soda.

  10. Can I cut the gingerbread dough to the different cookie shapes, freeze and then bake it at a later date or should it only be refrigerated?

    • Hi Christinia,

      Great question. Over-mixing almost always refers to the over-mixing of gluten in wheat flour. When you mix a dough that contains gluten for a long time, these gluten proteins start to form a network. This is great when you’re baking bread, not so much when making cookies. As such, for most cookies, you only want to mix for as long as it takes to mix all ingredients homogeneously.

      So, to get back to your question: yes, in 99% of the cases when baking cookies, over-mixing can only happen once wheat flour is involved.

      (Just to be complete: You can over-mix other things, for example, you can over-mix whipped cream, giving you butter. However, that’s not what cookie recipes refer to 🙂 ).

  11. I’ve been curious about making cookies with browned butter. I’ve made recipes with browned butter a couple of times and have tried a few different things with the browned butter but get the same result: the cookies spread like crazy. After I get the butter browned, I’ve tried leaving the butter til it’s cooled on the counter and also cooled in the fridge until firm then softened. I then do the suggested chill time for the dough in the fridge. Is there a way to get browned butter cookies to stay somewhat in shape?

    • Hi Megan,

      Using brown butter in cookies is delicious isn’t it? We’re a fan as well (and have written about it here). I would suggest you try to reduce the brown butter content in your brown butter cookies. Butter is one of the main reasons cookies spread and reigning that in even a little (e.g. 10%) can make a big difference. An alternative is to add a little extra flour.

  12. Hi, my question is: is it better to bake the cookies on top of the oven or in the middle?
    Have a nice day and good luck to everyone!

  13. Thanks for this post! I love the info presented in this as well as what the book holds! I am a beginner at baking and love learning the whys behind the reasons for ingredients. One question I did have is regarding cocoa powder. I’ve never noticed the acidity level listed on powders found in the store(although maybe I wasn’t looking well enough) but how can acidity be determined if it is not listed? This may be covered in the book, but I was just curious. Thanks!

    • Hi Kristen,

      You’re right, it’s not directly mentioned on the package. Instead, what you can often find is whether the cocoa powder has been alkalized (can also be referred to as Dutch-processed).
      If that is the case, the cocoa powder is no longer that acidic. If it has NOT been alkalized though, it will be slightly acidic.

      I have noticed that this labeling does differ between countries. In some it’s mentioned clearly, in others it isn’t. Often, the darker cocoa powders have been alkalized whereas lighter brown ones haven’t, but that’s not a 100% perfect rule.

      If you’d like to learn more, we’ve written about cocoa powders in more detail here.

      And yes, Tessa discusses this in the book as well!

  14. What about using whole wheat flour in cookies and both baking powder and soda? And I would love it if I won. I will be making these cookies and freezing them that way after I give birth I will have ready to bake cookie dough.

  15. Hi! I’m wanting to know how “browned butter” changes a recipe. Does it make cookies spread more? Does it give a nuttier flavor? Can you make any recipe with browned butter instead of room temp butter? Thanks!

    • Hi Brandon,

      Great question! When freezing cookies (or any food for that matter) it’s important that you pack them in such a way that moisture can’t evaporate. It might sound counterintuitive, but even in the freezer moisture evaporates (though slowly) and this is what causes things like freezer burn. As such, a vacuum pack is always great (as long as it doesn’t break or damage the cookies otherwise) but so is any good air-tight plastic wrap. Try to get as much air out as possible.

  16. I’ve always wondered about the science behind “special” ingredients that affect texture is certain cookies, like cream of tartar in snickerdoodles, or corn starch. Are they necessary/worth it? These aren’t things I normally have on hand, but if they make a big difference I’d be more likely to purchase for perfect cookies!

    • Andi, This was going to be my question! Thanks for asking it, as the point about cream of tartar is well taken — I bought a jar a decade ago, and it’s never been used for anything but snickerdoodles. I’ll look forward to seeing a response about this. (And my other question is below, once moderated.)

  17. As a huge cookie lover, I love seeing the science behind the recipes and how just a small tweak can make a huge difference. Also as a Brit I have to say I love baking ‘American style’ its just so different from the flavours and textures that are typically British!

    • Hi Kelly, I so agree with this! It’s always fun to see how different countries (or regions within countries) do things a little different than what we ourselves might be used to.

  18. Good morning,

    I struggle with my timing while cooking. I seem to always be in between undercooking my cookies where they break immediately when I go to pick them up or browning them too much on the bottom. The first option is still very tasty, but I want to make cookies as gifts and don’t want them to fall apart in the holiday bins. I guess my question is if you have a trick or suggestion? I have been thinking I might be using the wrong pans. Thank you so much for your time and giveaway opportunity.

  19. I have tried at least 3 different recipes for gingersnaps. My cookies didn’t develop the lovely crackled top and came out looking like plain cookies flat brown cookies. They tasted ok but it’s not the result I wanted. I weighed the ingredients, watched the videos and my batter looked ok. These aren’t complicated cookies but I am stumped. Any ideas or a truly fail-proof recipe?

  20. What’s the effect of using the fan (i.e., convection setting) on cookies? is it recommended or not? In a related vein, some recipes around the web and elsewhere recommend using two sheets on two racks, with swapping/rotating at the half way mark. As much as this boosts production speed, it’s sometimes a nuisance, so are there adjustments needed to time and/or formulae in order for those of us who’d rather do a sheet at a time?

  21. Hi there, I love cookies. I think having a cookie after a meal is the topper to the meal and since I only eat cookies as a treat and avoiding sugary desserts I haven’t gained extra weight. Its like it stops me from wanting any more food. I make cookies from healthy ingredients with a little maple syrup and nuts and gluten free ingredients, they taste quite nice but I am always interested in finding out how others make healthy cookies.

  22. Hi!
    Fellow scientist here! I’d love to win a copy if the book.
    I am wondering about the chocolate in chocolate chip cookies. You have to temper chocolate in a specific way to avoid blooming and get a ‘snap’. Chocolate in chocolate chip cookies get exposed to high temperature and it quite out of control. How come these chocolate drops in de cookies come out so nice after cooling?

  23. The cookbook looks fab!
    I just made chocolate chip cookies using my regular recipe, the same as I’ve done multiple times. This time the cookies came much lighter in colour although I used the same brown sugar I always use. They also came much crisper whilst I like a good chewy cookie. Do you know why this might be the case? I can’t think of anything I did different.

  24. Hello! I am a food scientist and avid home baker 🙂 Cookies are my absolute favorite treat and I would love a copy of this book! I saw in another comment on this post about the differences between baking powder and baking soda. My question is: why is it that some recipes call for both? I have made quite a few recipes at home (usually cakes and quickbreads) which call for some combination of the two. If baking powder is already being added (which has the acid present already), then why would baking soda also be needed?

  25. I’ve often wondered if adding more fat (like avocados) messes with the other ingredients, the needed ratio or baking time. It seems this is covered in the book, so I would like to recieve a copy!

    • Hi Max,

      Yes, the topic of fat is covered in the book (though with a focus on butter). And yes, adding extra fat definitely impacts your cookie texture. More (or too much) fat results in a cookie that spreads more, but can even result in a cookie that falls apart. You might also be interested in this article where we tested this by adding (a lot of) extra butter.

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