What signals winter and the holidays more than the inviting aroma of freshly baked gingerbread? Half the appeal is as lovely as gingerbread smells and how gorgeous they look. The perfect gingerbread, whether you’re making little gingerbread people or the pieces that go into constructing a gingerbread house, the key is that each gingerbread needs to be uniform and keep its shape even after it’s baked.
Here’s how to keep gingerbread from expanding and spreading:
- Skip the leavening agent.
- Don’t overbeat the mixture.
- Increase the oven temperature.
- Measure your ingredients accurately.
- Use high-quality butter.
- Use parchment paper.
- Chill the dough.
- Use a good-quality baking sheet.
- Roll the dough into a thinner layer.
- Don’t overcrowd the oven.
If you’ve spent hours baking a batch of gingerbread, only to be disappointed that they expanded and spread in the oven, continue reading to learn how to prevent this from happening with the next batch.
1. Skip the Leavening Agent
Many cookie recipes, including gingerbread, call for a leavening agent. Examples of leavening agents are baking powder, baking soda, instant dry or active yeast, whipped egg whites, and cream.
Adding a leavening agent makes the confectionery light and fluffy, increases its volume, and creates the ideal texture and crumb.
Leavening agents do this by releasing gas after it’s been mixed with heat, liquid, or acid, causing the dough to expand. This is ideal for baked goodies like cakes, scones, and pancakes that need to be light and fluffy, but cookies can be a little heavy and dense.
Adding a leavening agent to your gingerbread dough will cause it to spread in the oven and lose its shape. It will still taste nice but don’t expect to have uniform gingerbread people or whatever shape you cut.
If you intend to build a gingerbread house, it’s unlikely that the walls and other bits and pieces will be uniform. Omitting the leavening agent also gives you a firmer, durable cookie and less likely to break, especially if you’re gifting it and need to transport it.
2. Don’t Overbeat the Mixture
Usually, the first step to baking gingerbread or any cookies is to cream together the butter and sugar, and if you’re not careful, you can mess up the dough during this step. The trick is not to over mix. When you cream the butter and sugar, you add air into the mixture. This gives your cookie a lighter texture and prevents it from becoming too dense.
Adding too much air will cause the cookies to expand or collapse as they bake.
The trick is to cream the butter and sugar until they are incorporated, which usually only takes about a minute or two. Stay close by when you’re beating them together so that you can check when it’s time to stop.
3. Increase the Oven Temperature
The temperature at which you bake your cookies will determine their texture. Even a novice baker knows that you must preheat the oven and wait until it’s at the right temperature before putting your cookies in the oven to bake.
If you’re looking for a chewy texture, bake your gingerbread or cookies at 325℉ (162.8℃) but if you like them crispy, bake them at 350℉ (176.7℃).
If your gingerbread spreads in the oven, you can try increasing the oven temperature to higher than the recommended temperature. The hotter the oven is, the quicker the gingerbread sets and the less time it has to spread.
When it sets, it holds its shape.
You may want to open the oven to check on the cookies, but don’t do this. Even if the oven is open for just a few seconds, it introduces cool air inside and causes the oven to lose heat. This drops the temperature inside the oven, slowing down the speed at which the gingerbread sets and causing it to expand.
The best thing to do is to be guided by the suggested time on the recipe and peek through the glass in the oven door to check on the baking progress.
4. Measure Your Ingredients Accurately
Unlike cooking, baking is an exact science. With just one slight inaccuracy, your entire bake can be thrown off. Fats in the dough melt in the oven, and if there aren’t enough dry ingredients to hold the fat, it spreads, and the gingerbread loses its shape.
However, too many dry ingredients will cause the gingerbread to be crumbly and dry, so it’s vital to get the balance of the ingredients right.
When measuring dry ingredients like flour, spoon it into a measuring cup and level it before adding it to the wet ingredients. Another option is to weigh your ingredients to get the most accurate amount.
If you add the correct quantity of flour but your gingerbread still spreads, try adding a bit more flour to the dough.
Sugar is another culprit that can cause your gingerbread to expand. When sugar is heated, it becomes liquid and melts, making the gingerbread spread. While you need sugar in your gingerbread, only add in the recommended quantity or slightly less.
Reducing the amount of sugar will, of course, make the gingerbread less sweet, but this means the other spicy flavors like cinnamon, ginger, and molasses will stand out.
5. Use High-Quality Butter
The amount of liquid in your dough determines whether or not the gingerbread will expand in the oven, so it makes sense that if you use butter with high water content, your gingerbread will expand.
There’s no way to tell which butter brands contain more water as this isn’t printed on the packaging, but generally, better quality butter has less water.
Experiment with different butter brands to find one that works best in your recipe.
Another essential factor to do with butter is the temperature. You don’t want to use butter that is too warm or melted. This will make the dough runny, and it will take the gingerbread a longer time to set in the oven. As mentioned above, the longer the gingerbread takes to set, the more time it has to spread.
The butter shouldn’t be too cold or hard. If you put hard butter into your electric mixer, it won’t mix with the sugar and it will stick to the whisk. When you eventually get it going, it will take much longer to cream the butter and sugar, introducing too much air into the mixture.
The ideal temperature for butter is room temperature.
If it’s winter or you live in a cold climate, take the butter out the night before and leave it on the kitchen counter to get to room temperature.
If you live somewhere warm, you’ll only need to take the butter out of the fridge about an hour before. Never attempt to bring the butter to room temperature in the microwave as it never works. The outside of the block always melts, which affects the texture.
6. Use Parchment Paper
When you’ve poured your heart into making perfectly shaped gingerbread, the last thing you want is for it to stick to the cookie or baking sheet. We’ve all been there, where we forget to grease the baking sheet and then are forced to scrape the gingerbread or cookies off the sheet resulting in broken bits.
While you need something a bit slippery between your gingerbread and the cookie sheet, don’t grease it with butter, oil, nonstick spray, or any type of fat. Again, it’s the liquid and the fact that it’s very slippery.
The liquid and slippery surface are what marks the gingerbread spread.
Instead of butter or nonstick spray, line your baking tray with parchment paper, remembering to keep the glossier side facing up, so the gingerbread sits on it. If you’re concerned about using single-use parchment paper that will end up in the trash, you can use a reusable silicone baking mat instead.
Make sure you clean it properly after each use as grease builds up quickly on it, which can cause your gingerbread to expand.
7. Chill the Dough
Even if the recipe doesn’t indicate that you need to chill the dough, it’s best to chill it. This prevents the butter and other liquid ingredients from becoming warm and melting. The colder the dough, the easier it is to work with and the less likely it’s to spread while baking.
Once you’ve made the dough, wrap it in plastic wrap and pop it into the fridge for at least an hour or overnight. If it’s in the fridge overnight, take it out about ten minutes before, so it has a bit of time to soften. You want it to be chilled, not hardened.
Never leave it in the fridge uncovered because this will dry it out. Wrapping it in plastic wrap locks in the moisture, or you can put it into an airtight container.
When the dough has chilled sufficiently, remove it from the fridge, roll it flat and cut it into the desired shapes. Put the cutout shapes back in the fridge for about 15 minutes. This step is handy if it’s hot since the gingerbread dough is prone to melting and losing its shape.
8. Use a Good Quality Baking Sheet
The quality of your ingredients, tools, and equipment makes a huge difference in how your gingerbread turns out, including the baking sheet you bake them on. The best baking sheets have a thick base and are dull in color.
While these might be a little pricier, they’re worth the investment. They’ll last a long time, so you won’t need to replace them frequently.
Thin baking sheets might be inexpensive, but they warp easily, which causes heat to be unevenly distributed. This means that your gingerbread might overbake and burn on some parts of the sheet, while on the cooler sides, the gingerbread will take too long to set and then spread.
The color of the sheet is also important.
A dull color prevents your gingerbread from overgrowing and helps the gingerbread to bake evenly. Insulated baking sheets are another no-no as they slow down the setting process causing the gingerbread to expand.
Always place your gingerbread dough on cool or room temperature baking sheets. The dough will melt if the baking sheet is warm, and the gingerbread will lose its shape. If you only have one baking sheet and need to bake the second batch of gingerbread, wash the baking sheet and stick it in the fridge or freezer for a few minutes to cool before placing your gingerbread dough cutouts on it.
9. Roll the Dough Into a Thinner Layer
How thick or thin your gingerbread is will influence how it behaves in the oven. If your gingerbread is thick, it will take longer for them to set in the oven, and it will spread. Ideally, try to roll your dough to be under 1 cm (0.4”) thick. Be careful not to roll it too thin, as it can become difficult to handle and break.
If you like your gingerbread to be on the thicker side, increase the oven temperature by a few degrees so that the gingerbread sets faster.
10. Don’t Overcrowd the Oven
If you’ve baked a big batch of gingerbread and have a few baking sheets waiting to go into the oven, resist the urge to fit them all in at the same time.
Gingerbread bakes best with one sheet in the oven at a time, placed in the center.
The temperature is different in the various spots of the oven, so having two or three baking sheets in the oven means that each sheet or each part of the sheet gets an uneven temperature causing some of the gingerbread to spread.
Gingerbread is an absolute crowd-pleaser because it’s delicious but also visually appealing. To maintain the visual appeal, you need to ensure that the gingerbread doesn’t expand and spread.
To this end, make sure you use high-quality ingredients and equipment. Also, ensure that:
- You don’t overmix.
- The dough is chilled.
- The oven is hot.
- The ingredients are correctly measured.
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