Whether you're hosting an epic cookie swap or just want to whip up a few treats for friends and family members this holiday season, making sure your baking arsenal is stocked with the right tools will ensure your cookies really sparkle. What essentials should make the cut? We took an inventory of our kitchen MVPs and asked some of the best bakers we know to tell us about the gear they can't live without.
Here's a handy list of everything we'll be reaching for this season:
You might be thinking: Sure, I have a big bowl. But do you? Because when we say big, we mean really, really, really big. Epic, gigantic. XXXXXL. Go on and get yourself at least one bowl that is plunge-in-up-to-your-elbows enormous, and trust us, you will wonder how you ever lived without it. The extra space lets you attack a big batch of dough with your hand mixer without worrying about debris littering your counters; it'll allow you to knead yeast doughs with room to move; and it means you will easily be able to double or triple that batch of sugar cookies everyone in your family goes crazy about. We love our big old Mason Cash bowl (and not just because it makes us feel like we're below stairs at Downton Abbey)—but for ease of handling, afforability, and durability, you can't go wrong with a 20-quart restaurant-style stainless steel bowl, like the one available here.
If you inherited your grandmother's well-worn rollling pin, by all means keep using it—the best rolling pin is the one you're most comfortable with. (And of course, an empy wine bottle can always get the job done in a pinch.) But for smoothing out cookie doughs and prepping pastry crusts (not to mention a whole host of other tasks) our go-to roller is JK Adams 19-inch Rolling Dowel. Sturdy, simple and accesibly priced, it rolls evenly and cleanly every time, and is built to last you through a lifetime of kitchen projects.
JK Adams 19-inch Rolling Dowel, $21 at amazon.com
Measuring cups are not all created equal. Irregularities in size between manufacturers can make consistent measuring a hassle, and using cups that are lightweight and prone to tipping leads to unnecessary messes in the kitchen. For dry measuring, we like KitchenMade's 6-piece Stainless Steel set for its well-balanced weight, precise measures, and ease of storage. (Nesting cups are a must!)
KitchenMade's 6-piece Stainless Steel Nesting Set, $25 at amazon.com
For liquid measuring, we always reach for OXO's angled measuring cups, which make reading measures from above a cinch and are easy to clean, to boot.
OXO Good Grips 3-Piece Angled Measuring Set, $20 at amazon.com
Baking sheets are the bricks that form the foundation of countless cooking projects, whether you're roasting veggies or churning out batch after batch of holiday cookies. So it's worth spending a extra few pennies to invest in ones that are generously sized, well made, and super durable. Among the experts we surveyed (and in our own test kitchens), commercial-grade rimmed half sheet pans—like Nordicware's Commerical Grade Aluminum Half Sheet or this super affordable model from Web Restaurant Supply—are the gold standard. They fit our ovens perfectly and never, ever buckle. Buy them by the half dozen: you can never have too many. And while you're at it, pick up a few quarter sheet pans, too; they're handy for corralling mis en place and all manner of smaller projects.
Nordic Ware Aluminum Baker's Half Sheet Set, $22 at amazon.com
Baker's Mark 18" x 13" Half Size Gauge Wire Sheet Pan, $3.50/each at webstaurantstore.com
Nordic Ware Aluminum Baker's Quarter Sheet, $12 at amazon.com
Moisture- and heat-resistant parchment paper is a serious baker's not-so-secret weapon. Cover your work surface with it to make cleanup effortless; use it to line your baking sheets to extend their lives and prevent scratching and sticking; fold it into muffin tins when you need on-the-fly paper liners; or slip it under the edges of a layer cake while decorating it to collect fly-away bits of frosting. Parchment paper does it all. A little upgrade that will change your life? Invest in the pre-cut sheets of parchment that pros swear by—they fit a standard half sheet pan perfectly, and you'll never again have to struggle with using scissors while your hands are covered in dough.
Thanks to the magic of the internet, these days you can find cookie cutters for every holiday, occasion, and obsession. But for most cooks, the best place to begin is with a few sets of graduated-size cutters in versatile shapes like stars, squares, and circles (fluted or plain), which can do double duty any time you need to make biscuits, handpies, or dumplings. If you'd like to give yourself a treat or get fancy with your gingerbread around the holidays, you can always pick up a few new shapes at a time.
Ice Cream Scoop/Cookie Scoop
Sure, you could use a regular old tablespoon. But for precise portioning of cookie dough and perfectly round drop-style cookies every time, there is no tool more reliable and indispensible than a spring-mounted scoop. Scoops come in all sorts of measures, from petite to softball-sized, but in our day-to-day baking a medium 1 ½ tablespoon model is the one we reach for most.
You know that part of the recipe that says to transfer your cookies to a rack to cool before storing them? It's not just there to fill space. Giving warm baked goods ample time to rest on a surface that allows air flow to evenly circulate to all sides can make the difference between nice crispy edges and soggy slumps. If you don't have a wire baking rack, the time to get one is now. They come in myriad sizes, but our favorite models sit perfectly inside a standard half sheet pan, which collect crumbs and makes it easy to keep stray frosting contained.
KitchenMatics Stainless Steel Cooling and Roasting Rack, $15 at amazon.com
Offset Spatulas and Cookie Spatulas
No one wants to make a beautiful batch of cookies only to watch them crumble on the journey from baking sheet to cooling rack. That's why a well proportioned cookie spatula—thin enough to slide easily under even the most delicate doughs yet sturdy enough to support them—is always good to keep handy. Smaller, narrower offset spatulas are also must-haves for transporting fragile cutout shapes and for applying thin layers of jam or frosting during cookie filling and decorating.
Pastry brushes pull their weight in our kitchen all year long, but never more so than during holiday baking season, when we use them to brush egg washes onto doughs, brush crumbs from cut-out cookies and baking sheets, and apply decorative glazes. Some of the experts we spoke to said thet like to designate dry brushes and wet brushes, buying separates for each task—and at $10 for a set of two, that's not a extravagance. Finally, if you're going to get serious about cookie decorating, even just once a year, it's worth investing in a small array of culinary-grade paintbrushes that are essential for detailed designs and fine mark making.
Piping Bag and Tips
A piping bag may seem like an unnessecary extravagance if you're not a frequent baker, but the truth is that there's no easier way to add professional flair to your holiday cookies than piping on sugary frosted rosebuds, stars, and swirls. Plastic coated cloth versions are inexpensive, reusable, relatively easy to clean, and will last you through a slew of projects. Throw in a set of metal tips in fun sizes and shapes and you'll have immediately upped your cake and cookie game.
Gel Food Coloring, Sanding Sugars, and Sprinkles
To achieve deep and concentrated colors when tinting doughs and frostings, most bakers use gel food coloring—a professional grade product that was once fairly hard to find outside specialty shops, but is now easy and affordable to source online. This is strong stuff—you only need a few drops to get brilliant results. But if, like us, you are sometimes hesitant to add unnecessary additives to your family's food, there are also some great natural options on the market: we especially like the dyes from Watkins and India Tree. For finishing touches, you'll always be glad to have a well-stocked supply of playful candy sprinkles, rainbow sanding sugars, nonpareils, and dragees. After all, every holiday deserves a little sparkle.
Wilton Gel Food Color Set, $3 at amazon.com
Watkins Assorted Food Coloring, from $7 at amazon.com
India Tree Natural Decorating Colors, $19 at amazon.com
Wilton 6-color Christmas Sprinkle Mix, $13 at amazon.com