I do not have a revolutionary approach to peanut butter cookies to offer you. I am not an advocate of the three-ingredient approach: In my book, it’s not a cookie unless it has flour in it. Putting aside such radicalism, there are only a few potentially contentious ingredients in the basic peanut butter cookie formula, and for each of these I will give you my humble opinion of the best path. You are, as always, welcome to choose otherwise, as long as you understand that the probable outcome will be disappointment and resentment on the part of those you give your dry, crumbly, bland baked goods. (Coincidentally, this Sunday is Mother’s Day. No pressure.)
Your peanut butter should be “natural,” i.e., the kind containing only peanuts and salt, the kind that requires stirring to incorporate the oil into the peanut solids. (You may make your own instead of buying it.) Ostensibly “regular” peanut butter, with its added emulsifiers, sweeteners, and hydrogenated oils, will contaminate your cookies’ flavor with its weird artificiality.
Your other source of fat should be butter, not shortening. Butter will make your cookies taste buttery; shortening will make them taste suspiciously vacant, like Katy Perry’s voice post-autotune. Yes, shortening yields chewier cookies than butter does, because butter contains water and shortening doesn’t. But you can easily make up for butter’s crisping tendencies by using crucial ingredient No. 3…
Brown sugar instead of white sugar. (In the dough, that is; you will coat your cookies in white sugar, about which more in a moment.) The moisture content of brown sugar results in soft, chewy, doughy cookies every time (provided they’re not overcooked). Plus, its dark molasses flavor nicely complements the roasted notes in the peanut butter. You can further augment the gustatory potential of the peanut butter by using both vanilla extract and almond extract in your dough—just a splash of the latter is enough to boost your cookies’ nuttiness (while remaining subtle enough that no one will cotton onto the presence of drupe essence in your legume dessert).
Getting your ingredients right is well more than half the battle, but a couple of final flourishes are also worth your trouble. First, dip your lumps of dough in sugar before baking them. This really should be SOP for more cookie recipes: It adds a pleasant sheen and a delicate crunch to the surface of the finished cookie—not to mention a taste-bud-pleasing saccharine wallop. A sugar coating is an especially nice counterpoint to this dough, which is mellow rather than aggressively sweet on its own.
And then there’s crosshatching—that is, indenting the top of each ball of cookie dough with the bottom side of a fork’s tines before baking. Sometime in the 1930s, such marks became the international sign for “This Is a Peanut Butter Cookie.” You don’t have to do it if you want to scoff at tradition or preserve the mystery of the cookie’s contents until the first bite is taken. Alternatively, you can flatten the dough balls into disks with the bottom of a glass or indent them with your thumb (and then later fill the imprint with jelly, if you like). You can also leave them spherical and then, immediately after baking, press a Hershey’s kiss or similarly-sized chocolate morsel into the center of each one to flatten it slightly and create a seal between chocolate and cookie.
Such Hershey’s-kissed confections are known as “peanut butter blossoms,” and I resist them on philosophical grounds, since they were clearly invented as a blatant ploy to induce people to buy more Hershey’s kisses. Speaking less theoretically, though, I do find it difficult to stop eating them whenever they’re put in front of me.
Peanut Butter Cookies
Yield: About 24 cookies
Time: About 3 hours, mostly unattended
1 cup brown sugar
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
½ cup creamy natural peanut butter
1 large egg
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon almond extract
1½ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar, or more as needed for coating the cookies
1. Beat the brown sugar, butter, and peanut butter with the paddle attachment of a stand mixer (or with a handheld mixer in a large bowl) until light and fluffy. Add the egg, vanilla, and almond extract and beat to combine. Add the flour, baking soda, and salt, and stir just until combined. Wrap the dough in foil or plastic wrap (or simply cover the bowl) and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 3 days.
2. Heat the oven to 350°F. Roll the dough into 1-inch balls, coat each ball in sugar, and transfer to a baking sheet, leaving 2 inches between cookies. Press the tines of a fork flat against each ball of dough to indent it, then make a second indentation perpendicular to the first one. Bake until the cookies are firm and their edges are golden brown, about 10 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes on the baking sheets, then transfer the cookies to wire racks or paper towels to finish cooling. Repeat with the remaining dough. Serve immediately, or store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a few days.