What is the difference between sugar cookies and snickerdoodles? This time of year, we’ve got one thing on the brain: cookies. Whether you’re carefully cutting out stars and stocking-shaped cookies to leave for Santa, or just trying out recipes for a cookie exchange party, this question may have been bouncing around in the back of your mind during holiday baking. Though they’re similar in appearance, it’s a common misconception that sugar cookies and snickerdoodles are one and the same. And the name “snickerdoodle” (which most believe to be an adaptation of a German word for a type of pastry, not to be confused with German Spice Cookies) unfortunately doesn’t shed much light on the issue. But believe it or not, snickerdoodles and sugar cookies are very different cookies.
Many would point to the presence of cinnamon as the distinguishing factor here, but as cookie connoisseurs well know, sugar cookies can be made with a pinch of cinnamon too. But a cinnamon-y sugar cookie does not a snickerdoodle make! The actual defining ingredient for snickerdoodles may surprise you.
Sugar cookies are a true classic in the cookie canon. Some of our earliest memories are making Christmas sugar cookies like these with our families around the holidays— but this cookie is also often overlooked for its simplicity. There are a lot of bad sugar cookies out there— dry, store-bought ones; tasteless varieties at the office holiday party—but that doesn’t mean we should settle for substandard sugar cookies. When done well, sugar cookies can be pure perfection. Sugar cookies have an unassuming ingredient list composed of butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla, flour, and baking powder. Though the recipes may vary, these are the core components. Some aspiring bakers choose to go the extra mile and top their sugar cookies with a silky-smooth layer of royal icing, creating works of edible art that rival those of your favorite Instagram baker. Those who prefer a more creamy frosting may choose to add a swirl of buttercream to their sugar cookies for an extra-luxurious look. But many choose to stick to the classics, leaving their sugar cookies lightly dusted with sanding sugar, or entirely unadorned-- for the purist, try our easy slice-and-bake Icebox Sugar Cookies.
That being said, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a snickerdoodle with icing or frosting on it. There’s simply no need— the beauty of snickerdoodles is their soft, melt-in-your-mouth texture and simple adornment of cinnamon. Snickerdoodles have many of the same ingredients as sugar cookies, but the important distinction here is cream of tartar— an unexpected addition that keeps snickerdoodles super-soft and prevents the crystallization of sugar. If you’ve ever had a hard, crunchy sugar cookie, you already know what cream of tartar does and why the addition of cream of tartar in a snickerdoodle is so important. Recently, we’ve begun to see recipes popping up that utilize sour cream in snickerdoodles-- a controversial choice that may have been born out of a misunderstanding about what cream of tartar is and the subtly sour, tart taste it can impart to the cookies. However, some proud cookie fanatics stand by these recipes as superior, if somewhat unconventional.
Another distinguishing factor between these two cookies is that snickerdoodles are rarely cut into shapes, instead being rolled into balls and coated in cinnamon sugar, giving them their signature appearance. If you’re a true snickerdoodle die-hard looking for a new way to enjoy your favorite cookie, fear not— in recent years, the flavors of snickerdoodles have been replicated in more and more creative desserts, including these snickerdoodle ice cream sandwiches. Or, keep things simple and try our recipe for classic snickerdoodles.