Sugar cookies often look prettier than they taste. Now that's not right. With cookie season well under way, follow our tips to ensure yours are beautiful inside and out.
Texture is an important factor in taste. When your sugar cookie is dry and chalky, it's because you used too much flour. Be more sparing when you flour your rolling pin and countertop or pastry cloth. And for added moisture, brush the tops of the cookies with buttermilk before baking. It's a good idea to do that when you're adding sprinkles, and not icing, to the top of the cookies.
If you forget to take out the butter and let it soften for an hour before beginning and now you're short on time, well, we understand. But in your rush, don't melt the butter in the microwave until it (accidentally!) turns to liquid. That'll make your cookies greasy. Chop your butter up into tiny pieces to speed up the softening time. Another trick: grate the butter.
Refrigerating the cookie dough before baking does a lot to improve the flavor and texture too.
"Chilling cookie dough before baking solidifies the fat in the cookies," according to PJ Hamel, a baker for King Arthur Flour. "As the cookies bake, the fat in the chilled cookie dough takes longer to melt than room-temperature fat. And the longer the fat remains solid, the less cookies spread."
And you can enjoy their taste more easily when the cookies are not blended into each other en masse. Because they're thicker (1/4 inch is ideal), the cookies are chewier. The longer you refrigerate the dough, the more pronounced the flavor will be. But 30 minutes is a good minimum.
At the same time, chilling the dough dries out the cookie dough, which concentrates the flavors even more. It's like the difference between watered-down lemonade and lemonade with less water, Hamel says. Also, letting the dough rest breaks the flour down into its component parts, including simple carbohydrates (ie: sugar). More sugar means more sweetness.
But … then there are bakers who swear that chilling the dough ruins their cookies. So there's that. We recommend trying two batches. If you like the way the first batch turns out, no need to try the other way — at least if you're pressed for time.
Take your sugar cookies out of the oven before the edges turn golden. It's not like chocolate chip cookies or other kinds. To ensure your cookies have that satisfying chew to them, stop baking them earlier. Otherwise, they'll be hard.
Use real vanilla extract, not the imitation kind, which can bake out a bit. If perfectly buttery, soft, chewy, sweet, vanilla cookies aren't enough for you, then add some lemon or orange zest. Do a dab of almond extract. That'll do the trick.
But that royal icing — oh, that foul, tooth-cracking icing. Bakers everywhere recommend royal icing because its hard texture makes it the perfect base for decorating cutesy pictures on your sugar cookies. But some of us wish it was whipped and creamy-sweet like buttercream or cream cheese frosting.
"Personally, I like my cookies to look pretty and taste yummy, and not have to worry about cracking a tooth on the cement-like hardness you’ll find with royal icing," says Ashley Whitmore, cookbook author and founder of the blog, Kitchen Meets Girl.
Royal icing calls for powdered sugar and meringue powder, or sometimes beaten egg whites instead of meringue powder, if you're going to the root of the recipe. Whitmore's alternative uses corn syrup, almond extract, and whole milk along with that powdered sugar. She whisks up a runny frosting, then separates a bit of it and adds more powdered sugar to that smaller amount to make a thicker icing. That thicker icing becomes the dam that she pipes along the cookie's border. Inside, goes the thinner, more runny frosting. About 15 minutes in the freezer will harden it enough to decorate on top. But it won't harden as much as royal icing. And we like that.
Some people feel this kind of icing is too sweet. If that's the case for you, consider a fusion of meringue-buttercream to find middle ground between hard and soft. Plus, shoot for a flavor you're excited about. By all means, if you don't care about creating perfect little candy canes, Santas, or Christmas trees on top of your cookies, go for taste and texture and do buttercream all the way.
To an outsider, sugar cookies seem so simple. Ha. We know better. You may have to experiment and tweak your ingredients, measurements, and techniques to find the perfect cookie for you. Everyone's oven is different, just like everyone's palate isn't uniform either.
Check out some of our sugar cookie recipes:
1. Christmas Sugar Cookies
This is a pretty standard recipe for sugar cookies, with a two-hour minimum refrigeration time for the dough. Get our Christmas Sugar Cookies recipe.
2. Dorie Greenspan's Sablés (Basic Sugar Cookies)
The cookie queen has spoken on this topic, of course. She uses part powdered sugar and part granulated sugar, and the egg yolks only. Get our Dorie Greenspan's Sablés recipe.
3. Crackly Sugar Cookies
These cookies aren't meant to be cut into cute shapes. The cream of tartar and baking soda mean to crack them wide open. You also roll them in sugar. They're good that way. Get our Crackly Sugar Cookies recipe.
4. Icebox Sugar Cookies
This recipe is the simplest of them all. No separating eggs. No buying cream of tartar for this one recipe and never using it again. No cookie-cutter issues. You can even freeze the log of dough for a month. Then slice and bake. Get our Icebox Sugar Cookies recipe.
5. Bubbe's Sugar Cookies
This Jewish grandma uses egg whites instead of the egg yolks like Greenspan does. And a few kosher ingredients too. Sprinkles instead of icing go on top here. Get our Bubbe's Sugar Cookies recipe.
6. Royal Icing
Beaten egg whites plus lemon juice make this icing taste better than others. Get our Royal Icing recipe.
Amy Sowder is the assistant editor at Chowhound in New York City. She loves cheesy things, especially toasties and puns. She's trying to like mushrooms. Her running habit is the excuse for her gelato passion. Or is it the other way around? Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and her blog, What Do I Eat Now. Learn more at AmySowder.com.