The Ultimate Guide to Making and Decorating Sugar Cookies Like the Pros
To avoid frosting fails and crumbled, misshapen cookies, follow this expert-approved advice.
Decorating sugar cookies always seems like a good idea, but they never quite turn out like the ones baked by the professionals. Even if you stick to the recipe you've been baking for decades, there are a handful of tips to keep in mind to make sure your cookies don’t crumble. Follow these tips—which span from dough to delivery—to make the best sugar cookies of all time, and get ready for Christmas cookie success!
Trying to roll out freshly made sugar cookie dough is nearly impossible. It’s too soft, too sticky, and totally unwieldy. It can be tempting to just stick the soft dough in the freezer to speed things up, but that won’t work either: The dough will be frozen on the outside and too soft on the inside. The verdict? It’s a good idea to make it at least a day before you bake. In fact, dough will last double-wrapped in the freezer for more than a month, and can be kept in the fridge for three to four days. “I go ahead and portion the dough into little balls and chill them on a cookie sheet, then put the chilled cookie balls in a bag in the freezer to use later,” says Sarah Rich, pastry chef at Rich Table in San Francisco, California. When you’re ready to bake, let the dough thaw slightly, then roll between two sheets of parchment paper to just under ¼-inch thick, says Jen Yee, head of the pastry program at Lafayette in New York City. The chilling process also gives the gluten in the dough time to relax which makes for a more tender cookie.
That said, trying to roll just-out-of-the-fridge dough can be super frustrating. Even with all your weight and good intentions focused on the rolling pin, the dough can crack from the edges inward. Instead of battling the fissures, pull the dough out about 15 minutes before you’re ready to roll. Unwrap the dough, place it on a lightly floured surface, and give it a few whacks with your rolling pin to encourage the dough to soften. Then, roll on. If at any point the dough gets super soft (i.e. holds an indent when pressed with your finger) transfer it to a parchment-lined baking sheet and stick it in the fridge for a couple of minutes. Repeat as often as necessary until all your cut outs are cut out.
There are a few ways to prevent your cookies from ballooning in the oven. For starters, be gentle when mixing your ingredients together. “Over-creaming your butter can aerate the dough, which will cause your cookies to expand in the oven and collapse upon cooling,” Yee says. “Be sure to just work the butter enough to homogenize with the rest of the ingredients.”
A bench scraper or great big spatula is a dough-rollers best friend. Use it to gently get under and lift up the dough so you can keep it from sticking to the surface. This allows you to use a lot less flour on the surface (excess can make for tough cookies), and moving the dough as you roll makes an evenly rolled sheet of dough more accessible. Chances are you’re consistently putting more pressure on one area of the dough (it’s OK, we all do it). Rotating as you roll helps you compensate for any irregularity—or superstrength—in your rolling.
Once you’ve cut the dough into shapes, put the cookies back into the refrigerator before baking, says Chris Hanmer, chef and owner of CH Patisserie in Sioux Falls, S.D., and winner of Bravo’s Top Chef Just Desserts. Why? Whether you’re making simple snowball cookies or plan to decorate cut out shapes, a quick chill in the freezer after your cookies are formed or punched out will help your cookies hold a well-defined edge even after baking. Cold dough means cold butter. The colder the butter, the slower it melts helping cookies of all shapes—especially ones with more intricate details (looking at you, Rudolph)—hold their edge.
A friendly reminder that all ovens are not created equal. Neither are all cookie sheets, or eggs, or cups of flour. All those little variations can mean big differences in your finished product. Those are just a few of the reasons we give you a range for the finished cooking or baking time. For the best odds, set your timer at the low end of the range, say 12 minutes for a 12 to 15 minute cookie. Take a look at the cookies. Now look at the recipe. What are you looking for? Golden Brown? Dry and firm to the touch? Remember, you’re baking to the indicator, not the time. If you have to add a few more minutes (even if it's longer than the recipe says), keep going. Your cookies will thank you for it.
Royal icing (a mixture of powdered sugar and egg whites) is what gives bakery-made cookies their professional sheen. The best part? You don’t have to follow an exact recipe, Hanmer says: “The icing will tell you what it’s doing. If it’s too liquidy, add powdered sugar. If it’s too thick, add egg whites, milk, or water.” Add acid (in the form of lemon juice or cream of tartar) to help the icing dry more quickly, and experiment with different colors using gel paste coloring. Not keen on using raw eggs? Buy frozen, pasteurized whites at the grocery store.
The first step in decorating is to apply the icing, which involves piping the border with a piping bag, then filling in the center. Yee recommends making two consistencies of royal icing, one for each step. “You want a firm icing for the border, and a looser one to fill or ’flood’ in the border, which can be done by adding a touch of water to your ’flooding’ icing,” she says. You can use a piping bag, an offset spatula, or a paring knife to frost the center, and toothpicks can help to make designs, spread icing into detailed corners, and pick up mistakes.
Quickly add the sprinkles while the icing is still wet and tacky—within two minutes of frosting. Though the surface of the icing will feel dry after about 10 minutes, it’s important to let it fully harden for about four hours. And don’t stress too much about achieving perfection, she says: “Be patient and have fun! They’re cookies, so do yourself a favor and don’t take the icing too seriously.”
You can still whip up picture-perfect cookies without professional-grade equipment. If you don’t have a piping bag (though they can be easily found in craft stores), use a squeeze bottle or create a “cornet,” which involves rolling parchment paper into a cone and snipping the tip to the size of your liking. And don’t fret if you’re lacking in the cookie cutter department. “Some cutters can be turned upside down or sideways to [make] a new creation,” says Summer Bailey, pastry chef at The Dutch in New York City.
If you’re planning on transporting or packing the finished cookies for shipping, choose to bake rounder, less complicated shapes. “Snowmen will ship a lot better than snowflakes,” Hanmer says. In terms of packing them up, place the cookies in flattened paper muffin cups to keep them separated, and use tissue or crinkle paper as padding, Yee suggests. And though it may seem counterintuitive, load in as many as you can. “The more you can carefully pack into a container and the less that they move, the better,” Hanmer says.