Sugar Cookie: Part 1 – The Cookie
Over the years, classic cut sugar cookies have become one of my favorite cookies to make. They can be made ahead and stored easily in the freezer for up to several months, and left plain or decorated boldly for any event or party. For part one I have included the recipe and detailed instructions to create the perfect base sugar cookie which bakes true to the cut shape with minimal spreading. Part two covers the icing (similar to royal icing but no egg whites!), and part three is a cookie painting tutorial.
In this photo you can see how the baked shapes (top) compare to their raw counterparts (bottom).
What makes this recipe a bit different is the use of baker’s sugar which has a much finer consistency than regular granulated sugar. It also contains less egg than standard sugar cookie recipes which results in a slightly different texture. These cookies are crumbly rather than chewy, similar to shortbread.
To begin, assemble your ingredients and tools. You can bake on parchment paper if you don’t have silpat mats, but the parchment paper is very critical for the rolling and chilling of the dough. You will also need either a hand mixer or stand mixer, a large and medium bowl, a scraping spatula, a wooden spoon and a rolling pin. If you don’t have a rolling pin, you are in over your head. Go make some chocolate chip cookies.
Start out by getting your butter to room temperature. Since I have large bricks of butter, I find it easier to weigh. I drop it by spoonfuls directly into my mixing bowl until I reach 8 ounces. The smaller pieces warm up much faster than a solid chunk. Take your egg out too. The dough will come together better if everything is the same temperature.
Left: butter and sugar after mixing about 30 seconds. Right: butter and sugar after mixed about 4 minutes. The color has changed to a pale yellow. The paddle attachment with spatula sides is great for mixing cookie dough, but not essential. Just make sure to scrape the sides occasionally, and before adding each ingredient.
Mix about half the dry mixture with the mixer, then use a sturdy spoon to combine the remaining flour mixture. At some point the mixture will look very dry as it does on the left. Keep working the flour in with the spoon until everything is moistened.
Here is what the dough will look like after all the flour is combined. Not perfectly smooth but ready to be portioned and rolled out.
Next you will be dividing the dough in half and rolling each section between pieces of parchment while the dough is in this softened state. This method of rolling and chilling has 3 major benefits:
- no mess on your counter or rolling pin
- no extra flour in the dough to alter the taste / texture
- much easier to roll dough while it is soft and warm (compared to most recipes which require chilling prior to rolling)
Tear 2 large pieces of parchment paper and cut them in half. I was stingy and cut mine the length of the box which was barely large enough after cutting in half. If this is your first time making cut cookies, you are working in a warm kitchen, or you have a young one helping, try dividing the dough into thirds for smaller sections.
Drop a couple large spoonfuls of your dough onto the first piece of parchment and try to distribute it somewhat evenly. Put the second piece of parchment on top and start flattening the mounds with your hands. This will help the paper stay flat and smooth while you roll the dough level. I like to roll the wide side a bit before finishing off rolling length-wise. 1/4 inch is the perfect thickness for these cookies. They are thin enough to be slightly crispy, but still sturdy enough for decorating, stacking and storing easily without breaking. If you don’t have a rolling pin with levelers you can use wooden dowels placed underneath either side as you roll. If you don’t have any wooden dowels just try to roll as level as possible and watch that the edges don’t get too thin.
If your dough starts bursting out of the parchment just cut and add the scrap back in a less full area. All fixed!
Stack your rolled out dough sections on a baking sheet and refrigerate for about an hour. If you are in a hurry you may stick these in the freezer for about 15 minutes. Be careful to not freeze the dough too long – dough sheets that are too cold will actually bend and break more easily. Dough that is ready to be cut and shaped will feel very cold but still somewhat flexible beneath the parchment.
While your dough is chilling, preheat the oven to 350 and prepare two baking sheets with parchment paper or silpat mats. Remove one of your dough sheets and place on a cool work surface. Slowly remove the top piece of parchment paper, then replace it. Flip your dough sheet over and remove what is now the top piece of parchment. This quick extra step before you begin makes it much easier to remove the cut shapes and helps them from sticking to the bottom piece of parchment.
Start cutting shapes and moving quickly to the lined baking sheet. If the dough is cool enough, the shape should lift up with cookie cutter. Gently press it out into your hand or directly onto the baking sheet.
If the shapes stop lifting up with the cutter, the dough has become too warm. In a warm kitchen this is bound to happen. Replace the top piece of parchment and return the dough to the fridge or freezer for a few minutes. You can certainly keep going with slightly warmed dough, but if you want to keep your shapes as clean as possible it’s worth the extra time.
Left: Raw cookies ready for the oven. Leave about an inch of space between each cookie. Right: Just out of the oven.
A Quick Experiment:
Some sugar cookie recipes suggest refrigerating each tray of cut shapes before baking as a way to prevent spreading. In the past this hasn’t made a difference for me so I decided to test it again. In the picture above the top row of cookies were refrigerated for 15 minutes prior to baking. The middle row was refrigerated for about 7 minutes and the bottom row of cookies were not refrigerated at all before baking. I stared at these for a long time in real life, and now again at the photo but don’t see a real difference. If anything, the cookies baked directly after being cut seemed to have held their shape and spread just a bit less. So now we know.
Sugar Cookie Recipe
yield ~3 dozen medium cookies
- all purpose flour – 3 cups (scooped and leveled)
- butter – 1 cup / 8 ounces / 2 sticks (softened)
- baker’s sugar – 1 cup
- egg – 1 large (room temperature)
- baking powder – 1/2 tablespoon
- vanilla – 1 teaspoon
- salt – 1/2 teaspoon
- Bring your butter and egg to room temperature. Cut your butter into smaller pieces to warm it up faster.
- In a mixing bowl, add softened butter and baker’s sugar. Baker’s sugar is superfine and will give your cookies a more delicate texture. Beat on low / stir for 30 seconds to 1 minute to combine. Scrape sides. Increase speed and mix for 3-5 minutes until light and fluffy. You will notice a slight color change. Scrape sides of bowl.
- With the mixer on low / stir, add your egg and vanilla. Then increase the speed until well incorporated. Scrape sides of bowl.
- In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt. Scoop and level each cup of flour to ensure it is not packed too tightly. I find it more manageable to measure in 1/2 cup increments using this method.
- With the mixer on low / stir add about a quarter of the flour mixture until combined. Scrape sides of bowl and repeat.
- Mix the remaining half of the flour mixture by hand with a sturdy spoon. Work from the bottom to the top of the bowl, repeating the under-over motion until no flour remains. The dough will seem very dry at first but will come together in a rough ball.
- Tear or cut 4 or 6 pieces of parchment which will be used to roll the dough between. Lay down a single piece of parchment and place about half of the dough on top. I find it easier to roll out if I place two spoonfuls of dough with some space between. Place another piece of parchment paper on top and flatten gently with your hands. Then, roll out dough evenly into 1/4 inch thickness. Repeat with remaining dough so you have 2 or 3 dough sheets rolled between parchment paper. Refrigerate for 1 hour or freeze for 15 minutes.
- While dough chills, preheat the oven to 350 and prepare 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or silpat mats.
- Taking one dough sheet from the fridge, remove and replace one side of parchment. Flip over and remove the other side of parchment paper to expose the dough. Start cutting shapes and moving to the baking sheet quickly with about an inch of space between each cookie. Cold dough will lift up with the cutter. Return dough to the fridge or freezer for a few minutes if the shapes start sticking or stretching.
- Bake at 350 for 12 minutes. Cookies will still be a uniform light color. If you like crispier cookies or browned edges, bake an additional 2-4 minutes.
- Place baking sheet on cooling rack for about 2 minutes, then slide parchment or silpat off sheet and onto rack. After another few minutes move cookies directly onto rack to cool fully.
Enjoy as is, double bag and refrigerate (several weeks) or freeze (several months) or check out part 2 for a no-egg icing recipe!