5 pro tips for your best sugar cookies yet

From Food52 Resident Baking BFF and sugar cookie whisperer, Erin Jeanne McDowell

Published April 8, 2022 4:30PM (EDT)

 (Bobbi Lin / Food52)
(Bobbi Lin / Food52)

This story first appeared on Food52, an online community that gives you everything you need for a happier kitchen and home – that means tested recipes, a shop full of beautiful products, a cooking hotline, and everything in between!

Bake It Up a Notch is a column by Resident Baking BFF Erin Jeanne McDowell. Each month, she'll help take our baking game to the next level, teaching us all the need-to-know tips and techniques and showing us all the mistakes we might make along the way.

Baking and decorating sugar cookies is often associated with wintertime holidays, but in my family, this is a springtime tradition. My mom would usually whip up cookies and pastel-colored icing as a fun way to welcome some bright colors into our kitchen as the seasons changed outside. The truth is, baking sugar cookies is a wonderful baking project for any time of year: perfect for a solo weekend meditation, or for a group activity where you can enlist the help of family and friends.

In the newest episode of "Bake it Up a Notch," I share my go-to Roll-Out Sugar Cookies recipe. And here, I'm including a whole mess of ways to tweak it to your specifications. The base recipe is wonderfully flexible, whether you desire a thin, crisp cookie — or a thicker, softer one. Whether you like it plain or iced. The possibilities are endless! Whatever your cookie baking plans, try my tips for baking your best sugar cookies yet.

1. There's more than one right way to roll (and bake!) 

My sugar cookie recipe is sort of unique: It is seriously delicious prepared a few different ways. You can customize your cookies to your exact preferences, by controlling the thickness before baking, or adjusting the total amount of bake time.

  • For soft-baked cookies, roll out the dough slightly thicker than 1/4-inch thick. Bake the cookies until they are just barely browned around the outside edge — generally speaking, 2 to 3 minutes less than the recipe calls for.
  • For crispy cookies, roll out the dough 1/8-inch thick. Bake the cookies until they are evenly brown across the surface.

2. Consider some chill time

It's not always necessary to chill your cut-out cookies before baking, but it can be helpful! While a simple round shape may be fine to go directly into the oven, more complex shapes will bake sharper if you put them into the oven cold. In short: the more intricate the shape, the more it will benefit from a chill before heading to the oven. In most cases, 15 to 30 minutes is plenty of time to do the trick. If your dough is sticky or soft towards the end of working with it, chill as long as needed to ensure it's firm.

3. Know your visual cues

My sugar cookie recipe can be made in two flavors: vanilla or chocolate. As is often the case with chocolate baked goods, it can be difficult to determine doneness when the cookie is brown to begin with. The best visual cue for doneness is to look for the cookie to be matte and dry on the surface. When the dough first hits the oven, the heat will make it appear glossy and shiny almost immediately. But as the cookie continues to bake, the surface will dry out and become evenly matte. A cookie that still has some shine is underbaked!

4. Avoid last-minute disasters

One of the most common cookie blunders is a cookie that spreads a little too much, or attaches to a cookie nearby it on the baking sheet. The good news is: these cookies are very malleable even towards the end of baking, as long as they are still warm! You can use the tip of a paring knife to gently separate cookies anywhere they are touching, almost always leaving no evidence behind!

For perfectly round cookies, use my friend Erin Clarkson's tip: the cookie scoot. She uses a large round cookie cutter (or the rim of a jar or glass), places it around the cookie immediately after baking, and swirls it around. The rim of the cutter/cup gently rounds the edges uniformly for perfectly round cookies.

5. Add a little shine (or a little crunch!)

One of my simplest sugar cookie tricks is to brush the surface of the cookie with a little egg wash. Using an egg wash made from whole egg will lightly brown the surface during baking — it becomes a little more shortbread-like in texture as a result. Using an egg wash made only with egg whites will give the surface a bit of shine, without the browning. (1 large whole egg or egg white + 1 tablespoon water is my standard egg wash.) And, if you want to add a little texture and effortless decor to your cookies, either egg wash is a great way to adhere toppings like finely chopped nuts, shredded coconut, sanding sugar, or sprinkles!

Roll-Out Sugar Cookies

Sprinkle-Splosion Sugar Cookies

By Erin Jeanne McDowell

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Cookies Dessert Food Food52 Sugar Cookies