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Sugar cookies are the plush, pillowy hotel beds of dessert: comforting, soft, and warm. Every time I sink into one, I wonder: why don't I do this more often?
I figure it's because I'm so easily enthralled by the heavy hitters (brown butter, brown sugar, chocolate, toffee, toasted pecans...) that I forget how sublime the basics can be. Sugar cookies are a celebration of simple ingredients, handled with care. No special-order components or crazy technique—just butter, sugar, eggs, and flour, with plenty of salt and vanilla.
Does Better Butter Bake Up Better?
I've tried to step up my sugar cookie game over the years, but the harder I try, the more I'm convinced that sugar cookies don't care. Whether I throw down for imported European butter or make do with I find at the store, they bake up soft and chewy, light but never cakey, and just a little crisp around the edges. Buttery, fragrant, and totally self indulgent.
Sugar cookies are stubbornly indifferent to my level of investment; in a blind tasting, my tasters accused me of giving them the same cookie three times in a row ("Is this tasting about the placebo effect?"). When the tables were turned, I was just as helpless to guess which cookies were made with local butter, Plugra, or Kroger brand. This was something of a sore point; the difference had been stark in the bowl. Local butter perfumed the dough with something fresh and aromatic while Plugra delivered an umami-like depth. In comparison, the batch made from my grocery store brand seemed almost aggressively bland.
I'd sworn my days of penny-pinching with inexpensive butter were over, but an oven proved to be the great equalizer. All the nuance and complexity found in top-notch butters faded into a general sense of richness, while the deficiencies of cheap butter were smoothed over by aromatic vanilla, lightly caramelized sugar, and the subtle flavor of toasted flour.
In the end, sugar cookies are about teamwork, all those ingredients giving up their individual identity to form a unified whole. That doesn't mean you can't reach for top-notch butter, only that you needn't feel guilty if you don't.
Decorating With Sugar
The one ingredient I've found to be a true waste is something called "sparkling" sugar. It glitters like so many diamonds in the bag, and works beautifully with chilled, icebox doughs. But soft and buttery drop cookies seem to dissolve it, muting its brilliance and producing a thick, gritty shell.
Stick with plain white sugar, nonpareils, or colorful sanding sugar—the sort sold next to birthday candles at the grocery store. You can even make custom colors for the holidays by mixing plain a few ounces of granulated sugar with a gram of luster dust, a flavorless colorant made from non-toxic minerals.
My favorite finish is vanilla sugar, which is dead easy to make: split a vanilla bean and rub the seeds into a few ounces of sugar. Any type of vanilla bean will do, but Tahitian vanilla is particularly seedy, so it offers the most bang per bean (slip the empty pod into a carton of cream and let it steep for a week—best whipped cream ever). It's also incredibly aromatic, which means you can smell the vanilla coming off the cookies even before sinking into that first, pillowy bite.
Get the recipe below, or see it all in our step-by-step illustrated instructions.