Gingerbread cookies are one of my all-time favorites, not just around the holidays, but in general. They're crisp, flavorful, and none too sweet, while their wafer-thin serving style also minimizes their richness, stretching a stick of butter into 60 cookies or more.
Like biscotti, gingerbread cookies have an excellent shelf life, so they can be made in bulk at the start of the season and enjoyed all month long (or longer).
My recipe starts with a host of holiday spices: ginger, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, nutmeg, black pepper (just a crack or two!), orange zest, and salt. The coriander and ginger create some bright notes, the nutmeg brings out the butteriness of the dough, cinnamon adds a classic vibe, and the touch of black pepper brings out the ginger's heat. Finally, the orange zest works as an aromatic, helping to open up the spice blend and round off its edges.
The proportion of spices may seem like a lot, but given the yield, it works out to a rather modest dose per cookie.
Aside from the spices, it's a very simple dough at heart: light brown sugar, molasses, butter, and no eggs at all!
Here, it's important to use a mild molasses (often called baking molasses, light molasses, or Barbados molasses). This style comes from the first boiling of sugar cane, giving it a clean and bright flavor. Some darker styles will be fine, but avoid blackstrap molasses, which is too bitter and high in sodium for this recipe.
Along with the spices and leavening, the butter, sugar, and molasses are creamed together until fluffy and light. This process can be affected by the temperature of both the ingredients and equipment, so it's important to use visual and textural cues rather than a strict timeline to determine when it's ready.
The mixture should be substantially lighter, softer, and more voluminous than when it started (for more information, read up on our guide to the creaming method for cookies).
When the mixture is soft and light, add the flour all at once and continue until it disappears and begins to clump around the paddle. Although the dough will not be entirely cohesive, it will come together in a smooth ball with a bit of gentle kneading on an unfloured surface.
That said, under-creaming and/or chilly winter conditions may prevent the butter from warming as it should in the mixer, making the dough seem crumbly and dry. So don't rush the creaming process and, if needed, take steps to combat the effects of a cold environment (read up on our advice for working in a chilly winter kitchen).
After dividing the dough in half, it can be wrapped in plastic and refrigerated until needed, but with this recipe that's an optional step (although it can help with timing).
The dough itself will be ready to roll as soon as it's made; by dividing it in half, it will be much easier to handle, prevent sticking, and ensure an even thickness throughout.
As with any rolled dough, use ample flour both above and below the dough to prevent sticking. After rolling it to about seven inches, I like to dust the dough with more flour and then give it a flip before continuing to roll.
This ensures the bottom is well coated with flour, and capable of sliding across the work surface rather than sticking along the way.
The dough is cool, and relatively non-absorbent, so there's no reason to skimp on flour. It's the only thing preventing the dough from sticking, and the excess is easily brushed away in the end. Plus, the leftover flour needn't go to waste, just sift it and use it to roll the second round of dough.
Gingerbread cookie dough can be rolled to any thickness, but I like my cookies thin and crisp, so I take the dough all the way down to an 1/8th of an inch since they'll puff up a bit as they bake.
For those who prefer soft and thick cookies, stop at 1/4th of an inch instead, but do bear in mind this will substantially reduce the recipe's yield. This dough also retains an impression very well, if you happen to have an embossed rolling pin or holiday cookie stamps.
However it's rolled, slide an offset spatula under the dough before cutting, to ensure it hasn't stuck to the work surface. We don't want to see any lost limbs when lifting up gingerbread men, reindeer, and snowflakes.
This is an occasion where it will help to have an assortment of cutters, both large and small, to help get the highest yield from each sheet of dough. The more you can cut with each round, the less the dough will need to be re-worked, and the more tender the cookies will be.
Because the gingerbread cookie dough won't spread much in the oven, the cutouts can be nestled fairly close together on the baking sheet. I like to bake them until firm and dry to the touch, but not too dark overall. But bake-time is as much a matter of personal preference as it is technical consideration, as darker cookies will have a more bittersweet, spicy profile.
After the initial round of rolling, the dough scraps can be gathered, gently kneaded into a ball, and re-rolled to cut once more.
Beyond that, I don't recommend a third round of rolling and cutting, since the resulting cookies can be quite tough. Instead, I prefer to bake off all the leftover scrap pieces, as they can be ground into crumbs to make the crust for a holiday-themed cheesecake (no-bake or otherwise).
Fresh from the oven, the cookies will be soft and fragile, but they will become crisp and sturdy as they cool. Not sturdy enough to build a house (for that, I prefer a heartier, construction-style gingerbread), but certainly sturdy enough for care packages and holiday gifting.
Gingerbread cookies don't need frosting, since they're crisp and rich and totally satisfying without it, but royal icing is a fun and traditional way to further personalize the cookies.
For those on the fence about royal icing, I've written a guide to 4 major upgrades that can substantially improve its flavor and texture. And for those who love it already, those tips and tricks may just bump it up a notch.
Keep the icing plain and simple, or consult our video tutorial on how to decorate Christmas cookies like a boss.
With or without frosting, the gingerbread itself will be light and crisp, whether enjoyed on its own, as part of a holiday cookie assortment, or paired with a strong cup of coffee.