How to Make Rolled Sugar Cookies
I love sugar cookies. I love them soft and chewy in a sugar shell. I love them light, fluffy, and fully frosted. I love them any and every which way, but I especially love them when they're rolled and cut.
Rolled sugar cookies have a texture like no other: light and crisp if they're baked till golden brown, but amazingly soft and tender when left a little pale. Most of all, they're beautiful, a chance to showcase the various cookie cutters I've collected over the years.
Most cutout cookies start with a 1:2:3 dough, made from one, two, and three parts sugar, fat, and flour by weight. There's no better formulation when you want a cookie that can hold an intricate shape, but, truth be told, it's not the tastiest combination around. All that flour keeps the dough stiff, yes, but the cookies can't help but taste like a mouthful of flour, no matter how much salt and vanilla you add.
My recipe is a little closer to a ratio of 2:2:3, which gives the cookies a higher proportion of sugar relative to the flour. Instead of butter alone, I use a bit of coconut oil, too. Butter contains water, so cutting it with coconut fat lowers the water content of the dough, upping the richness of the cookies and thereby improving their shelf life—an essential quality for make-ahead cookies destined for gift boxes and care packages. Virgin coconut oil adds a subtle but distinctive flavor, while refined coconut oil keeps the sugar cookies perfectly neutral.
Coconut oil also makes for a paler dough, and one that browns less in the oven, so your snowflakes will look snowy and your dyed doughs won't discolor (if you're making, say, slice-and-bake pinwheels).
Okay, sure, the higher ratio of sugar allows the dough to spread a bit in the oven, but it also makes it way more delicious—a trade-off I'm more than willing to make. That's not to say the cookies spread to some wild extent; you'll simply want to avoid unusually complicated shapes. As long as your cutters aren't too intricate, the cookies will bake up just fine.
The process itself is pretty dang simple: Cream the sugar, butter, coconut oil, and vanilla together until light and fluffy. This aerates the dough, which helps to minimize spread (more on the science of creaming here). I also cream in the baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Several minutes of creaming will distribute these essential ingredients more evenly than simply whisking them into the flour, and will also produce a slight waterproofing effect that helps the dough last longer in the fridge, if it needs to be held for a few days (more such make-ahead tips here).
Do be sure to scrape the bowl at least once along the way, as a dense, poorly aerated paste can build up along the sides. You can see how much darker it looks in the photo, while the more aerated portion looks pale and light.
Left unattended, those denser areas can streak the dough and cause it to spread unevenly as the sugar cookies bake.
Once the butter mixture is light, fluffy, and homogeneous, beat in a cold egg (this keeps the dough nice and cold), mix until smooth, then add the flour. Stop mixing just before it's fully absorbed, then fold it a few times with a flexible spatula to finish up by hand. I like doing this with rolled doughs to offset the potential for overworking the dough with rolling and kneading later on.
Feel comfortable rolling a soft dough? Have at it! By using gentle pressure with a rolling pin on a generously floured surface, there's no need for refrigeration. The idea is to use the pin to guide the dough as it spreads across the counter, rather than smashing the dough down with it. Beating the dough into submission with heavy pressure will only grind it into the counter, where it will certainly want to stick.
If the dough feels softer than what you're used to, or if you'd like a nice place to pause, divide the dough in half, wrap in plastic, and chill for up to a week. Briefly knead the cold dough until it's pliable, which will keep it from cracking as you roll it out.
Aim for a thickness of a quarter inch—which is perhaps thicker than you can accurately judge by eye alone, so grab a ruler. It's certainly thicker than most recipes call for, but it makes the cookies sturdier, which in turn helps them hold up better, whether they're going to be shipped across the country or taken for a ride across town. While rolling, use as much flour as needed both above and below; the excess flour can always be brushed off. (Don't roll the dough in powdered sugar, which has a tendency to form a crusty layer on blended-fat doughs.)
Before cutting the dough, slide an offset spatula underneath. This will loosen any sticky patches and prevent delicate shapes from tearing as you lift them out. It also removes the extra flour that can sometimes accumulate around the dough.
Cut the dough with your favorite cookie cutters, using an assortment of sizes or shapes to help keep scrap pieces to a minimum. (I'm in love with the utility of a five-piece snowflake set, found online.) Transfer the cutouts to a parchment-lined half sheet pan, leaving plenty of space between each one to account for how they'll spread.
The cookies will be super fragile when they first come out of the oven, so be sure to cool them directly on the sheet pan. Once they're firm, you can slide the parchment onto the counter or a cooling rack to reclaim your sheet pan, but do make sure it's thoroughly cool before you bake the next round.
When the cookies have cooled, dust with powdered sugar, top with your favorite frosting, or transfer to a zip-top bag to finish at a later date. If decorating is your plan, check out my tutorials on totally-not-too-sweet royal icing and Christmas cookie decorating techniques.
Thanks to the higher proportion of sugar, these rolled sugar cookies will keep up to a week at room temperature if stored in an airtight container. (My friends insist they're still great at 10 days, but I think they're just being sentimental; by then, the texture will have started to go south.)
Regardless of whether you bake these sugar cookies to hoard or to share, I hope they help to make the season bright.