These 6 Tips from Baking Expert Jerrelle Guy Will Make Your Sugar Cookies So Much Better

published Dec 12, 2021
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sugar cookies on a sheet pan
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

There’s nothing quite like baking sugar cookies during the holidays. There’s the mixing, rolling, cutting, and baking. And then the best part: the decorating! But no matter how pretty your treats are, there has to be a delicious cookie underneath. These six tips are the best way to make sure all of your sugar cookie dreams come true.

1. Use pure vanilla extract.

In a basic sugar cookie dough, you can almost count the number of ingredients on one hand. When a recipe calls for so few ingredients, each one counts. If there’s one item you should splurge on for your sugar cookies, it’s the vanilla extract — especially if you’ll be giving the cookies as gifts. Imitation vanilla and vanilla flavoring just aren’t the same as the real stuff, and you can tell. McCormick’s Pure Vanilla Extract and Trader Joe’s Bourbon Vanilla Extract are a couple of affordable options that also taste great.

2. Upgrade your butter. 

If you’re using the good vanilla, why not use better butter, too? I love using Kerrygold unsalted butter sticks when I can; it’s grass-fed butter that has lots of extra flavor. You can even try cultured or European butter. I’ve found that if I love the taste of whatever butter I’m using smeared on a piece of plain bread, it’s tasty to bake with too.

3. Nix the leavener.

If you’re decorating your sugar cookies, you don’t want them to spread or rise while baking, so you can leave any leaveners, like baking powder or baking soda, out of the dough. This will help your cookies bake up with sharper, cleaner edges and eliminate any rounded tops, leaving you with a nice, flat cookie canvas for your icing and all those sprinkles. 

4. Add milk powder to the dough.

You may be tempted to add strong extracts, citrus zest, or spices to your dough to punch up the flavor, but before you add too much of any of these and change the entire flavor profile of your sugar cookie, consider adding a tablespoon of dry milk powder for every cup of flour in the recipe. Your cookies will still have a simple, classic flavor, but the milk powder will add a creamy richness to your cut-outs.

5. Mix in some cornstarch. 

Every sugar cookie recipe stresses chilling the dough for a couple of hours before rolling and baking. This step ensures the butter is cold, which makes it easier to roll and cut the dough and also means your cookies are less likely to spread while in the oven. If you find that your recipe is too sticky or calls for more chilling time than you have to spare, try adding 2 tablespoons of cornstarch for every cup of flour, then knead the dough lightly into a smooth ball and let it sit on the counter for 20 minutes before rolling out. The dough will be less sticky, it should hold its shape, and shouldn’t need to go in the fridge — just straight into the oven. (If your goal is perfectly pristine cookies, you can pop the flattened dough in the freezer for 15 minutes before, or even after, you cut out your shapes.)

6. Choose the right cookie cutter.

When cutting out sugar cookies, I prefer using cutters that are somewhere between three and four inches wide. A bigger cookie means more room for decorating, which will make it much easier when you’re working with a piping bag to paint in all those special details. Also, now’s the time to swap out your plastic cookie cutters for stainless steel ones. The heavy-duty cutters create cleaner, sharper edges for intricate designs.