Last month, after 13 years of stubbornness, I shared a roast turkey recipe and then a funny thing happened — many of you made and loved the turkey and your turkeys looked so beautiful (yes, turkeys! beautiful!) the warmth beamed off them and onto to me and left me inspired to shake loose another recipe I’ve been promising you for almost as long: Sugar cookies. Or butter cookies. Or roll-out cookies. Or holiday cookies.
It’s just, they can be kind of boring! And a lot of work. So many of the intricate, stunning ones that I admire with awe fall short on taste. And personally I just cannot with hours upon hours of work for someone to inhale my masterpiece in one bite, spilling crumbs on the floor, and then immediately ask for another, rude as it may be to come for my kids so publicly. I knew I’d never be able to share a sugar cookie recipe until I could find a way to make them as unfussy as I want them to be, the kind of thing you could decide to make, say, right now, and be eating not very long from now, decorated to the hilt. That brings us to today.
There are five really cool things about this recipe (and if you’re familiar with this post, a few are paraphrased from it):
1. No softened butter. I began making cookies with cold butter in a food processor or stand mixer (or, with patience, a hand mixer) a few years ago and haven’t looked back since. What I found was that there was no discernable decline in the final quality of the vast majority of cookies made this way, but a steep incline in my enjoyment of the process, now that I didn’t have to add 30 to 60 minutes to my prep time to get the butter exactly soft enough whoops too soft, back to the fridge, yup, now it’s hard again, repeat until you can no longer remember why you even wanted to make cookies.
2. No multi-hour chill in the fridge. Instead of fighting a firm, cold dough into a flat sheet, I instead roll my cookies out when it’s the easiest — right away. I then slide the flattened dough onto a baking sheet or thin cutting board and pop it in the freezer for 10 to 20 minutes (vs. 4 hours or overnight in the fridge), until it’s completely solid, then cut the cookies in wonderfully crisp shapes from it. You can put your cookies in the oven within 30 minutes of starting the dough.
3. No flour to roll it out. I roll my cookie dough between two sheets of parchment paper with absolutely no extra flour. Having no powdery mess to clean up is downright revolutionary in my kitchen and all of the rooms floury feet might drag the spillover mess into. Plus, flouring can toughen up the dough as it absorbs extra, and leads to annoying notes in recipes like “don’t reroll scraps.” I mean, what? You can reroll your scraps with abandon here.
4. No cookie cutters. Or, you know, have no scraps. I have about 100 more cookie cutters than any human being needs (although most are crusted with Play-Doh these days). But nothing gives me the joy that using a smooth or fluted pastry wheel to cut an entire sheet of dough into squares, rectangles, diamonds, and other parallelograms for a tessellated slab of cookies with nothing left to re-chill and reroll. Yes, some that come from the edges are irregular; I find them charming. If you do not, you can use them for snacks, or decorating practice.
5. No piping bags, food dye, and while we’re at it, no tweezers. Okay, I cheated because I bought a roll of these in 2015 and will never use them up, but my goal here was a decorated sugar cookie that required no paintbrushes or piping tips. Dipping cookies in a thinned royal icing gives you an evenly frosted cookie that you can finish with sprinkles, or, once it sets, add a thicker icing from a sandwich bag with the corner snipped off in any kind of doodles. Keeping it all white allows you to skip mixing batches of frosting with food dye and, bonus, evokes the sparkly winter wonderland that NYC is too rarely for my tastes. I used two kinds of sprinkles here (I’ll link to options at the end), pinched them on messily and inconsistently and I’m absolutely at peace with the results.
I hope you find all of these shortcuts deliciously lazy, maybe a little bit triumphant, and, at least in my case, a bit miraculous in that this level of cookie ease has turned me into a person who will willingly make sugar cookies going forward. I can’t wait to see what you do with these.
Six months ago: Burrata with Charred and Raw Sugar Snap Peas
One year ago: Falafel
Two years ago: Dutch Apple Pie
Three years ago: Union Square Cafe’s Bar Nuts
Four years ago: Pull-Apart Rugelach and Tres Leches Cake + A Taco Party
Five years ago: Decadent Hot Chocolate Mix and Gingrebread Biscotti
Six years ago: Eggnog Florentines
Seven years ago: Cashew Butter Balls
Eight years ago: Caesar Salad Deviled Eggs
Nine years ago: Garlic Butter Roasted Mushrooms
Ten years ago: Coffee Toffee
Eleven years ago: Zuni Cafe’s Roast Chicken + Bread Salad
Twelve years ago: Chicken and Dumplings
Thirteen years ago: Pecan Squares
Unfussy Sugar Cookies
- 3 cups (390 grams) all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea or table salt (if using unsalted butter only)
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
- 1 cup (8 ounces or 225 grams) salted or unsalted butter
- 1 large egg
- 1 teaspoon (5 ml) vanilla extract
- 1 large egg white, ideally pasteurized (or use meringue or egg white powder as per label instructions)
- 1 1/4 cups (150 grams) powdered sugar
- Pinch of salt
- A few drops of a flavoring of your choice (optional) (lemon, almond, vanilla)
- Food coloring and sprinkles, as you wish
Make the cookies with a stand or hand mixer: Combine sugar and salt (if butter is unsalted) in a large bowl or the bowl of your mixer. (The order here is different because the butter takes longer to soften, longer than we want to beat the flour for.) Cut butter into small cubes and add to the sugar mixture and beat with the paddle or beater attachments until the butter and sugar are an even, soft texture — you’ll want to scrape down the bowl a few times and be patient, especially with a hand mixer, but once the two are combined, no need to beat further (until fluffy) as you would with other cookie recipes. Add egg and vanilla and beat until evenly combined, scraping down bowl. Add baking powder and beat it an additional 30 seconds beyond what is needed to make the baking powder disappear (we want to disperse it extremely well). Add flour and mix only until it disappears.
Both methods: Divide dough in half and (edited to add) if it’s in loose chunks, gently knead it together into one mass on a sheet of parchment paper. Place a second sheet of parchment paper over the dough and roll each dough half between 2 large pieces of parchment paper into your desired thickness — I like these the most in the 3/16- to 1/4-inch range (link to the optional spacers I’m using at the end), the thinner one is shown in the final cookies. Slide each parchment-and-cookie-dough slab onto the back of a baking sheet, thin tray, or thin cutting board and place in freezer for 15 to 20 minutes, until solid.
Heat oven: To 350 degrees F.
Shape cookies: Carefully remove top sheet of parchment paper from first cookie dough slab and place the side that touched the dough down on a large baking sheet. Cut cookies into your desired shape. Here I’m using a fluted pastry wheel (link at end) to cut the cookies into 1.5-inch squares. Peel each cookie off the bottom sheet of parchment (this should be easy if they’re still frozen; if they’re not, return the slab to the freezer for 3 to 5 more minutes) and arrange on baking sheet with 2 inches between them. Repeat with remaining slab of cookie dough. If you have any dough to reroll, do it again between two sheets of parchment paper and freeze this slab until solid again before cutting into it.
Bake cookies: Until they are a light golden brown at the edges (if there’s no color, there’s little flavor), rotating trays once while baking to ensure even baking, about 10 to 12 minutes. Thinner and smaller cookies are done faster; larger ones will take longer, of course. Use cookie color as your guide, however, not the timer.
Let cookies set for one minute on the tray after removing from the oven then transfer to a cooling rack to let the cookies cool completely. It’s not like this takes very long inside, but I’m impatient and put them outside when the weather permits. You can stop right here — look how fast you made cookies! you’re a wizard! — or you can decorate them…
Make the icing: Whisk your egg white (or substitute reconstituted from egg white or meringue powder) in a large bowl until loose and frothy. Add salt and 1 cup of powdered sugar, beating until smooth. Add flavorings, if desired, and last 1/4 cup of sugar — it’s pretty stiff at this point, which is how you want it.
Decorate cookies as shown here: To dip your cookies, scrape half of icing into wide bowl. Add water, 1/4 teaspoon at a time (a little goes a long way) to thin the frosting until it can thinly but mostly opaquely coat a dipped cookie. Skim the top of each cookie in the frosting, using a knife, spatula, or your finger (I won’t tell) to catch any drips before you flip it over. Arrange back on parchment-lined baking sheet to set completely. Once again, I tend to rush this outside.
Scrape the remaining, thicker half of your icing into a sandwich or freezer bag, cut the tiniest nip off the corner of the bag, and pipe designs of your choice on top. If you’re adding sprinkles, do so every 3 to 4 cookies or the icing will begin set and the sprinkles won’t adhere. Let them set until completely solid, anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours, depending on how thick the piping is.
Store: Iced, set cookies will keep for weeks in an airtight container at room temperature.
Tools: I have this food processor, this stand mixer, and this handmixer, although the latter is not my favorite. I find these two brands of parchment paper to be the most reliable/least sticky but of course haven’t tried them all. I’m using this pastry wheel. I am using these thick rulers to make rolling even slabs of dough really easy, but this is probably better, or you might just prefer rolling pin bands. If you don’t want to use a raw, pasteurized egg white, meringue powder is a wonderful thing. I’m using this pearly sanding sugar to decorate and can’t find dragees as tiny as I have online (think: large poppy seeds) but I’d buy these stars or this mixed sprinkle set in a heartbeat as an alternative. As always, nothing here is sponsored, I just hoped it would be easier to put all the links in one place vs. scattered throughout the comments as people ask.