Classic Sugar Cookies

4.92 from 50 votes
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Get ready to make festive holiday sugar cookies with lightly crisp edges and soft, chewy centers. This no-spread sugar cookie dough is perfect for decorating! The dough stores well, so you can prepare it in advance until ready to bake.

Plate of homemade sugar cookies with holiday shapes.

Every home baker needs a reliable and easy sugar cookie recipe when the holiday season rolls around. To ensure that the dough holds its characteristic shape, there are just a few key steps: managing the temperature of the ingredients, how they’re incorporated, and resting. Once you master the process, you can decorate to your heart’s desire or just eat them as is.

Not only do these cut-out cookies bake up into gorgeous golden treats, but they also taste good! The right ratio of ingredients yields a buttery, lightly sweet flavor. I also add freshly grated lemon zest for a delightful citrus aroma and taste. The texture has a lovely soft chew in the center and crisp edges.

Equipment selection

I use a stand mixer to make the cookie dough quickly and efficiently. I find that the paddle attachment effectively creams the butter and sugar together without over-whipping the mixture. Alternatively, you can use an electric hand mixer with beaters. 

Use softened butter

It’s essential to soften the butter just below room temperature, about 65 to 67ºF (18 to 19ºC). This ensures that the needle-like beta prime fat crystals hold their shape so that the dough can trap air.

You can leave the butter at room temperature for about 30 minutes or slice it into smaller pieces to speed up the process. Some microwaves have a setting for softening. When pressed with your finger, there should be a little resistance; it should leave an indent and not be too soft.

Cream the butter and sugar

The malleable texture of the softened butter makes it easier to mix with the granulated sugar. These two ingredients mix first in a process called creaming. This method beats tiny air pockets into the fat to create a light and tender crumb in the cookie. The mixture should look light and fluffy, a sign of air incorporated inside.

Add room temperature egg

To make it easier to incorporate, add the egg when it’s similar in temperature to the other ingredients. The egg white and yolk texture are less thick, so it mixes more smoothly. It also prevents the butter from clumping up when added cold.

It takes about 30 minutes at room temperature. To speed up the process, I like to place the cold egg in a bowl, cover it with warm (not hot) water and let it sit out for 5 to 10 minutes before using it.

Lemon enhances the flavor

To make the simple vanilla-flavored cookie more interesting, add in fresh citrus. I use just a teaspoon of lemon zest in this recipe. The natural oils in the skin release a wonderful aroma and flavor during baking, but without the sour taste. This is completely optional but delicious!

Sift the dry ingredients

All-purpose flour is used to make the best sugar cookie recipe. It has a moderate amount of protein, about 10 to 13%, for the ideal texture and structure. It’s important that there is enough gluten formed when mixed with the wet ingredients to hold the cookie dough shape and prevent spreading.

Sift the flour and baking soda together to remove any clumps. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt to evenly disperse the fine particles for even distribution into the dough. If you enjoy a soft and cakey texture, try my Lofthouse-style soft sugar cookies that use cake flour.

Baking powder creates tenderness

A small amount of baking powder, a chemical leavening agent, provides lift in the cookie dough due to gas formation. This allows the centers to be soft but not cakey, with a chew that crumbles nicely. Within the short bake time yields crisp edges and light golden bottoms.

I’ve tested adding no baking powder, and the cookies were very dense and crispy. Adding in too much makes them spread, losing their characteristic design. It’s a delicate balance!

Once you add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients, mix it enough, so the flour is no longer visible. Overmixing increases gluten formation, which causes the flour proteins to become very tough. When baked, the cookies will have a harder texture.

The importance of chilling the dough

Two pieces of sugar cookies dough wrapped in plastic.
Step 4. Refrigerate the dough

Refrigerate the cookie dough for at least 1 hour. However, I find that 3 hours, or even better, overnight, gives the best texture. It’s ideal to make ahead, saving you time the day of baking. Alternatively, you can freeze for at least 30 minutes to harden the butter in the dough.

Chilling the dough helps the cookies hold their shape, prevents spreading during baking, and yields a tender texture. The cookies will be thicker because the fat is cooler, so it doesn’t melt as quickly in the oven. Butter in the dough that gets to room temperature causes the cookies to be flat and crispy.

Rolling technique

Separate the dough into two portions before chilling to make it easier to roll. This technique also reduces the time that the dough sits at room temperature. It’s much easier to work with cool dough. Use light flour to dust the work surface, dough, and rolling pin.

Aim for a thickness of ¼-inch to provide a nice sturdy cookie for decorating. One of my favorite tools to use for consistent thickness is to use an adjustable rolling pin. They are great for kids to use too!

Cut out fun shapes

Using Christmas cookie cutters to make cut-out shapes in the dough.
Step 7. Cut out shapes

You can use any type of cookie cutter to make decorative shapes. If the dough sticks to the blades, you can dip them first into some flour before pressing them into the dough. To prevent a floury taste, remove the excess flour after cutting it with a pastry brush.

For this recipe for sugar cookies, I use about 3-inch-sized cutters. If using a smaller or larger cutter, pair similar sizes on the same baking sheet. Work fast after rolling out the dough and cutting your shapes. The cookies should be baked when still cool.

Bake cold dough

Quickly transfer the cut-out cookies to a parchment paper-lined sheet pan about 1 inch apart. To reduce the spread of the cookie, bake when the dough is still cool to the touch. This ensures that the butter is firm enough that it doesn’t melt too quickly. If not baking immediately, refrigerate the sheet tray with the pieces on it.

Bake time

Bake the cookies one tray at a time in a preheated oven set to 350 degrees. The cookies only need about 10 minutes to set. The surface and edges should be a pale color. You don’t want them to be golden brown, just the surface. The deeper the color, the more crispy the texture.

When baking smaller cookies

Smaller 2-inch cookies need less time to bake than 4-inch size. Keep a close eye on the texture and color change to adjust the baking time. The baking will be uneven if you mix up the sizes too much. If this is unavoidable, just make sure to remove the small cookies sooner from the oven and let the larger pieces bake longer as needed.

Let them cool before decorating

Transfer them to a wire rack after sitting on the hot pan for 3 to 5 minutes. If you prefer a softer cookie, don’t wait. Carefully place them on the rack straight from the oven. Cool completely before decorating!

Flavorful options

  • Substitute orange zest for lemon, or omit the citrus altogether.
  • Try peppermint, anise, or almond extract instead of vanilla.
  • Use real vanilla beans or vanilla bean paste instead of vanilla extract to create speckles in the cookies.
Stack of homemade sugar cookies on a plate with perfect vertical edges.

Fun decorating ideas

  • Spread some cream cheese frosting on top for a sweet and tangy topping.
  • Decorate with royal icing for more intricate designs that harden.
  • Use a simple sugar glaze for a shiny appearance.
  • Pipe or spread some frosting on top and add your favorite sprinkles.
  • Add gel or liquid colors to the dough when combining the wet ingredients to change the color appearance.

Frequently asked questions

Are sugar cookies supposed to be soft or crunchy?

They should have lightly crisp edges with tender, soft centers that crumble when bitten. They should not be hard and crunchy or very cakey and delicate.

Are shortbread and sugar cookies the same?

Shortbread cookies are made with just three ingredients; softened butter, granulated sugar, and flour. This makes for a much more dense, rich, and tender cookie. They are more rustic, enjoyed as it is, with little to no extra toppings. Sugar cookies contain eggs and baking powder for a lighter texture. They are most often used for decorating with frosting or sprinkles.

How do you know when a sugar cookie is done?

The surface and sides should be set, look pale yellow, and be dry to the touch. They should not be browned! This will make the cookie crispier. The bottoms of the cookies can be lightly golden in hue.

Several sugar cookies decorated with royal icing.

Only re-roll the dough once

Even if you methodically cut out the cookies as close as possible, you’ll still have extra dough scraps. Those pieces can be reformed into a ball, chilled, and then rolled out again. However, only reroll them once. The more you work the dough, the more gluten is formed, toughening the cookie.

Classic Sugar Cookies

Festive holiday sugar cookies that have lightly crisp edges and soft, chewy centers. Perfect for decorating with royal icing!
4.92 from 50 votes
Prep Time4 hours 30 minutes
Cook Time33 minutes
Total Time5 hours 3 minutes
Servings 36 cookies
Course Dessert
Cuisine American

Ingredients 
 

  • ¾ cup unsalted butter, softened to 65 to 67ºF (18 to 19ºC)
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg, room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest, optional
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 ⅓ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt

Instructions 

  • Cream the Butter – In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, add the softened butter and sugar. Mix on medium-low speed (setting 4) until light and fluffy, 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula.
  • Incorporate the Egg – Add the room temperature egg, lemon zest (if using), and vanilla extract. Mix on medium-high speed (setting 6) until combined, 20 to 30 seconds. Scrape down the paddle, side, and bottom of the bowl.
  • Add the Dry Ingredients – Sift the flour and baking powder into a medium bowl. Add the salt, whisk to combine, then add to the mixer. Pulse on and off 8 times. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Mix on low speed (setting 2) until the dough just comes together, 10 to 15 seconds. Do not overmix. Use a spatula to give a final mix.
  • Refrigerate the Dough – Transfer half of the dough to a piece of plastic wrap, cover, and press into a ½" thick disc. Repeat with the remaining dough. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, 3 hours is ideal. Alternatively, freeze for 30 to 90 minutes.
  • Preheat the Oven – Set the oven rack to the middle position. Heat to 350ºF (177ºC). Line two baking sheets with parchment paper, then set aside.
  • Roll Out the Dough – Work with one piece of dough at a time to keep it cool. Allow the dough to sit on the counter for 5 to 10 minutes to make it easier to roll. Lightly dust the work surface, the top of the dough, and the rolling pin with flour, using more as needed as the dough is slightly sticky. Roll, rotate, and dust with flour until ¼" thick.
  • Cut Out Shapes – Immediately use desired cookie cutters to cut out shapes, cutting them as close together as possible. Transfer the pieces to the parchment paper lined sheet pans, about 1" apart. Any extra dough scraps can be rerolled out 1 more time. If needed, chill before rolling.
  • Bake – Bake the cookies while still cool, one tray at a time. If not baking immediately after cutting, keep them chilled in the refrigerator. Bake for 6 minutes, rotate, and bake for an additional 4 to 5 minutes, or until the surface is dry and the bottoms are lightly golden brown.
  • Cool – Cool on the baking sheet for 3 to 5 minutes, then transfer cookies to a wire rack. Alternatively, for a softer cookie with less crisp edges, immediately transfer to the wire rack. Completely cool the cookies before decorating, about 30 minutes.
  • Repeat Process – Roll out the remaining piece of dough and repeat the cutting and baking process. If reusing the parchment paper lined sheet pans, make sure the pan is cooled down before using.

Recipe Video

YouTube video

Notes

  • Properly weigh the flour: Weigh the flour on a digital scale for the most accurate results. Alternatively, dip the measuring cup into the flour, then sweep off the excess flour. This makes for a denser measurement, but don’t pack the flour in the cup.
  • Bake time: About 10 minutes for 2-inch cookies, 11 minutes for 3-inch cookies, or 12 minutes for 4-inch cookies. A visual check will be the best guide.
  • Baking a smaller batch: If baking only about 6 cookies on a tray, check for doneness sooner. After baking for 6 minutes and rotating, check every 1 minute. They brown much faster due to less moisture in the environment.
  • Make-ahead dough: The dough can be mixed and stored refrigerated for up to 5 days, or 1 month frozen. Unbaked cut-out cookies can be covered and refrigerated for up to 5 days, or frozen for 2 weeks.
  • Storing: Store baked cookies in an airtight container for up to 7 days at room temperature. Store in the freezer for up to 3 months.

Nutrition Facts

Serves: 36 cookies
Calories 89kcal (4%)Carbohydrates 12g (4%)Protein 1g (2%)Fat 4g (6%)Saturated Fat 3g (15%)Cholesterol 19mg (6%)Sodium 37mg (2%)Potassium 24mg (1%)Fiber 1g (4%)Sugar 6g (7%)Vitamin A 131IU (3%)Vitamin C 1mg (1%)Calcium 9mg (1%)Iron 1mg (6%)

Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000-calorie diet. All nutritional information is based on estimated third-party calculations. Each recipe and nutritional value will vary depending on the brands you use, measuring methods, and portion sizes per household.

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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10 Comments Leave a comment or review

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Thank you! It’s a small amount of salt, so you can keep it at 1/2 teaspoon, or if you want to be closer to the kosher salt levels, and 1/3 teaspoon of table salt.

  1. Cyndi says

    What is the icing that you used on the cookies you have on the plate? I’ve never made icing so I don’t know the difference. All I know is that it looks like the one I like. I tried making sugar cookies once about 25 years ago and had to throw them away because they were all burnt so I’m going to give it another try.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      For the cookies in the photo, I used royal icing. They try hard so they are suitable for decorating, but they need several hours to dry. I also use a quicker sugar cooking with powdered sugar and corn syrup that dries faster (but not as hard) and has a shiny finish. I also have a sugar cookie frosting if you like more of a fluffy buttercream texture.