Are you looking for a festive treat? These soft sugar cookies with sweet buttercream frosting and colorful sprinkles are a hit during the holidays.
Table of Contents
I made a few ingredient swaps to my classic sugar cookie recipe in order to achieve a soft, cakey texture. They are perfect to enjoy as-is, but for the holidays they make an excellent blank canvas to add buttercream frosting and decorative toppings.
Use two types of fat
For a delicious cookie with minimal spread, use both butter and margarine. Butter has a subtly sweet flavor that is tastier than margarine alone. Plus, the milk solids lightly brown for more depth. It also contains moisture whereas margarine does not. There is between 13 to 18% water, which creates steam during baking that softens the texture.
Margarine is made from hydrogenated vegetable oil, typically palm oil with a high melting point. This type of solid fat helps with lift and gives a domed shape while limiting the spread. If you want to skip the margarine, you can go with all butter, but the results may not be as thick. Most vegetable shortening is no longer made with trans fats from the hydrogenation process, so make sure to read labels.
Soften the fat, but not too much!
For a cake-like texture, whip pockets of air into the fats to soften the structure. The fat crystals trap the air the best between 64 to 67ºF (17 to 19ºC), just below room temperature. Too warm or melted, the cookies will spread more and be chewier. I recommend leaving the fats on the counter for about an hour, but there are various ways to soften butter and margarine.
Cream the fat and sugar
I use powdered sugar because the granules are so tiny that they dissolve quickly on the tongue. However, you’ll have less lingering sweetness and no crisp edges compared to granulated sugar. This recipe is not overly sweet like most cookies. Don’t worry, the additional frosting slathered on top will balance the taste, so it doesn’t overwhelm the palate with sugar from both components.
Use the paddle attachment on a stand mixer or the beaters on a handheld mixer to aerate the cookie dough. Creaming the softened fats with powdered sugar will create a fluffy mixture with lots of tiny air pockets. You don’t want to overwhip, or it will warm up too much and slightly deflate. The process only takes about 2 minutes at moderate speed.
Ingredients to thicken the texture
Egg whites and yolks help thicken and leaven the cookies. Use them at room temperature to make it easier to combine with the creamed butter and sugar. Doing so also prevents the butter from clumping up from using cold ingredients.
Sour cream provides extra tenderness. It contains no less than 18% milkfat for richness. It also has lactic and citric acid, enhancing the sweetness and improving the vanilla and almond flavor. Most importantly, it provides acidity to activate the baking soda, which results in more bubbles being generated for a taller, domed cookie.
Use two chemical leavening agents
Don’t add too much, or it can overproduce bubbles and cause the cookies to spread.
Cornstarch makes cookies softer
Cornstarch is a very finely ground corn endosperm made of starch and protein. It also helps with thickening and reduces spread. Cornstarch interferes with gluten-bonding so that the cookies become more soft and tender instead of dense and crisp.
Powdered sugar also contains cornstarch as an anti-caking agent to wick up moisture and keep it dry. Therefore, I add only 1 tablespoon of cornstarch to the dough.
A critical ingredient to determining the cookie’s structure is the type of flour. I use cake flour similar to Lofthouse. It’s low in protein (6 to 8%), which means less gluten formation. It’s milled extremely fine and typically bleached for better absorption of moisture and fat, keeping the cookie tender over time. As the name eludes, you’ll get a cake-like experience.
I tested all-purpose flour at 10 to 13% protein but they did not rise as much due to a more robust gluten network which made it harder for the dough to lift and puff up. You can use all-purpose flour if it’s all you have, but that is better for crisp classic cut-out cookies, not a soft-baked style.
Mix then chill the dough
Add the flour mixture to the creamed butter mixture, then combine at low speed. This process gently hydrates the flour without over mixing. The goal is to minimize gluten formation while still getting a rollable consistency.
You’ll notice that the dough is a little tackier than normal. This is good! More moisture creates more steam for lift. Chill the dough for at least an hour in the refrigerator to give the flour, sugars, and starches time to hydrate. Afterward, the surface will be dry, but it should still be soft enough to easily roll out and cut.
Rolling and shaping
I find this recipe spreads about ¼-inch, so I chose a cutter that is slightly smaller than the target diameter. A 2 ½ to 2 ¾-inch round cutter works great. You can use different cookie cutter shapes but avoid highly detailed cutters as the design won’t be as sharp on the edges.
Bake the cookies on a parchment paper-lined sheet pan. It’s safe to place them about 1 to 2 inches apart. They don’t spread too much. The dough will be soft, so work quickly to transfer them to the pan when still cool. Bake at 375ºF (191ºC).
Bake only until the surface sets. It won’t turn golden brown and crisp. Only about 8 minutes are needed. Immediately transfer the cookies to a cooling rack to stop the cooking process. The longer you leave them on the hot tray, the harder the bottoms will become.
Frost the cookies
After thoroughly cooling the cookies, I use my go-to sugar cookie frosting recipe to spread on top. It’s just a simple combination of whipped butter, powdered sugar, vanilla for flavor, and milk. You can adjust the consistency to be thick or thin with liquid.
To color the frosting, I prefer concentrated gel colors to achieve a vibrant hue. It also uses less water than food coloring dyes like the ones for easter eggs, so it doesn’t dilute the consistency of the topping. Pink is a classic appearance, but the fun part is that you can easily switch it up like making them green for Christmas. Of course, don’t forget to top with sprinkles, sanding sugar, or jimmies.
This type of soft cookie was created by Lofthouse Bakery Products in 1994, which still sells various wholesale baked goods to supermarkets and merchandisers in the United States. They are known for their soft texture and festive decorations. This cookie style is now often referred to as “lofthouse” when making them from scratch.
1. Add more moisture to the dough by using cake flour with lower protein, or using superfine or powdered sugar texture. 2. After baking, immediately take them off of the hot baking sheet. 3. Store in an airtight container to retain moisture, or add in a slice of bread with them. Seriously, the cookies will draw out the bread’s moisture.
Cornstarch is a thickening agent, which reduces the amount of spread. It also reduces gluten formation for a more soft and crumbly crumb.
Sift the dry ingredients
The dry ingredients like cake flour, leavening agents, and cornstarch are very fine. To make sure everything gets evenly incorporated and clumps removed, sift them together. This technique also aerates the flour for a lighter dough that bakes up less dense.
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Soft Sugar Cookies
- 2 ¾ cups cake flour
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ¼ cup unsalted butter, softened to 64 to 67ºF (18 to 19ºC)
- ¼ cup margarine, softened to 65 to 64ºF (18 to 19ºC)
- 1 ¼ cup powdered sugar
- 1 large egg, room temperature
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ½ teaspoon almond extract
- ¼ cup sour cream, room temperature
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened to 64 to 67ºF (17 to 19ºC)
- 3 cups powdered sugar
- 3 tablespoons milk, divided
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- pink gel color, optional for coloring
- In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, and baking soda. Add the salt, whisk to combine. Set aside.
- In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, add the softened butter and powdered sugar. Pulse until the sugar is just incorporated. Increase speed to medium-low (setting 4), mix until light and fluffy, 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula.
- Add the room temperature egg, vanilla extract, and almond extract. Mix on medium-high speed (setting 6) until combined, 20 to 30 seconds. Add sour cream and mix on until combined, 10 seconds. Scrape down the paddle, side, and bottom of the bowl.
- Add the flour mixture 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. The dough will have a slightly tacky consistency. It will get drier once chilled.
- Refrigerate in the bowl uncovered, for at least 1 hour or freeze for 45 minutes. After that time if not baking right away, place the dough in a resealable plastic bag for up to 5 days, or frozen for up to 1 month. Defrost before using.
- Line two baking sheets with parchment paper, then set aside. Set the oven rack to the middle position. Heat to 375ºF (191ºC).
- Generously dust the work surface, top and bottom of the dough, and rolling pin with cake flour. Use more as needed as the dough is slightly sticky and soft. Roll to slightly thicker than 1/4-inch.
- Working quickly, use a 2 ½ to 2 ¾-inch round cookie cutter to create circles. Dip the cutter into a bowl of flour to prevent sticking. Transfer the pieces to the parchment paper-lined sheet pans, about 1 to 2-inches apart. Any extra dough scraps can be rerolled out 1 more time. If needed, chill before rolling.
- Working one tray at a time, bake until the surface is dry and pale in color, and bottoms are very lightly golden brown, about 8 to 9 minutes.
- Immediately transfer to the wire rack after removing from the oven. Completely cool the cookies before decorating, about 30 minutes. Bake the remaining cookies.
Frosting (1 ½ cups)
- In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the softened butter on medium-high speed (setting 8) until smooth, about 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
- Add the powdered sugar, 2 tablespoons of milk, and vanilla extract. Mix on the lowest speed (stir setting) until combined, 15 seconds. Mix on medium-high speed (setting 8) until fluffy, 2 minutes. Scrape down the bowl halfway through mixing.
- Add 1 tablespoon of milk, mix on medium-high speed (setting 8) until smooth and fluffy, 15 to 30 seconds.For a thinner frosting: add an additional 1 teaspoon of milk, mix on medium-high speed for 15 seconds. Add more milk until the desired consistency is reached.For a thicker frosting: add in 1 tablespoon of powdered sugar, mix on medium-high speed (setting 8) until smooth, about 15 seconds. Add more powdered sugar until the desired consistency is reached.
- Use the frosting as is, or add gel coloring or food coloring and mix on slow speed (setting 2) until combined. I use 8 to 10 drops of pink gel coloring. Use immediately or cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate if not used right away.
- Properly weigh the flour: Use 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.
- Using Only Butter: You can use all butter, but note that the cookies will not be as tall.
- Make-ahead: The dough can be mixed and stored in the refrigerator 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 Cookies: Store undecorated cookies in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 to 7 days, or freeze for up to 3 months. For decorated cookies, allow drying for about 1 hour then store in an airtight container in a cool dry place for up to 3 days, refrigerated for 1 week, or frozen for 3 months.
- Storing Frosting: Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Leave on the countertop until spreadable, just under room temperature, about 1 hour. Stir before using.
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