I thought with her secret recipe in hand, I would just whip up a batch and soon be basking in the abundance of chewy frosted goodness. But that's not exactly how it went down.
My shapes were more like indiscernible blobs and they were far more crunchy that her melt-in-your-mouth version. What did I do wrong? I followed the recipe to the letter!
It turns out that cut-out sugar cookies are a bit of an art form....at least if you're picky about how you like them. It starts with a great recipe, but there are some key steps that will ensure you get soft, chewy shapes every time.
Looking back, I made a few newbie mistakes (like cutting the time the dough spent in the fridge). So after a few more attempts at this recipe and a few more tweaks, we now have a tried and true method that's an easy family favorite.
Now when I say "perfect", I don't mean those impeccably frosted masterpieces you almost don't want to bite into because they're so pretty.....although that's never stopped me in the end. You're always going to get the unmistakably home-made looking variety around here. But I promise you, they will taste amazing!
Here's how we get soft, chewy sugar cookies (in identifiable shapes) every time....
1. Don't Overwork The Dough
I think this goes for most cookies/baking, but avoid over mixing and over working your dough. I stop my mixer as soon as all the ingredients come together but are well integrated. Since you're going to be rolling and handling this dough even more, do your best to avoid over mixing it in the bowl. I work any lingering flour in by hand.
2. Don't Skip The Fridge
Most sugar cookie dough needs to be chilled. This not only helps the cookies keep their shape once cut out but it also prevents the cookies from being too crunchy. So don't cheat!! Our recipe calls for the dough to be chilled one hour. If you're short on time, pop it in the freezer for 30 min, but DO NOT skip this step! And also do number 3....
3. Flatten the Dough Before Chilling
I used to just pop the dough into the fridge in a giant ball. It took longer for the dough to fully chill and made it really difficult to roll out. Now I lay out a long sheet of Press N Seal, dump the freshly mixed dough on top, then spread it out to a rectangular shape about 1 inch think. I make sure it's all wrapped up (usually needing one more sheet of Press N Seal) and pop it in the fridge.
It chills much faster and more evenly...and it's much easier to roll out when it's time to bake!
4. Not Too Thin
When it's time to roll out the dough I break off about a 1/3 chunk from my chilled rectangle and place it on a well floured cutting board or mat.
Roll out the dough as evenly as possible but not too thin. The cookie will keep it's cut shape much better with a thicker dough and it will also give them that to-die-for cake like quality. I aim for 1/4" thick
5. Dip Your Cutters In Flour
If you find your dough sticking to your cutter or having to wrestle it out, dip the cutter in a bit of flour first.
6. Maximize The Dough Space
Try to get your shapes as close as possible and use as much of the dough as you can the first time around.
After that, ball up the extras, add some more flour, and roll out again. I try not to do this more than 2 times with each piece of dough. The more you work the dough the softer and warmer it gets....meaning the more likely it is to end up a flat cookie.
7. Chill The Shapes In Waiting
Our recipe makes a pretty large amount of dough. If I'm baking it all the same day, I will place the cut shapes on a sheet of parchment or wax paper and keep them in the fridge until I'm ready to pop them on the tray for the oven. I have two insulated baking sheets that I swear by for cookies. So, when I'm cooking large batches I often have to reuse a warm cookie sheet. I wait until the very last second to put the shapes on from the fridge so the dough doesn't start to warm up or spread.
8. Do Not Over Bake!!!
For a soft, chewy cookie, this is the most important tip! And it took me awhile to figure out the right time on my oven for a cookie that was "just" done but not raw in the middle. I promise to update this post with a pic of this but in the meantime, here's what I look for:
Wait until the center of the cookie no longer appears wet or shiny but do not let the edges brown
. If I check the cookies and the center is still uncooked, I check it every minute after that and pull them as soon as the center is done. Smaller cookies will take less time and larger/thicker shapes take longer.
Once they have cooled completely you can frost away or save the frosting for another day. Just be sure to store them in an air tight container.
9. Break It Up
If even the mention of making sugar cookies from scratch feels completely overwhelming, try breaking up the steps over a few days. We used to set aside a day for baking, but now I try to save myself some time and sanity. I usually make a quick batch of dough the day before and store it in the fridge....the next day we'll cut out the shapes and bake....and the following day is for frosting. It can be a messy job, especially if you get the littles involved, so spacing it out might just be the ticket to everyone living through the process. And hey, you get delicious sugar cookies at the end of it!
*I would love to hear from you veteran sugar cookie bakers! What are your best tips? I know some swear by certain baking sheets/pans/etc or maybe you have a special ingredient that makes your cookies out of this world. Let's hear it!
And good luck to anyone taking on some holiday baking this week!