Take my recipe, for example. After mixing, I chill my dough. And after rolling and cutting, I chill my dough. But then you read other recipes claiming that they're "no chill" and, like it says, there is no chilling required. So which one is right?
What it all comes down to isn't the recipe itself, but your interpretation of the recipe. The recipe may claim that it needs to be chilled, but you ran out of time one day and stuck the cookies in the oven without chilling them at all - they came out the same as usual. Or you followed a "no chill" recipe right down to the last detail, and they came out of the oven as sugar cookie blobs.
The thing is, we all read recipes differently, and we all have our own way of doing things. You tell ten people to follow a recipe, and they are going to come up with ten different results. As a baker sharing her sugar cookie recipe online, all I can do is tell you exactly what I do and hope for the best.
I swear by chilling my dough - both after mixing and after rolling and cutting. My dough is mega buttery, and if I were to try to roll it out without chilling, I'd end up with a sticky mess. Trust me, I've tried it. I always let it chill in the fridge for atleast 4 hours or so after mixing and portioning it (into flat 1kg blocks - I make a lot of cookies). As long as you chill it for that minimum time, it's very forgiving - you could chill it over night or even make a whole bunch of dough ahead of time, portion it, and freeze it. The key is making sure you bring the dough out to room temperature and roll it while it's still cool but not cold. Too cold, and you'll break your wrists trying to roll it. Too warm, and it'll stick to everything.
I always chill my sugar cookies after rolling and cutting, as well. I find it helps the cookies from spreading in the oven. Many many cookie decorators swear by this, but you'll also get a lot of cookie decorators that don't feel the need to chill their cookies before baking. I throw mine in the freezer for about a half hour (I'm sure even 15-20 minutes would be sufficient) and again, the freezing process is rather forgiving - you could freeze them overnight if you ran out of time in the kitchen that day. I've tried rolling and cutting my sugar cookies and then putting directly in the oven - sometimes they spread, sometimes they don't. It could depend on a lot of factors, especially things like heat and humidity. Heat and humidity seem to have quite a big spotlight in cookie decorating, don't they?
So what's the answer? Well, it all depends on you - the dough handler. You may have great success in chilling your dough, and some of you may not find it necessary. Like I said, it's the interpretation of the recipe, and not always the recipe itself. So what's your preference? Let me know in the comments below!
So I sat back and asked myself, "Just what do I do to get a flat sugar cookie?" and I came up with a few tips that may help you get that lovely flat decorating surface. If you're having trouble getting a good level cookie surface, or you just wanna do a little light cookie-theory reading, this one's for you!
Leaveners. You might notice that my sugar cookie recipe doesn't use a lot of baking powder (aka, a leavener). Leavener = rise, and you don't want a whole lot of rise out of your cookies. Do you have a tried and true sugar cookie recipe that you love, but the cookies come out a little too domed? Try reducing the leavener (such as baking powder) by a half to a quarter and see what happens. It should definitely help!
Dough, incorporated. Have you ever been rolling out your dough only to find little blobs of butter? They may look small, but they can mean big pains in your cookie baking future. Dough that is not thoroughly mixed will contain bits of unincorporated butter, and when baking, these bits of butter create lots of steam and seep and bubble out of your cookie, creating a misshapen mess along with it. Always mix your dough until these blobs of butter are no longer visible. But not a moment longer, unless you like tough cookies.
Sticky dough. If your dough is too sticky, you may notice that your sugar cookies aren't turning out as flat as you'd like them too. To make sure that your flour measurement is the most accurate it can be for your recipe, weigh the flour using a digital scale. Every baker should own one! As a general rule of thumb, 1 cup of all-purpose flour is around 120 grams. You'd be surprised how much of a difference it can make. Volume measurements are great for liquid, but over and under measuring dry ingredients like flour is easy to fall into. And don't be afraid to use a little flour when rolling out your dough - but not too much! Too much flour = a dry sugar cookie.
Chill out. I like to work with a chilled dough when rolling (not chilled enough that it'll break your arms or rolling pin, but chilled enough that you aren't trying to roll a gooey sticky mess) and I also chill my cookie dough in the freezer after rolling, cutting, and placing on parchment lined cookie sheets. 30 minutes usually does the trick. Some people swear by chilling, and others don't. Personally, I've tried putting my cookies in the oven straight after cutting and placing on cookie sheets, and I didn't end up with a very flat sugar cookie.
Getting rid of a little puffiness. Okay, so you followed all these tips and your cookies still came out of the oven looking a little puffy. If it's not too bad, they can be saved! Grab a plastic fondant smoother and gently press it on your sugar cookies and glide the smoother over their surface while still applying pressure. This trick only works while the cookies are still hot and fresh from the oven, but don't press down too hard - sugar cookies can be fragile things. This should get rid of any puffiness or bubbles.
A lot of work goes into each and every sugar cookie that I make! And since I often share the how-to process of each cookie design in my Kookievision series on YouTube, I wanted to give you a good basic rolled sugar cookie and royal icing recipe so that you can follow along!
For the following two recipes, I am giving measurements in volume and weight measurements. Avid bakers: I encourage you to buy a small digital scale for your kitchen. It's a small investment to make, and it can make a world of a difference in the consistency of your recipes! It solves a lot of common problems often made with volume measurements.
Helpful Hints: Sugar Cookies
* SALT: I like to use salted butter - I feel like the salt balances out the sweetness very nicely. If you'd like to cut down on salt, use unsalted butter or omit the salt in the recipe, altogether.
* FLAVOURING: My favourite flavouring to use is vanilla bean paste, a freshly scraped vanilla bean, vanilla extract, lemon emulsion, orange emulsion, almond extract, or a combination of these. Fresh grated orange zest is really nice, too! Experiment with different extracts, emulsions, and other flavouring combinations.
* THICKNESS: Silicon dough rails are very helpful for getting a consistent thickness. I use Rose Levy Beranbaum's "Fast Tracks" dough rails, as all three sizes stacked on top of eachother are just under 1/4" thick. You can also buy rolling pins with thickness ridges built into the sides. Some people prefer a 1/4" cookie, some prefer 1/2", and some prefer a little thinner than 1/4" - it's up to you!
* WORKING THE DOUGH: Do not overwork the dough. Mix the dough until everything is incorporated - than an additional 30 to 60 seconds to make sure you get rid of any butter pieces. Over-mixing can cause a tough cookie. Dough will definitely be sticky before chilling - it can be chilled over night or frozen if you need it for future use. Just remove from the fridge/freezer and let sit at room temperature until it is easy to roll but still cool to the touch (usually 1-2 hours). Trying to roll warm dough is not fun, trust me. It sticks to your cutters, your work surface, your hands, the rolling pin, etc. If it gets too warm, just re-chill for a little bit. If the dough sticks to your cookie cutter, dip your cookie cutter into a bit of flour - this is especially important for 3D cookie cutters. When rolling out, try to roll into a shape that suits the size of your cookie cutters so that you can get the most shapes cut out in the first roll. The less you handle the dough, the better.
* KNOWING YOUR OVEN: Most ovens often run hotter or colder than you actually set them to. When I set my oven to 350*F, guess what the temperature really is? About 400*F. And do you know how you figure that out? The hard way - by over baking your cookies. OR you can figure it out the easy way - by purchasing an oven thermometer. Oven thermometers are a very cheap kitchen investment and can be the difference between a decent and fantastic cookie.
Get yourself an oven thermometer, put it into the centre of the oven, turn the temperature up to 350*F, and let it pre-heat. Once it's pre-heated, take note of what your thermometer says. Most newer ovens can be calibrated - you'll have to read the manual. But if your oven is older, you may have to manually adjust. If it says more than 350*F, turn the oven temperature down. If it says less than 350*F, turn the oven temperature up. Give it about five minutes, and re-check. Further re-adjust if needed. Once the thermometer reads 350*F, then take note of what temperature your oven is set to. You can write it down somewhere, or you can do what I did - draw a little notch on the dial with a Sharpie to show you where 350*F really is. It sounds super trivial, but it's a huge deal.
* BAKING: I like to bake my cookies the day before I decorate them - this cuts down on problems like "butter bleed" which is when the butter can leach into the royal icing and creates unsightly stains when dry. It also "breaks down" your work load so that you aren't baking and decorating all in one day. Trust me - time adds up and the day goes by fast!
* SOFT COOKIES: Sugar cookies can go from a delightfully pleasant soft and moist state to a dry and hard unpleasant state just within a matter of minutes in your oven. Pay attention to your baking time and check on your cookies, and turn the trays half way through the cooking time if needed for even baking if your oven has hot spots. Once the tops look set and no longer shiny, they're done! When cool, take note of the colour on the bottom of the cookie - it should be a tiny bit golden brown, just at the edges, but still mostly pale - no raw dough spots, though.
Helpful Hints: Royal Icing & Decorating
* FLAVOURING: My favourite flavouring to use is pure vanilla extract, lemon emulsion, orange emulsion, or orange blossom water. Experiment with different extracts, emulsions, and other flavouring combinations - just make sure that the flavourings you use are water or alcohol based and avoid anything oil based.
* EXTRA ZIP: Try using fresh sieved (to get rid of seeds and pulp) lemon juice in place of some of half or all the water in the recipe - it adds a nice tangy zip!
* MIXING: Do not over-mix your royal icing - it only needs a few minutes to mix on medium speed until it is white and glossy. If you mix it too long, the royal icing will become full of air bubbles.
* CONSISTENCY: To get the consistency of icing that you need, add more water for a thinner icing, and add more icing sugar for a thicker icing. As a general rule of thumb, my flooding icing is usually the consistency of school glue, and my piping/outling icing is usually the consistency of toothpaste. For "one consistency", also known as medium consistency or 20 or 15 second icing, it's somewhere between a flood and outline consistency. It can be tricky to master, but it can be a mega time saver.
* DECORATIONS: For decorations that need to hold their shape well, such as flowers, ruffles, etc. you'll need a very stiff consistency icing. I'm talkin' drywall compound thickness, here. Super thick!
* STORING: Royal icing starts to dry very quickly. When mixing up your colours, always keep a piece of cling wrap tightly over the top of the bowl or store in an air tight container.
* LEFTOVERS: Have leftovers? I like to scoop my royal icing onto pieces of plastic wrap, wrap them up tightly, and freeze them in a freezer bag or air tight container for future use.
* DRYING: Depending on your location, heat and humidity play a big part in drying time. I often dry my cookie icing for atleast 24-36 hours before packaging them.
* SHINE: A fan blowing directly at your cookies on low-medium speed will give your icing a nice subtle sheen. An air purifier is even better, as it filters out any dust in the air that can possibly get onto your cookies.
* COLOURING YOUR ICING: The best way to colour your icing, hands down, is gel dye. Popular brands include Wilton, Pro Gel (by Rainbow Dust), Chef Master, and AmeriColor - my personal favourite is Chef Master and AmeriColor - their gel colours are very concentrated and a little goes a long way. Powdered pigments are becoming increasingly popular, such as The Sugar Art Master Elite brand.
* SPRINKLES AND DECORATIONS: Always look for keywords on your sprinkles and other decorations - quite often they will say things like "non-toxic", but there are times where decorations and sprinkles are just for looks - it'll often say this on the container. Either don't add these to your cookies for decoration, or make sure that people know that they are for show only. Only use "edible" decorations on your cookies if you intend for them to be consumed. When in doubt, don't add them to your cookie at all, and always make sure to read labels.
Decorating Materials: The Basics
TIPLESS PIPING BAGS: I like to use disposable piping bags for my icing because you can see through them and it's a lot less to wash. And if you happen to use your piping bags for other things like buttercream, you won't run into any issues with greasy piping bags, which can be a problem for royal icing. Truly Mad Plastics is a great brand.
COUPLERS: I have a lot of couplers. These are used in your piping bags to attach your icing tip. I prefer the Ateco brand.
PIPING TIPS: Number 2 tips are the most used tips in cookie decorating, but it's also useful to have a few smaller tips (1, 00, 000, etc) and a few bigger ones (3, 4, etc.). Some other useful tips are petal tips for making flowers and ruffles, as well as a V shaped leaf tip for making leafs, petals, etc.
PIPING BAG CLOSURES: They make special bands for closing your piping bags, keeping the icing inside from getting crusty, but my personal favourite piping closures are good old binder clips from the office supply store. Cheap, too!
PIPING BAG STORAGE: When not in use, it's good to keep the tips of your piping bags moist to keep them from getting crusty. All I do is take a piece of damp paper towel and line the bottom of a Pyrex measuring cup and then store my piping bags, tips down, into it. Easy!
SQUEEZE BOTTLES: For your flooding consistency icing. These come in a variety of sizes, so pick the size that best suits the amount of cookies that you are decorating. 8oz is a good place to start. Sometimes, squeeze bottles come with built in couplers and piping tips - these are great for precision flooding, like polkadots, eyes, and all sorts of wet-on-wet techniques. If flooding with a coupler attachment, I often use a number 4 tip. If you're not a fan of squeeze bottles for your flooding consistency icing, a lot of other cookiers use piping bags (or choose a medium consistency as opposed to a outline and flooding consistency). It's all personal preference.
SCRIBE TOOL: Often just a plastic handle with a needle on the end, this is one of your most useful tools. It's used for spreading icing, getting rid of gaps in your icing, scraping off and removing mistakes, and popping air bubbles. You can also use a sewing needle or a trussing needle.
CLEAN CLOTH: Always keep a CLEAN wet cloth on hand for wiping off your icing tips and scribe tool.
FOOD DYE: Liquid food dye is awful - get the gel dye stuff! You'll use a lot less of it at a time to get the colour you want and you'll get some amazing hues. Powdered pigments are also a great option.
WATER & POWDERED SUGAR: Keep water in a glass with a measuring spoon handy to thin your royal icing to the desired consistency. Too thin? Add powdered sugar a little at a time to get the thickness you need.
BOWLS, SPOONS, CONTAINERS, SPATULA, etc: A container for storing your royal icing is important so that it doesn't go crusty on you. You can put your royal icing in a plastic container with a tight fitting lid or just put some cling wrap over the mixing bowl. Keep a few sizes of bowls on hand, as well as some spoons for mixing your icing with colours. Always use grease-free tools - any residual grease in your royal icing can cause it not to set/dry correctly, so always wash your tools very well! If you're using a lot of sprinkles or decorations, a muffin tin works great for keeping them separate, too!
FAN: If you want your royal icing to dry with a nice sheen to it, you'll need a fan pointing at your cookies as they dry. Low to medium speed is fine - you don't want to blow the cookies away, just give them a mild breeze. To keep the dust off your cookies, I like to use an air purifier instead of a fan - it'll blow air at your cookies, but it filters out the dust from the air beforehand so that it doesn't blow it into your wet icing.
PACKAGING: I like to individually store my cookies in polypropylene bags and seal them with a heat sealer. You could store them in a container with a tight fitting lid, or you can package them in plastic bags and tie the tops with ribbon or by using bakers twine or twist ties. It's up to you!
Some more helpful SWEETHART links:
To Chill or Not To Chill: That is the question.
Flat Sugar Cookies: Tips & Tricks
How To Make A DIY Cookie Kit
HAVE ANOTHER QUESTION?
CONTACT ME - I MAY INCLUDE THE ANSWER HERE IN MY BLOG!