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 no-fail basic rolled sugar cookie and royal icing recipe so that you can follow along! I've got your back.
For the following two recipes, I am giving measurements in volume AND weight measurements.
Pro Tip #1 - 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 flavourings to use are 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: 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 1/2" 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 somewhere in the middle at about 3/8". I used to roll mine 1/4" thick, but after giving 3/8" a shot one day, I loved it a lot more!
* WORKING THE DOUGH: Do not overwork the dough. Mix the dough until everything is incorporated - then 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. Don't worry about rolling it out a few times when you've got scraps from the cutting process! These cookies will be just fine.
* 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 I figured that out? The hard way - by over baking my cookies. 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 & BUTTER BLEED: 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 chewy state to a dry and hard unpleasant state just within a matter of minutes while baking 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. Oil and royal icing are not friends - it'll separate and won't dry correctly.
* EXTRA TANGY: 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. Got bubbles? Leave it over night, and gently stir with your spatula. No more 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. I've got a video on the "magic consistency" here!
* DECORATIONS: For decorations that need to hold their shape, such as flowers, ruffles, decorative borders, etc. you'll need a very stiff consistency icing. I'm talkin' drywall compound thickness, here. Super t h i c c.
* STORING: Royal icing starts to dry very quickly. When mixing up your colours, always keep a piece of plastic wrap or a damp towel 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 - more if you've got double flooded layers.
* 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. Each country has their own laws on what is "edible" and what isn't.
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, but there are TONS of brands out there.
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, toothpick, 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!