Why It Works
- Aerating the butter and sugar provides insulation to keep these cookies thick and light.
- A cold egg chills the dough, making it easy to handle.
- One full tablespoon of vanilla extract guarantees a robust flavor and aroma.
Sugar cookies are the plush, pillowy hotel beds of dessert: comforting, soft, and warm. Every time I sink into one, I wonder: Why don't I do this more often?
I figure it's because I'm so easily enthralled by the heavy hitters (brown butter, brown sugar, chocolate, toffee, toasted pecans...) that I forget how sublime the basics can be. Sugar cookies are a celebration of simple ingredients, handled with care. No special-order components or crazy technique—just butter, sugar, eggs, and flour, with plenty of salt and vanilla.
Does Better Butter Bake Up Better?
I've tried to step up my sugar cookie game over the years, but the harder I try, the more I'm convinced that sugar cookies don't care. Whether I throw down for imported European butter or make do with what I find at the store, they bake up soft and chewy, light but never cakey, and just a little crisp around the edges. Buttery, fragrant, and totally self-indulgent.
Sugar cookies are stubbornly indifferent to my level of investment; in a blind tasting, my tasters accused me of giving them the same cookie three times in a row ("Is this tasting about the placebo effect?"). When the tables were turned, I was just as helpless to guess which cookies were made with local butter, Plugra, or Kroger brand. This was something of a sore point; the difference had been stark in the bowl. Local butter perfumed the dough with something fresh and aromatic while Plugra delivered an umami-like depth. In comparison, the batch made from my grocery store brand seemed almost aggressively bland.
I'd sworn my days of penny-pinching with inexpensive butter were over, but an oven proved to be the great equalizer. All the nuance and complexity found in top-notch butters faded into a general sense of richness, while the deficiencies of cheap butter were smoothed over by aromatic vanilla, lightly caramelized sugar, and the subtle flavor of toasted flour.
In the end, sugar cookies are about teamwork, all those ingredients giving up their individual identity to form a unified whole. That doesn't mean you can't reach for top-notch butter, only that you needn't feel guilty if you don't.
Decorating With Sugar
The one ingredient I've found to be a true waste is something called "sparkling" sugar. It glitters like so many diamonds in the bag and works beautifully with chilled, icebox doughs. But soft and buttery drop cookies seem to dissolve it, muting its brilliance and producing a thick, gritty shell.
Stick with plain white sugar, nonpareils, or colorful sanding sugar—the sort sold next to birthday candles at the grocery store. You can even make custom colors for the holidays by mixing plain a few ounces of granulated sugar with a gram of luster dust, a flavorless colorant made from non-toxic minerals.
My favorite finish is vanilla sugar, which is dead easy to make: split a vanilla bean and rub the seeds into a few ounces of sugar. Any type of vanilla bean will do, but Tahitian vanilla is particularly seedy, so it offers the most bang per bean (slip the empty pod into a carton of cream and let it steep for a week—best whipped cream ever). It's also incredibly aromatic, which means you can smell the vanilla coming off the cookies even before sinking into that first, pillowy bite.
8 ounces unsalted butter (2 sticks; 225g); firm but pliable, about 60°F (16°C)
10 ounces sugar (1 1/2 cups; 280g)
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder (10g)
1 1/4 teaspoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt (5g) (For table salt, use half as much by volume or use the same weight)
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract (15ml)
1 large egg, cold
11 1/4 ounces all-purpose flour (about 2 1/2 cups, spooned; 320g)
Assorted sanding sugars, nonpareils, and sprinkles, or plain granulated sugar blended with vanilla seeds, luster dust, or powdered food coloring for finishing
Adjust oven rack to middle position, preheat to 350°F (180°C), and line 2 aluminum half sheet pans with parchment paper (not wax paper!).
Combine butter, sugar, baking powder, kosher salt, nutmeg, and vanilla extract in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix on low to moisten, increase to medium and beat until fluffy, pale ivory, and soft, about 5 minutes. Add egg and continue beating until smooth, about 2 minutes more, pausing to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Resume mixing on low, sprinkle in flour, and continue mixing until a thick dough is formed.
Divide into twenty six 1-ounce portions with a 2-tablespoon cookie scoop. (That's about 1 ounce/30g per cookie.) Roll each ball of dough between your hands until smooth and round. If desired, tumble in a dish with sanding sugar, nonpareils, sprinkles, granulated, or vanilla sugar until coated on all sides. Arrange cookies on prepared half sheet pan, leaving 2 1/2 inches of space in between cookies. Do not flatten; cookies will spread on their own.
Bake until puffed and pale gold around the edges, but still steamy in the middle, about 15 minutes. Cool directly on sheet pan until firm, about 10 minutes. Enjoy warm, or allow to cool completely, then store in an airtight container for up to 2 days at room temperature.
Make ahead: Divide portioned dough between heavy-duty Ziploc bags, and refrigerate up to one week (or freeze for two months). Bring to roughly 70°F (21°C), then roll, coat, and bake as directed.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 6g||8%|
|Saturated Fat 4g||19%|
|Total Carbohydrate 18g||6%|
|Dietary Fiber 0g||1%|
|Total Sugars 10g|
|Vitamin C 0mg||0%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|