This is the best sugar cookie recipe ever. In my humble opinion.
Cut-out cookies are popular for every occasion. All you need is this recipe and a collection of cookie cutters.
How can I be so confident? Well, I've been making these sugar cookies for every special occasion since 1984. Kids love them, adults love them; they are simply loved by all. I can't take credit for the actual recipe. It was shared with me by my sister-in-law Rita, and it was shared with her by a friend. Who knows how far back it goes from there. Rita and her sister Jeanne make dozens and dozens of these cookies every year during the holiday season. I've been making them in a variety of shapes throughout the years for holidays, school parties, birthday parties, weddings, baby showers, graduations, super bowl parties, and any other special occasion you can think of. Like my toffee, these sugar cookies are expected when I have or attend a party. That's what makes them a signature recipe.
Below is a collection of some of my cookies through the years. (Forgive the poor photo quality--most of these were taken long before I had a decent camera.) That's me in the upper right photo in 1987 with my boys Bracken (now 30) and Tyler (aka T-Man, techie guy for The Yummy Life, now 27). We've rolled a lot of cookie dough through the years.
Cut-out cookies are festive. There's a shape for every occasion. A plate of football-shaped cookies for a super bowl party frosted in the team colors, bunny & egg shapes for Easter, hearts for Valentines Day-- you name it. One recipe in different shapes suits every celebration. A plate of cut-out cookies can define a party theme or holiday. They simply belong at every celebration. So, for me, mastering this recipe has been a big part of my family's cooking, eating, and celebrating.
Step 2. Whisk flour, baking soda, & salt together & set aside.
Step 3. With an electric mixer, cream the butter and sour cream at low speed; add the sugar, eggs, and vanilla & mix until combined. It's okay if it's a little lumpy as long as no butter chunks are visible.
Step 4. Gradually add the flour mixture to the sour cream mixture, mixing until well combined. Dough will be sticky. If cookie dough is too thick for your mixture to handle, you can stir it by hand with a wooden spoon.
Step 5. Divide dough onto two pieces of plastic wrap; flatten dough, wrap tightly, and refrigerate until chilled, 1-2 hours.
Make ahead tip: Dough may be made to this point and refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 1 month.
About rolling the cookie dough, there's one more thing I need to get out there:
This rolling pin has changed my life. It has a set of rings to screw on the ends so that you roll perfectly even cookie dough in exactly the thickness you want. After using a traditional rolling pin most of my life, I decided to try out this new technology for the first time last year. Life changing. I've made thousands of cut-out cookies through the years, and now for the first time they are perfect every time. The thickness of my cut-out's used to vary some; but now they all have the exact same thickness, so they bake evenly. LOVE this new rolling pin.
You also need a cookie cutter or two or more, for whatever the occasion. I'm making cookies for Christmas cookie platters, so I'm making mittens.
Step 6. Heavily flour your work surface. The chilled dough is still sticky, so a generous amount of flour is needed to keep the rolled dough from sticking to the counter. Rub flour on the rolling pin, too. Put one of the pieces of dough on top of the floured surface and sprinkle the top of the dough with more flour. Starting at the center, roll the dough out to one edge; return to the center and roll to the opposite edge. Continue rolling from the center outward until the dough is an even 1/4" thick all over.
Step 7. Dip the cookie cutter in flour and cut out the dough. First cut shapes around the perimeter, and then work in towards the center--this way you can cut the most shapes from one piece.
Step 8. Transfer dough shapes to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. (You don't have to use parchment paper, but I'm a big believer in it.)
Step 9. Take the remaining fragments of dough, and pack them into a smooth ball. Flatten the ball, and roll and cut shapes as before.
Step 10. Bake at 350 degrees, 2 sheets at a time, rotating and switching pans half way through cooking time. Bake them just until they are baked all the way through but haven't started browning on the bottom. For a soft textured cookie, it's very important not to over bake them.
As little as 1 minute too little or too much in the oven can make the difference between an under-cooked, over-cooked, or perfect cookie. It may take a little trial and error to figure out exactly how long to cook the cookies in your oven. In my oven, I bake them 5 minutes, rotate & switch the pans, and bake them another 5 minutes. They should look dry on top, but have no browning on the bottom. If you accidentally over cook them and they brown, they're still good. No worries, they can still be frosted and enjoyed.
Step 11. Transfer hot cookies to a rack to cool completely.
Make-ahead tip: Cooled, unfrosted cookies may be stacked in a sealed container and stored at room temperature for up to 3 days, or frozen for up to 2 weeks.
Simple frosting.I frost these with a simple, tasty frosting. I don't use Royal Icing, even though it's very popular. Royal Icing has the advantage of drying very hard, making it easier to frost in multiple colors with lots of detail. But I personally don't think it tastes very good. My frosting is soft like the cookies, tastes good, and is quick and easy to apply. Let's face it, sugar cookies are labor intensive: mixing the dough, chilling the dough, rolling the dough, cutting the dough, baking the cookies. By the time I've done all that, I don't want to spend hours elaborately decorating the cookies. So, I keep that part simple. Frosting that tastes good and colored sprinkles. That's it. Here's how I make frosting:
Step 1. Combine powdered sugar, vanilla, softened butter, and half of the evaporated milk in a large bowl.
I use a large bowl because the powdered sugar really flies when you first start mixing it. You need the high walls of a larger bowl to keep the mess contained.
Why evaporated milk? I used to use regular milk, but I found that after a couple of days the frosting started looking speckled and uneven as it dried out. Evaporated milk results in a silky smooth frosting, and it holds up well and still looks good after the cookies have been frosted for a few days. This frosting is good enough to eat with a spoon (and I've been known to do that, shhhhh...).
Step 2. Use an electric mixer to combine ingredients on a low speed until it's a thick paste consistency and all of the lumps are gone. It's much easier to remove the lumps when the frosting is thick. That's why I only add half of the milk in the beginning.
Step 3. Gradually add the remaining milk and continue mixing until frosting is a smooth, silky, spreadable consistency. If it's still thicker than you want, add more milk 1/2 teaspoon at a time until it's how you like it.
You can add food coloring to the frosting, if you like. I left mine uncolored for these mitten cookies, and relied on a variety of red and green sprinkles to make them colorful and festive.
Let the frosted cookies dry for a few hours before moving them to an air tight container. The frosting gets dry but not hard. I put waxed paper between layers of cookies to keep them from sticking and store them inside a large Rubbermaid container. They are good for several days this way.
MAKE COOKIE DOUGH: In large bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, & salt; set aside. In second large bowl, with an electric mixer, cream the sour cream and butter at low speed; add sugar, eggs, and vanilla & mix until combined. (It's okay if it's a little lumpy as long as no butter chunks are visible.) Gradually add the flour mixture to the sour cream mixture, mixing until well combined. Dough will be sticky. (If cookie dough is too thick for your mixture to handle, you can stir it by hand with a wooden spoon.) Divide dough onto two pieces of plastic wrap; flatten dough, wrap tightly, and refrigerate until chilled, 1-2 hours. (Make ahead tip: Dough may be made to this point and refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 1 month.)
ROLL, CUT, & BAKE COOKIES: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper; set aside. Generously flour your counter or work surface to prevent dough from sticking. Rub flour on the rolling pin. Put one of the chilled pieces of dough on top of the floured surface and sprinkle the top of the dough with more flour. Starting at the center, roll the dough out to one edge; return to the center and roll to the opposite edge. Continue rolling until dough is an even 1/4" thick all over, sprinkling with additional flour, if needed, to avoid sticking. Dip cookie cutter in flour and cut out dough shapes. Transfer dough shapes to baking sheets. Continue rolling dough, cutting shapes, and adding to baking sheets until they are filled. Bake 2 sheets at a time for 8-10 minutes, rotating and switching pans half way through cooking time. Bake them just until they are baked all the way through but haven't started browning on the bottom. If a soft textured cookie is desired, it's very important not to over bake them. Transfer hot cookies to a baking rack to cool completely. (Make-ahead tip: Cooled, unfrosted cookies may be stacked in a sealed container and stored at room temperature for up to 3 days, or frozen for up to 2 weeks.)
MAKE FROSTING: Combine powdered sugar, softened butter, vanilla, and half of the evaporated milk in a large bowl. Use an electric mixer to combine ingredients on a low speed until its' a thick paste consistency and all of the lumps are gone. Gradually add remaining milk and continue mixing on medium speed until frosting is a smooth, silky, spreadable consistency. If it's still too thick, add more milk 1/2 teaspoon at a time until it's desired consistency. Mix in food coloring, if desired.
FROST & STORE COOKIES: Frost each cookie and decorate with sprinkles while frosting is still wet. Leave out to dry for several hours until dry to touch before storing in an airtight container. If stacking frosted cookies, put waxed or parchment paper between layers.
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I am totally sold on this after having used a traditional rolling pin for many years. You can adjust the guides on the end to get perfect, evenly rolled dough and pie crust in exactly the thickness you want.
These are the best cooling racks and are rated #1 by Cooks Illustrated. They have the added convenience of fitting inside the 13x18 baking sheet (above), for broiling and baking when a rack is needed (perfect when I bake bacon so the fat can drip into the baking sheet).