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Old Fashioned Sugar Cookies (about 26)

A few months ago, my pals over at Serious Eats asked if I’d be interested in delving into a bit of Cookie Science to explain how ingredients like butter, sugar, eggs, flour, baking soda and baking powder function within a recipe, along with an in depth look at how techniques like creaming until “light and fluffy” truly work.

cookie dough samples

Over a period of six weeks, I blasted through twenty-five pounds of sugar, fifteen pounds of flour, twelve pounds of butter, six dozen eggs, and a quart of vanilla extract. Not only did I walk away with a better understanding of cookies in general, I came to know the ins and outs of three recipes in particular: oatmeal, gingersnaps, and old fashioned sugar cookies.

While the articles focused on general rules of thumb that could be applied to most any cookie, I couldn’t help but learn all the ins and outs of those three recipes in particular. For example, when it comes to sugar cookies: less is more.

sugar cookie samples

While extra rich local and European butters made for a better tasting dough, they baked up indistinguishable from cookies that started with grocery store brands. Likewise, expensive “sparkling” sugars looked picture perfect prior to baking, but the extra large crystals formed a heavy crust that browned too quickly, distracting from the soft and chewy texture within.

Simple granulated sugar worked best, giving the cookies a snowy exterior before melting into a whisper thin shell (alternately, for those who prefer a bit of crunch, I discovered dunking the portioned dough in ice water helps achieve a crisper coat).

Curiously, cookies rolled in sanding sugar or nonpareils baked up a little fluffier— perhaps because of their slightly alkaline pH.

rainbow sprinkle cookies

Whatever finishing touch you choose, these old fashioned sugar cookies will always be chewy and soft, with a hint of crispy caramelization only around the very edges. My brother is crazy about them after they’ve softened for a day or two in an airtight container, but I think they’re best fresh out of the oven. To that end, bake only what you need and refrigerate the rest; this dough will keep for up to a week.

Old Fashioned Sugar Cookies
Yield: about twenty-six 3” cookies

8 ounces* unsalted butter, cool but pliable, about 60°
10 ounces sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/4 teaspoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt (half as much if iodized)
a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1 large egg, straight from the fridge
1 Tablespoon pure vanilla extract
11 1/4 ounces all purpose flour, roughly 10% protein
assorted sanding sugars, nonpareils, or plain granulated sugar

Adjust oven rack to the middle position, preheat to 350°, and line two aluminum baking sheets with parchment (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 light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Crack in the egg and continue beating until smooth, about a minute more, pausing halfway through to scrape the bowl with a flexible spatula. Resume mixing on low, sprinkle in flour, and continue until a thick dough is formed.

Divide into twenty six 1-ounce portions with a 2-Tablespoon scoop (the plain dough can be refrigerated in a zip-top bag for one week, or frozen up to a month; simply soften to room temperature before using). To help the decorative coating stick, roll each ball of dough until smooth and round, then tumble in a bowl of sanding sugar, nonpareils, or sugar until thoroughly coated.

Arrange on a parchment lined baking sheet, leaving 2” between each, and bake until pale gold around the edges but still puffy and soft in the middle, about 15 minutes. Cool directly on the baking sheet until firm, about 10 minutes, and enjoy warm. In an airtight container, leftovers will keep up to a week at room temperature.

*For those who prefer baking with grams or cup measurements, check out the original version posted on Serious Eats.

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Any questions?

Dec 17, 2015 · 10:38 AM

What a wonderful post! I always want to know the hows and whys, but prefer for someone else to go through the pounds of butter, flour and everything else to find the answers. Happy holidays Stella.

 · Laura @MotherWouldKnow · http://motherwouldknow.com

Dec 17, 2015 · 11:15 AM

Thank you for explaining the science behind these classic sugar cookies. Because party goers at my house prefer everything bite-sized, I would like to use my 1TBS scoop. Should I lower the baking temp to 325°F, lessen the baking time, or both?

 · somebunnyslove  · http://somebunnyslove.com

Dec 17, 2015 ·  1:16 PM

Thanks for all these insights.

 · Anna  · 

Dec 17, 2015 ·  1:22 PM

This post made my heart sing! I love your recipes and am so jazzed that you are posting again, for however brief!

 · Kathryn · 

Dec 17, 2015 ·  3:37 PM

I agree with Kathryn! I was surprised to see your post — PLEASANTLY surprised, I should add – and I hope you keep it up. How is the book?

 · Tara · http://littlehomekitchen.wordpress.com

Dec 18, 2015 ·  1:34 PM

I made these last night, and the dough balls are in the freezer ready to bake & dip in lemon white chocolate later tonight. Can you talk about your method of mixing on low and sprinkling in all the flour? It’s not one I’ve heard before – what’s the science behind it?

 · Sarah · http://www.thesweeteryboston.com

Dec 19, 2015 · 12:36 PM

YOU’RE BACK!!!! I love your blog and recipes. Your caramel sauce is absolutely divine and I always stop here when I need to bake something. Thanks for being awesome and I’m so happy to see you’re back!

 · Hollister · 

Apr 09, 2016 ·  5:10 AM

How lovely to see you’re still alive! Even though I miss your articles (and all the great ideas in the comments), I’m guessing all those projects you’re working on are more exciting. Good for you and good luck with all you’re doing!

 · MA · 

Apr 14, 2016 ·  4:09 AM

Cookies! My daughter extremely like it. I want to do it for her. Thank your recipe!

 · Janet @ healthoop · http://healthoop.com/food/

Apr 14, 2016 ·  4:13 AM

I love cookies! I also love this food. Thanks! Please share with me when you have new posts http://healthoop.com/beauty/

 · Anna · 

Oct 07, 2016 ·  2:25 PM

This is so informative! This is actually very cool to know! Thanks for the great post!

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