A rolled sugar cookie can give even the most seasoned cookie baker a headache. The dough needs to be durable enough to withstand rolling and cutting before it’s baked. The problem: cookies durable enough to withstand this manipulation can be hard and unpleasant to eat. Likewise, dough that produces a tender cookie is often too tender when rolled, sticking to the counter and cutters, and stretching when moved to the cookie sheet.
To start, a rolled sugar cookie should be made with cold butter. I’ve found nothing increases durability on the counter than mixing your dough with cold butter. It adds a clay-like flexibility when working with the dough, and increases your chances of transferring the cut cookie to the sheet pan without warping. A bonus, the cold-butter dough will remain tender when scraps are gathered and rerolled, making the last cookie you bake as tender as the first.
As for the air in the cookie, we need some, but not a lot. More than that, we need the air added to the dough, but left un-inflated when baked in the oven.
To start, we will mix ultra-fine bakers sugar with the cold butter for only 2 minutes. The finer grains of sugar will carve miniscule air pockets into the butter, creating finer network of petite air bubbles, and ultimately a delicately porous cookie.
We will also eliminate the chemical leavening all together. This leaves only steam to inflate the tiny bubbles once they are in the oven.
To help manage the steam, we will eliminate the water-filled egg whites and add only the protein and fat rich egg yolks. We will also add a small amount of starch to the flour to help absorb a little more water.
We will sift the starch with the flour, only once, adding a little air to the cookie dough with this addition. We will also include more flour in this recipe. The rolled sugar cookie dough needs a little more bulk than a drop cookie to help it stay put in the oven.
Extra flour means extra protein, which bring us to the the last and most crucial step for this cookie: the order in which we mix the ingredients. After the butter and sugar have been mixed, we will add the flour. This allows the fat to coat some of the flour before we add the moisture in the egg yolks. When the moisture does make it’s way into the fat coated flour bitsies, they can swell, but they can’t join forces, they slip right past one another. It is this particular interaction between fat and flour that gave rise to the term “shortening” as the fat shortens the gluten chains.
The results are a tender cookie that holds any intricate shape you can give it. The arms of gingerbread men don’t droop, and the delicate edges of snowflakes hold their shape. These cookies were invented to be decorated! My grandmother used to color evaporated milk and give us paintbrushes to decorate the cookies before they went into the oven. They can be smeared with frosting and covered in sprinkles. And the most common topping for rolled sugar cookies is royal icing, dyed in bright colors, piped on, and left to dry.
250g butter, straight from the refrigerator
280g sugar, ultrafine bakers sugar
7g kosher salt
80g egg yolk
10g vanilla extract
- Place the flour and cornstarch in a bowl and mix them together until even. Sift the flour mixture through a fine mesh strainer once, then gently set aside.
- Cut the butter into half inch slices, and place in the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the ultrafine bakers sugar and salt, and paddle on a medium speed for 1 minute. After 1 minute, scrape the sides of the bowl and the paddle down. Mix the butter and sugar for 1 more minute at medium speed.
- Scrape the sides of the bowl and the paddle down again, it shouldn’t be easy, the butter should still be cold and resistant to movement. Use your strongest spatula.
- Add the reserved flour mixture and paddle the dough on the lowest speed, turning the mixer on and off at the beginning to discourage the flour from jumping out of the bowl.
- Mix for 20-30 seconds, just until the dough forms a homogenous mass. Add the egg yolks and vanilla extract, and continue mixing on low speed until the dough is smooth and even. This could take up to 1 minute, don’t fear. The fat has coated the flour nicely and we are not at risk for overworking the dough.
- Remove the dough from the bowl, and transfer it to a lightly floured countertop. While we need the dough to rest in the refrigerator for an hour to allow the water to It is going to be a lot easier to roll your dough to the appropriate ¼ inch thickness right now, while it’s most malleable. Once rolled, we will need to transfer the dough to the refrigerator to rest for an hour and firm back up. I’ve found the easiest way to do this is to roll the dough out on a piece of parchment paper, then use the parchement paper to lift the delicate dough onto the sheet pan. So you know, this recipe makes enough dough for two sheets of dough. You can stack one on top of the other, provided there is a piece of parchment between them.
- Once your rolled sugar cookie dough has rested for an hour and firmed up, transfer the dough to the counter and preheat your oven to 300 degrees. Lightly dip your favorite cookie cutter in flour, tap any excess off, and stamp your cookies.
- Gather up the scraps of the dough, and on a lightly floured surface, knead them until they form a smooth dough. Roll the dough back out to ¼ inch thickess, and cut more cookies. Continue one or two more times until the scrap is too small to cut any more cookies.
- Transfer the cookies to a sheet pan lined with parchment paper, and if you have enough pans, place the cookie-lined sheet pan over another empty sheet pan, “double panning” them. This insulates surface of the sheet pan, reducing surface heat and liminiting the amount of browning on the bottom of the cookies. Bake the cookies at 300 degrees for 6 minutes. Rotate the pan front to back to promote even baking, then bake your cookies for 6-8 more minutes, until cooked through.
- Once the cookie is baked transfer the sheet pan to a wire cooling rack and allow the cookies to cool on the pan.