Soft sugar cookies are in the drop-cookie family. This means the dough is dropped on a cookie sheet in a small, even mound, and the cookie spreads into its shape while baking.
To help these soft sugar cookies spread, we want a lot of air in them. The butter should be soft—around 65 degrees—so we can incorporate as much air as possible during the creaming process. Baking powder gives the cookies twise as much rise as it releases gasses during the first portion of the bake time, then again inflating the cookies after they spread. It does this by slipping inside the air pockets we worked so diligently to add in the creaming process, and blowing them up like little balloons. Just like the baking soda fills the tiny pockets with carbon dioxide, the water in this cookie is going to fill the pockets with steam. To encourage this we will use egg whites only.
We will also add air to this cookie by sifting the flour 3 times. Each time you separate the flour particles with a mesh sieve, they catch air between them, much of which will be incorporated into the cookie when the flour is mixed in.
But creating the air pockets is only half the story. It’s not the creation and expansion of the air pockets that create the chew of a soft sugar cookie—it’s the collapse of them. If this cookie retained the air, it would be cake-like instead of chewy. Instead, we want the air pockets to collapse completely and disappear from the cookie just after the dough inside has changed from raw to cooked, but before the protiens and starches lock into place to create an unchangeable structure To encourage this Goldilocks style “just right” texture, many pastry chefs give a hot tray of drop cookies a quick whack on the countertop just after the come out of the oven.
For this cookie, the egg should also be at room temperature. Butter and egg do not mix easily. At best, they emulsify: the fat breaks down into pieces small enough to sit alongside the water. Warmer ingredients are easier to coax into this arrangement. As a result, room-temperature butter mixed with a room-temperature egg will mix more evenly, preventing the ingredients from shifting during baking and creating a heavy bottomed cookie.
I often roll the dough in colorful sanding sugar before baking to give the cookies an additional layer of crunch. If left unsanded, the cookies also are great frosted.
250g butter, between 60 and 65 degrees
10g kosher salt
50g egg white
1 tsp almond extract
10g baking powder
1. Place the flour and baking powder in a small bowl and mix them together evenly. Use a fine mesh sieve, or flour sifter to sift the flour mixture 3 times. Once sifted, gently set the flour aside.
2. Cut the butter into ½ inch slices and place them in the bowl of a stand mixer along with the sugar and salt. Fit the mixer with the paddle attachment and mix the sugar and butter together on low speed until they are evenly mixed. Stop the mixer and scrape the sides of the bowl down, along with the paddle. Continue mixing the butter and sugar, “creaming” them together for 5 minutes, until the mixture becomes lighter in color, and increases in size taking on a fluffier appearance. Do not shortchange yourself in this step, the air you’re adding right now is crucial.
3. After 5 minutes of creaming, scrape the sides of the bowl down, along with the paddle and add the egg whites and almond extract. Mix on high for 1 more minute, starting slow to avoid the liquid splashing out of the bowl, then turning the speed up as it becomes incorporated.
4. Scrape the sides of the bowl and paddle down one more time, and add the sifted flour mixture. With the mixer on low, mix the flour into the cookie dough as gently as possible. Aggressive mixing will knock out some of the air we worked so hard to add to this cookie, and trigger the growth of more gluten than we want.
5. Transfer the sugar cookie dough to a medium bowl or other general use container and press plastic wrap directly on the surface of the cookie dough. Transfer the cookie dough to the refrigerator and let it rest for 1 hour. This hour is mandatory. It is the time in which the water distributes itself fully, slipping into starch granules, grabbing hold of sugar molecules, and wetting the protiens fully for the limited gluten formation. It also firms up the butter a little, helping the cookie from overspreading in the oven, and makes the dough easier to handle when you scoop and shape them.
6. When you’re ready to bake your cookies, preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Line 4 cookie sheets with parchment paper. Place about a cup of granulated sugar, or a pretty colored sanding sugar in a wide mouthed bowl. Scoop the sugar cookie dough into balls just a little smaller than a golf ball and drop them in a bowl of granulated sugar. Use your hands to coat the dough balls in the sugar, then roll them into spheres.
7. Place them on your sheet pan, 6 at a time, separated by at least 3 inches. Bake your sugar cookies for 5 minutes, then open the oven door and rotate the pans front to back to ensure even baking. Continue baking the cookies for 4 to 5 minutes, until they have crackled and domed, and the dome is just past being jiggly.
8. Once the cookie is not too soft, not to hard, remove the sheet pans from the oven and give them a gentle whack on the counter, collapsing the dome and making perfectly flat cookies. Set the sheet pan aside on a wire cooling rack and allow the tender cookies to cool on the pan before gathering them up.
9. These cookies really are best the day they are made, and if you decide to make them any more than a day in advance, I suggest making the dough, scooping it, and freezing the dough-balls instead. They can be baked directly from the freezer with an additional minute in the oven and will outshine a day old cookie every time.