How to Make a Gingerbread House

Keep the process stress-free: Make templates and extra icing, and build with a friend.

December  7, 2016

Erin McDowell is a professional baker, food stylist, and writer. Her first book, The Fearless Baker, was named one of 2017's best baking books, by The New York Times. Today, she's sharing with us her expert tips on how to make a stunning gingerbread house that's both structurally sound and stress-free.

When I was growing up, my mom would make my brother and me (each!) our own gingerbread houses to decorate around the holidays. For a few years. she even built more than two—allowing us to invite a few friends over to decorate their own, which they got to take home. This is a true story. My mother was Superwoman, straight out of the pages of Martha Stewart (she would deny this, but, seriously, anyone who makes more than two gingerbread houses in a day gets Superwoman status, right?).

Decorating said gingerbread houses is one of my favorite holiday memories. Now, I help my nieces and nephews build theirs, though they regularly prefer I not help. Last year, when my four-year-old niece Lucy said “No thanks, Aunt Erin” about 25 times while I tried to help her with her house, I decided I clearly wanted to build my own. So, this year, that’s just what I did (with some help, of course).

I wanted to make a New York City/Food52-inspired gingerbread house, but wasn’t sure what exactly that would mean. Our offices are lovely, but I wasn’t sure how to tackle the subtle décor with gingerbread. I finally settled on making a gingerbread brownstone, and thought I might be able to model it after one of our founder’s homes. A nudge from Kristen Miglore gave me the right direction. She suggested I make Amanda’s house, since it was in her kitchen when Food52 first began.

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Top Comment:
“I was also the mom who made two gingerbread houses, so that my daughter could invite a friend over and they'd each have their own. Like you, she grew up to construct some much more elaborate houses. One year, she had some leftover candied rose petals, so she ground them up and made Monet's pink house at Giverny. Complete with a natastutium walk. She's about to visit, and I have some sheets of gelatin that just might have here name on them. Thanks for the tips!”
— Greenstuff

The thing about brownstones is they are structurally just big rectangles. Where a normal gingerbread house may have walls of different sizes and a sloped roof, the Food52 gingerbread house was built from four pieces of gingerbread that were the exact same height and width, plus a flat roof. The pieces were easy enough to roll out, bake, and handle—but this structure was actually a bit harder to pull off than I anticipated. It was larger and didn’t have as much support as the traditional gingerbread house shape. Plus, it needed details to really make the house stand out. While you may decide to opt for a traditional house, not a brownstone, this holiday season (though as usual, I say: GO FOR IT!), here are some tips I used to make and decorate the brownstone (watch the video above to see exactly how I did it) that can be applied to any house you build. Well, that is, any cookie house.

This is what you need to know:

Templates make easy work of sides like this. Photo by James Ransom

Make templates.

Like with any big baking project, I firmly believe a solid plan is a huge key to success. It helps you see the scope of the whole thing, and it’s a lot easier to fix your measurement errors on a piece of paper, than it is on gingerbread dough. If designing one from scratch feels insanely hard, use this one here as a jumping off point.

Know how to handle your gingerbread.

Gingerbread is already a pretty sturdy dough, especially if you use a recipe meant specifically for building houses. While you may be of a mind to eat your gingerbread house, I usually use it for display only, and make other cookies for eating. For that reason, I take a few liberties with my gingerbread house dough to make it even easier to work with.

First, I use shortening in the dough instead of butter. I’m, for the most part, not a fan of shortening because I just love butter so much, but the higher melting point makes it much easier to handle when rolling out and cutting the dough. And since I’m not eating the gingerbread, but eating these, these, and these, that’s too big of a “pro” to discount.

Second, I roll out the dough thicker than I would usually roll cookies or pastry—anywhere between 1/3 inch to 1/2 inch thick. The thicker the dough, the sturdier it is. Gingerbread that is too thin (especially with cutouts or when shaped oddly) is much more likely to break. Another way I make dough-handling foolproof, is to roll out the dough between two sheets of parchment paper. If you don’t have parchment paper, rolling between silicone baking mats works too. Rolling not on a floured work surface, but between parchment paper or silicone mats has an added benefit: Once the dough is the proper thickness, you can slide the whole thing—parchment and all—onto a baking sheet easily, without risking tearing or messing up the dough. This is especially important when you’re working with large pieces that can be more difficult to handle.

Start decorating even before you bake.

I wanted to give the brownstone some special details to help bring it to life, so I ordered a stamp that had a brick pattern, gently pressing it into the unbaked dough. If you can’t be bothered to order a stamp (building a gingerbread house is stressful enough, we know!), try using a wooden skewer or a thin chopstick to etch in some details. You want to press hard enough for the details to show, but not so hard that you puncture the gingerbread.

See that brick pattern? Photo by James Ransom

It’s Better to Overbake, Rather Than Underbake.

It’s super important you bake the gingerbread properly (too-soft gingerbread = inherent vice!). Underbaked gingerbread contains unwanted moisture, which can lead to flimsy walls caving in with time. It’s best to err on the side of overbaking your gingerbread—look for noticeably brown edges and for the surface of the dough to look and feel hard and dry, even while inside the oven.

Identify your Landing Pad.

This may seem obvious, but while your gingerbread pieces are cooling, take a minute to identify where you’ll be building on. Will you be decorating a “front lawn” area, or are you hoping to airlift the house someplace else? This will help you decide whether to build on a piece of posterboard, cardboard, cutting board, cookie sheet, etc.

Another seemingly-obvious tip: place your landing pad somewhere that's around waist-level, like a dining table, so you can keep eyes on all parts of the structure, at all times. Once you’ve identified your landing pad, secure the first few pieces on with royal icing. And while it’s not impossible to move a gingerbread house from one surface to another, it's not ideal. If you really, really must, wait until the icing has dried and set before attempting to pick the house up.

Make extra icing.

One of my biggest baking pet peeves is when I’m decorating something (cookies, cakes, or, you know, a massive gingerbread house) and run out of icing. Do yourself a favor and make plenty (I made 3 batches of my favorite royal icing and wasn’t sorry!). This is also a good time to use meringue powder-based recipes, which will make the whole process easier and quicker (no need to use egg whites, so no egg separating, etc.). You can order meringue powder online or buy it in the cake decorating section of craft stores. Keep your royal icing covered with plastic wrap when you’re not using it—it’s basically sugary concrete and will begin hardening the second it's exposed to air.

Build With a Friend.

This isn’t entirely necessary, but it’s helpful—especially if you’re tackling an ambitious shape (our house was so tall!) or if this is your first time building a gingerbread house. I put the first two walls together and was pretty satisfied with myself when I realized I’d run out of hands. My trusty baking assistant, Katie, came to the rescue. She had the hands I needed to help build the house, and we took shifts holding the walls while the icing set. Best of all, once the house was built, we turned on the Christmas carols and decorated together. (Bonus: It was much, much more fun this way, too.)

Don’t Stress!

We’re making a house out of cookies, here, people. It’s supposed to be FUN! But no one is immune to the occasional cookie disaster. En route to the build table, one of my pieces of gingerbread broke a bit. Worst of all, it was the front of the house. If you look at our time-lapse video, you can see a crack on the top right of the house throughout the early stages of building and decorating. If pieces of your house break, don’t be scared—that’s what royal icing is for. Use it to patch the crack (inside and out for maximum stability) and hold it tightly together while it sets. Once the piece has set, go ahead and build with it. Don’t worry about the visible mistake—just cover it with decorations and no one will know. If your piece cracks in multiple places, this technique can still work, but the more cracks there are, the more likely the structural integrity may eventually be compromised. I also often make extras of any small pieces, as they are more likely to break.

Just a crack, patched with royal icing, and decorated over. Nothing to see here! Photo by James Ransom

Extra Credit.

Candy décor on a gingerbread house is classic, and we used lots of white candies, sparkly sprinkles, and edible glitter to decorate our gingerbread brownstone. But icing decorations can add a lot of detail, too. I fitted two pastry bags with small circle tips, and we used those to pipe snow on the ledges of the windows and stairs and icicles that dangled off in some places.

Can you spot the tree in there? Photo by James Ransom

Extra Extra Credit.

Now that you’ve built your formidable structure, why not decorate the inside too? The back wall of my gingerbread brownstone had no windows, so I cut some paper and applied it to the inside, like wallpaper. I just kept it neutral, using brown craft paper, but you could use decorative patterned paper, too. Just remember that gingerbread does contain fat and can leave grease stains on the paper, so it’s best to attach a layer of parchment paper first, which will absorb any unwanted stains before your final paper addition. I added the "wallpaper" once the house was built (before attaching the roof), but it would be easy to do before it was built instead. I also made a tiny gingerbread Christmas tree using scraps of dough from the main structure. I cut out five different sizes of stars and stacked them, offset slightly, to make a tree shape. We put this just inside one of the front windows. Finally, I added a few strands of battery operated twinkly lights. I left the switches hanging off the back of the house, so I could turn it on and off easily. The light adds such an amazing glow to the whole thing!

Might as well decorate the front lawn, side porch, and backyard while you’re at it. I used an offset spatula to apply swirly icing “snow” all around the base of the house, then topped it with plenty of sprinkles to make it sparkle. As with any kind of decorating, the sky is really the limit. I suggest buying a bunch of stuff and going crazy.

Have you been terrorized by a gingerbread house? How did you bounce back? Let us know in the comments!

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  • Katrina Wagner
    Katrina Wagner
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  • cookinginvictoria
  • jan
  • ginger fields
    ginger fields
I always have three kinds of hot sauce in my purse. I have a soft spot for making people their favorite dessert, especially if it's wrapped in a pastry crust. My newest cookbook, Savory Baking, came out in Fall of 2022 - is full of recipes to translate a love of baking into recipes for breakfast, dinner, and everything in between!


Katrina W. December 8, 2017
This is epically amazing! I really want to try and build this! Do you have templates your willing to share?!! Also, how did you make those beautiful stairs?
mary December 7, 2017
This is a wonderful post. I built my first gingerbread house just last weekend.
cookinginvictoria December 6, 2017
I love everything about this. So creative and gorgeous -- a true work of art!
jan December 10, 2016
Gingerbread cookies –best ever+++ given to me by
Steve Szabo Vanitas, Palazzo Versace, Gold Coast

Makes 15 people or one house

400 grams honey
1 ¼ cup sugar
60-ml. water
1 Kg flour
5-¼ teaspoons bicarb of soda
125 ml water
Spice mixture
2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground clove
1 tsp nutmeg
2 tsp allspice
1 tablespoon ground orange peel or essence

Make the spice mixture

Bring the honey sugar and water to the boil then cool

Put the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl and add the liquid. Mix 3 minutes
Allow the dough to rest (unrefrigerated) for one day

Roll out dough
Bake on baking paper
180 degrees for 10 minutes

Can be made 2 weeks ahead and kept in airtight container.
ginger F. December 10, 2016
I have been making gingerbread houses for sale for about 40 yrs. They provided my Christmas money. One year, I made 57 houses. I don't make theme for sale anymore but I do sessions teaching others how to make them. Mine are meant to be eaten so they aren't very elaborate but the taste is wonderful. I use a Norwegian recipe for the dough [ no molasses, just lots of spices]. My frosting uses shortening but I also use meringue powder, and lots of vanilla and almond extract. Hard candies make great stained-glass windows, baked with the gingerbread. Ice cream cones for trees and pretzels for log fences. Spearmint leaves [ when I can find them , for bushes at base of house. I have been really honored to have many customers who have been buying houses from me for nearly the entire 40 years!. Sorry this is so lengthy but just wanted to brag a little. And, you did ask.
mizerychik December 9, 2016
Now I want to make the Sesame Street set out of gingerbread.
AntoniaJames December 9, 2016
Magnificent! Well done, you. ;o)
magpiebaker December 8, 2016
This is INTENSE. In the best way possible!!!
Merrill S. December 7, 2016
This post -- as well as the gingerbread house itself -- makes me so happy!
Erin J. December 8, 2016
Thanks, Merrill!
Sarah E. December 7, 2016
I think I love your mom more and more, everyday <3
Erin J. December 8, 2016
Same here!
Riddley G. December 7, 2016
You really outdid yourself, Erin! And the sheet gelatin as windows, wow, I love that. It's genius.
Erin J. December 8, 2016
Thanks Riddley! And for all your help!
Ali W. December 7, 2016
Greenstuff December 7, 2016
That is beautiful! I was also the mom who made two gingerbread houses, so that my daughter could invite a friend over and they'd each have their own. Like you, she grew up to construct some much more elaborate houses. One year, she had some leftover candied rose petals, so she ground them up and made Monet's pink house at Giverny. Complete with a natastutium walk.

She's about to visit, and I have some sheets of gelatin that just might have here name on them. Thanks for the tips!
Erin J. December 8, 2016
Whoa! Monet'S House - I would love to see!!!
sydney December 7, 2016
Love this. Gorgeous. I made a Chanukah temple one year for my kids. Was cute and fun. Colour palette was silver, gold, blue, white.
Erin J. December 8, 2016
Great idea!!!