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When you think sugar cookie, do you picture soft, gently domed mounds shellacked with buttercream? Or frail, insubstantial treasures that have been intricately adorned and tin-tucked? Is the cookie in your mind shortbread-like? Closer to a cracker? Or three inches wide and sparkling with sanding sugar?
A "sugar cookie" cannot be confined to one type—which is both a blessing and a curse. It's exciting and inspiring, yes (how will this recipe stand up to the next? what will your neighbors' version of "sugar cookies" taste like?), but puzzling, too: If you want a certain sugar cookie—let's say thick or thin; airy or dense; beautiful or, er, "rustic"; moist or sandy—where should you turn?
We've chosen a bunch of spectrum-spanning sugar cookies—some classic, some boundary-pushing—and mapped them out for you:
Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Match
A few more details, cookie by cookie. (The numbers correspond to those in the image above.) Or, see all the recipes at once—sugar rush!
1. If you don't want to bother with frosting... My Girl's Best Test Kitchen Sugar Cookies
While Tom Hirschfeld's sugar cookies aren't the world's simplest, they're so far from plain—thanks to nutmeg, honey, and vanilla bean—that they need nothing but a cup of tea (or a glass of milk) to go alongside: no buttercream or royal icing required. (That's especially true considering that the balls of dough are dipped in granulated sugar before they're baked so that they come out of the oven literally sparkling.)
loves long walks on the beach no chilling necessary (but 20 to 30 minutes in the fridge will make it easier to form balls); made with white sugar and a touch of honey, all-purpose flour and cake flour, and butter and shortening
2. If you'd rather be eating cake... Aunt Joan's Cut Out Cookies
Not too sweet and with an almost floury flavor, these puffy cookies (which are courtesy of my great friend Mackenzie Merkel's family), may seem plain when compared to other sugar cookies in a crowd. But swipe them with some soft buttercream (Aunt Joan uses canned cake frosting, but homemade would be delicious) and you can appreciate how their soft cakiness mimics the packaged cookies you find in grocery stores.
Defining features: a whole cup of sour cream makes these tangy, soft, moist, and almost pillowy (and don't be surprised if you need a lot of flour to roll them out)
3. If you can resist eating an entire batch in one sitting... Chewy Sugar Cookies #2
Voted most likely to make you go back for seconds, these Food52 favorites (saved by over 2,500 of you!) from mrslarkin are rounded like little ant hills, with doughy centers that contrast with the crunch of the turbinado sugar coating. You'll also need white and light brown for the dough (but we used dark brown when we photographed these and no one—absolutely no one—complained).
Defining features: no chilling required; leavened with help from baking soda; starts with softened butter; soft when finished (avoid stacking or smooshing)
4. If you're not entirely sure of your sugar cookies' destiny... Roll-Out Sugar Cookies
As thick (1/2-inch!) and sturdy as sugar cookies come, Erin McDowell's roll-out door stoppers can handle whatever you throw at them: Turn them into cookie sandwiches, dip them in sprinkles before or (/and?!) after you bake, or get surgical with royal icing and a piping bag. (You can even turn the dough chocolate by swapping out 1/2 cup flour for cocoa powder.)
And you don't have to wait a long time to
eat them decorate and package them. The dough chills for just an hour (though if you're the type to carry an extra pair of socks around at all times, you may want to freeze the cut-outs for 5 to 10 minutes before baking).
Defining features: chills for 1 hour; standard ingredients (white sugar, butter, all-purpose flour, baking powder, an egg); lots of decoration potential; will hold up in the mail
5. If sugar cookies can't hold a candle to peanut butter ones... Chewiest Sugar Cookies
These obscenely doughy cookies from WinnieAb have a crumbly-soft texture reminiscent of our favorite peanut butter cookies. And, like peanut butter cookies, we think they'd make an exceptional jumping-off point: Turn them into thumbprints (fill with lemon curd or apple butter); mix in chopped figs into the dough; or dip baked cookies in melted dark chocolate.
They're a bit humbler than the other chewy options—no glitzy turbinado coating here—but if you're looking for something fancier, you've got multiple shaping options: Form them into balls, like we did; chill the dough, roll it out, and take cookie cutters to it; or turn it into a log and freeze it for the slice-and-bake-style.
Defining features: no chilling (unless you want to turn these into logs or roll-outs); mix of light brown and white sugar; richness from 2 egg yolks
6. If you want a cookie that'll taste as good as it looks... BA's Ultimate Sugar Cookies
What look like ordinary cut-out cookies—granted, ours got a little, um, bloated—actually have a few clever tricks up their sleeves. (We're not surprised—these are part of Bon Appétit's BA's Best series, which also produced an excellent-yet-squat banana bread).
What do we mean by "clever tricks"? First, an extra egg yolk (for added richness). And second, unlike almost every other sugar cookie recipe in this list, the butter starts chilled (for you, that's less time waiting for butter to soften; for your cookies, that's less airy fluff and more crumbly melty-ness (though, thanks to baking powder, they'll still rise just fine).
Defining features: dough must chill for at least 2 hours (can also be frozen up to 1 month in advance); butter starts chilled; bonus egg yolk!
7. If spice cookies are what you're really after... Molasses Sugar Cookies
We knew this time would come: the moment in the sugar cookie discussion when we have to stop and ask ourselves, "What really is a sugar cookie, anyway?"
This is a sugar cookie by name, yes, but the addition of 2 tablespoons (just 2 tablespoons!) of molasses—along with cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger—makes them side more heavily with Team Spice Cookie, albeit one that's more mild than intoxicating. These have a bit of a soft belly (easily squishable—don't pack under heavy brownies!), with some texture from the turbinado used to roll them. (And, fun fact, a version of this recipe appears on the back of Grandma's and Brer Rabbit's molasses jars.)
Defining features: dough chills for 30 minutes; molasses (duh) and ground spices; festively sparkly; more deeply-flavored than your typical "sugar cookie"; no frosting needed
8. If you make oatmeal as an excuse to eat brown sugar... Brown Sugar Cookies
The 3:1 ratio of dark brown sugar to white sugar gives these cookie a deep caramel richness that'll have you thinking they're made with brown butter or lots of spices—but no such thing!
They break in half gently (a couple tablespoons of vegetable oil makes their centers puff like an inhale rather than hollow out), but who are we kidding? You'll end up eating both halves. Our recipe tester Stephanie Bourgeois says these will be beloved by anyone who enjoys eating brown sugar by the spoonful—but they're so sweet that she normally scales down the size of each individual cookie.
Defining features: no chilling necessary; made with more brown sugar than white; mixture of softened butter and vegetable oil; make face-sized (like the recipe author Furey and the Feast prefers) or palm-sized, depending on your sweet tooth
9. If you would eat an entire Pillsbury roll... The Kitchn's Best Cut-Out Sugar Cookies
Cream cheese, almond extract, and lemon zest gives these cookies from The Kitchn an extra depth of flavor that makes them taste—surprise!—very similar to the slice-and-bake from the store (not necessarily a bad thing). The dough is easy to roll out, only has to chill for an hour, holds its shape nicely, and produces cookies that'll snap when you break them but are tender when you take a bite.
Defining features: dough chills for 1 hour; butter softens for 1 hour at room temperature before it's used (so plan ahead); cream cheese adds richness and slight tang; bonus flavors: lemon zest and almond extract
10. If you want to decorate whilst you bake... Secret Cookies
"Sugar cookies"? Nah. We shall call thee "butter cookies." These not-so-secret "secret cookies" are butter-first, sugar-second glistening ornaments that'd be right at home in that iconic blue tin.
The cookies' bells and whistles come not from the ingredient list (which is comfortingly usual), but from the simple but ingenious decoration: Dip your prettiest-bottomed drinking glass into a shallow dish of sprinkles, then use it to make an sparkly impression in each ball of dough. No need to mess with flooding royal icing.
Defining features: no chilling time; salted butter (that is, built-in flavor); sprinkles aplenty; two egg yolks (for tenderness); no chemical leavener (so cream that butter well!)
11. If you're looking for the classic chewy... Serious Eats' Soft & Chewy Sugar Cookies
To the passerby, Serious Eats' Soft and Chewy Sugar Cookies may look like the Chewy Sugar Cookies #2, but not so fast. While the latter is doughy and (forgive us) moist, the cookie you see here is more classically chewy, with a golden-brown perimeter giving way to a center that's light and a little sandy.
Defining features: no chilling (instead, a cold egg cools the dough, making it easier to handle); the butter starts off "firm but pliable" and is aggressively creamed with the sugar ("until fluffy, pale ivory, and soft"); a pinch of nutmeg and a generous dose (1 tablespoon) vanilla extract lend flavor
12. If you want to make 1 dough this season... Do-Almost-Anything Vanilla Cookie Dough
Who is surprised that the sugar cookie that might just take gold in the Best All-Around category are from Dorie Greenspan? No one, that's who.
The dough, which is easy-to-work with (especially if you heed Dorie's advice), yields cookies that are crisp on the outside, plush within, and exactly the shape you intended (no swelling here). Scarfed down plain, they're addictively buttery and not too sweet—but they would take well to sprinkles and icings, too. The cookies are sturdy and will last for 5 days at room temperature—so send them to all of your friends!
Defining features: the dough is frozen for at least 1 hour or refrigerated for at least 3; made with 2 room temperature egg whites (no yolks, no whole eggs!); you'll think the baking time is wrong (350° F for 19 to 21 minutes) but don't doubt Dorie
13. If you can't decide between soft and crisp... Cornstarch Sugar Cookies
Is it possible for a cookie to be both soft and hard at the same time? (Could we compare this cookie to a moss-covered rock? Don't answer that.) By supplementing the flour with fine, powdery cornstarch and replacing granulated sugar with confectioners', you'll get a dainty cookie that's both snappable and ethereal (so much so that dipping one in a glass of milk could make it disappear completely). And it all makes sense—this recipe was adapted from the back of a box of Canadian cornstarch.
Defining features: chilling is not absolutely necessary, but a 30-minute time-out in the fridge will make the dough easier to work with; all-purpose flour is replaced, partially, by cornstarch; granulated sugar is swapped out for confectioners'; handle with care (no cross-country shipping)
14. If you have no time for butter to soften... Serious Eats' Easy Chewy Sugar Cookies
Whereas creaming the butter and sugar is of the utmost importance in the other Serious Eats' chewy cookie recipe, here, the butter is melted first, then simply stirred together with the sugar and salt. The dry ingredients are added to the bowl and that's that. The resulting cookies have a harder all-over "shell" and a dense interior (as if you were to turn a crusty bagel into a cookie).
Defining features: no chilling required; higher-gluten bread flour replaces all-purpose for even chewier cookie; no electric mixer needed; made in one bowl
15. If you fancy something a bit more sophisticated... Olive Oil Sugar Cookies
If you're a fan of the taste and tenderness of Amanda Hesser's olive oil press-in tart crust, these are the cookies for you. By swapping out much (but not all ) of the butter for extra-virgin olive oil, Sarah Kieffer created a crisp, crumbly cookie with a subtle savoriness and sophistication that outclasses royal icing. Instead, sandwich them with fig jam or smear them with a simple lemon juice-confectioners' sugar glaze.
And be sure to use olive oil you like the taste of—it will come through here.
Defining features: the dough needs to chill for at least 2 hours before it's rolled out, then again once the cookies have been formed; the least sweet of all the cookies here
16. If you prefer a sugar cookie that tilts towards shortbread... Muscovado Sugar Cookies
Without any eggs to help bind the ingredients together, the cookies are sandier than your typical sugar cookie, with a dry texture more akin to a crumb-making shortbread.
The sweet freckles of muscovado clumps are perhaps their raison d'être (see their true prominence in the original recipe from Ashley Rodriguez)—but if you prefer a spot-free cookie, sift the sugar before creaming it with the butter.
Defining features: dough should be chilled overnight (and can be frozen, in log-form, for up to 1 month); the only log cookies of the bunch (perfect circles, here you come!)
17. If you don't eat dairy... Vegan Sugar Cookies
There is a time and a place for vegan substitutes (like vegetable shortening and egg replacer), and sugar cookies is one of those. While coconut oil and flax seed "eggs" are suitable in many vegan baking recipes, delicate sugar cookies require ingredients that won't encumber their crispy sweetness.
These cookies are thin but with a chew: If you want them super crispy, our vegan expert Gena Hamshaw recommends using 1 1/2 cups organic confectioners' sugar in place of the cane sugar.
Defining features: the dough chills in the fridge for 15 to 20 minutes; may be brittle and crumbly as you work with it (for ease, roll it out between two sheets of wax or parchment paper); vegan (duh)
18. If you are very, very patient... Holiday Cut-Out Cookies
Famous around these parts for their thinness and minimally-chic embellishment, Amanda Hesser's mother's cut-out cookies are a far cry from the thick and hefty, buttercream-topped snowflakes: "Contrary to the plump and pale versions you often see, cut-out cookies should be very thin with browned edges, so they’re crisp and nutty!" Drop one on the counter and it might shatter.
The dough must rest overnight (test 1) and be rolled to 1/8-inch thick (test 2—and this one's important: The cookies get baked on ungreased baking sheets, and they tend to stick if they're too thick). The third test is that these cookies get better with age: Place them in a tin or storage container with a lid and let age 1 to 2 weeks to bring out the flavor. (Or, ship them to relatives in Japan.)
Defining features: dough chills overnight; baked on bare baking sheets (the thinner the cookies are, the easier they come unstuck); cookies are brushed with egg yolk pre-bake, for a yellow-ish tint (and so that any decorations stick!)
All the recipes, in one place
Oh Look, There's More
Not to overwhelm you but...
But Wait! Before You Go
Cookie baking's more fun (and less stressful) with good equipment:
Winter Cookie Cutter Set
Holiday Cookie Cutter Set
Okay, okay, enough about us: What's your favorite sugar cookie? Tell us in the comments—we want to know!