Cut-Out Cookie Season Is Here. So Is This No-Mess Technique.

October 18, 2017

Everyone loves cut-out cookies for the holidays. What’s cuter on the cookie tray—and so much fun to decorate—than shapely sugar cookies? Think frosted ghosts and goblins and turkeys decked out in colorful candy starting October. Angels, stars, and dreidels are just around the corner. But face it, producing dozens of decoration-ready cookie shapes and characters just isn’t as speedy, neat, or efficient as making drop cookies or slice-and-bake refrigerator cookies. What’s a busy baker to do?

I tackle cut-out cookies by doing as much as possible in advance, even if only a day or two in advance. Here's the normal drill: Mix dough, wrap, and chill, which not only firms it up for rolling, but relaxes any gluten that may have developed in the mixing. Then, soften at room temp until pliable enough to roll, roll the dough on floured surface (scattering lots of flour around the room), cut out the shapes, transfer to baking sheets, bake while rerolling and cutting dough. Messy, right?

Now, I don’t mind a bit of last-minute effort, but I don’t like last-minute mess, flour flung all over the counter when I’m getting ready for company (even if only a horde of even messier cookie decorators!), or when I’m just busy or tired. Here’s how I organize cutout cookies to minimize the mess.

I break up the steps and do the messiest ones in advance, which means I don’t chill the dough after mixing. Instead, I roll soft (even gooey) dough between sheets of parchment—often with a dowel as a guide because it’s easy and precise and helps handle very soft or even impossibly gooey dough. Rolling dough between sheets of parchment prevents extra flour from being incorporated into the dough, and this also ensures more tender cookies. It eliminates the flour that gets scattered around the kitchen. I refrigerate (or even freeze) the sheets of dough, stacked on a cookie sheet. Chilling and resting the dough after rolling it also gets me cookies that hold a better shape, as well as saving mess and time on baking day.

When its time to bake, remove one sheet of dough from the fridge at a time. Peel off the top sheet of paper and set it on the counter in front of you. Flip the dough over, onto the loose paper, and peel off the second piece of paper, leaving you with a sheet of dough that is no longer attached to paper. Cut out shapes, and transfer cookies to baking sheets that have been lined or prepared according to the directions in your recipe. While baking, reroll scraps between parchment sheets. If dough is too soft to cut and shape immediately, just 5-10 minutes in on that same baking sheet in the freezer will firm it up.

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My career was sparked by a single bite of a chocolate truffle, made by my Paris landlady in 1972. I returned home to open this country’s first chocolate bakery and dessert shop, Cocolat, and I am often “blamed” for introducing chocolate truffles to America. Today I am the James Beard Foundation and IACP award-winning author of ten cookbooks, teach a chocolate dessert class on Craftsy.com, and work with some of the world’s best chocolate companies. In 2018, I won the IACP Award for Best Food-Focused Column (this one!).


J'Anne October 25, 2017
You have just saved my life as a nana. Little helping hands playing with cookie cutters flings flour from floor to ceiling, walls and who knows where. Your article is amazing. Sheets of frozen dough. Now why didn't I think of that? Thank goodness you did.
Sarah G. October 19, 2017
Can we get more info on what kind of cookies the Halloween-looking ones are in the FB post picture? Looks like a really interesting dough....
AntoniaJames October 18, 2017
Yes, this is all great advice.
Another way to streamline the process, on the front end when making the dough, is to (a) mix all your dough in the same session – after all, you’ve got the flour, sugar, butter, etc., all out on the counter – and (b) determine your order of operations to minimize the number of bowls you will use and have to clean. Approach this as an engineer would.

Whenever possible, make the doughs for all of your rolled, cut and or/shaped cookies in one fell swoop, starting with the least and finishing with the most distinctive flavor in the dough, without washing the mixing bowl until the very end. To wit, this year I'll make my holiday cookie doughs in this order:
Russian tea cakes; basic sugar cookies (St Clements orange/lemon, plus testing a variation); lemon anise biscotti; almond anise biscotti; and ginger snaps. On another evening, I’ll make classic and then fudgy bourbon balls, in that order, in the same bowl.

One weeknight evening a few days before making the cookie dough, I’ll measure/mix dry ingredients, toast and chop nuts, etc., to be stored in clearly marked quart-sized yogurt containers. Everything I mention here is simple project management, of course, breaking down tasks and doing like with like for efficiency.

My preliminary plan – inspired by the “Les Treize Desserts” tradition in Provence - is here: https://tinyurl.com/GiftBaking2017 ;o)
Dani R. October 18, 2017
This process sounds fantastic! Can't wait to try in addition to Alice Medrich's method next time I'm making cut out cookies.
Jen O. October 19, 2017
Love this idea! Thanks for sharing!!