We’re all good at eating cookies, but are we all good at decorating ’em? I’ll be the first to say: I’m not. Even when I worked at a bakery, I always pawned off my gingerbread-decorating duties on someone with more artistic talent and hand dexterity.
But the truth is, anyone can decorate cookies. Yep, even me, even you. On our most recent episode of Dear Test Kitchen, we called in our Baking Consultant at Large Erin McDowell to show us just how easy it can be.
Cue your guest saying something like, “Whoa, did you decorate these?” And you’ll be like, “Oh, these? It was no big deal!” Then go ahead and share this article, so we all can be in on Erin’s pro tips:
Start with a reliable cookie dough.
Erin’s Roll-Out Sugar Cookies are as simple as they are adaptable. The dough comes together like (snaps fingers) that in an electric mixer. And the possibilities are endless. Swap out some flour for cocoa powder and you’ve got chocolate cookies. Or hack the vanilla any way you please; think instant espresso, citrus zest, pumpkin pie spice, and on, and on...
Looks fancy, is easy. (Don’t you love when that happens?) First, create two color-contrasting dough types—Erin went with vanilla and chocolate—then smush them together. Just take a few hunks of each, combine on your work surface, and roll away. Because you can re-roll the scraps, lean toward less-marbled at first, since the dough will become more homogeneous the longer you work with it.
Don’t hold back on those sprinkles.
Erin has a designated “Sprinkle Shelf” in her kitchen—a new life goal for all of us. Sprinkles can be added before or after the bake, depending on whether you want your cookies iced. To add them before, simply press in your chosen sprinkles to the cut-out cookie dough, then bake (here is where big, dramatic sprinkles really shine). To add them after, sprinkle on right after applying your icing (perfect for super-fine, shimmery sprinkles).
Royal icing sounds like something fit for, well, royalty, but it’s as humble as can be: confectioners’ sugar and egg whites. That’s it. All you have to do is mix them together until smooth. Here’s Erin’s go-to recipe, natural food coloring options included. As she notes in the instructions, “If you’re using it for piping detail, you’ll want it to be stiffer: When you lift the whisk out of the bowl, the icing will fall in stiff ribbons and hold its shape.”
“embrace randomness and imperfection.”
Instead of trying to decorate your cookie like Kim-Joy in The Great British Bake-Off, opt for Erin’s care-free method. First, snip the base of your plastic piping bag (scissors work well) to create a makeshift “piping tip.” Then, try one of these patterns:
Snowflake. The beauty of this particular cut-out shape? Every snowflake is supposed to look different. To start, draw straight lines from one corner to another. Then add more as you get more comfortable.
The squiggle. Hold your prepped piping bag above the cookie, gently squeeze, and wiggle all around. The Jackson Pollock-esque randomness will look totally on purpose.
Polka dots. Don’t worry, they don’t have to be all the same size. In fact, some big ones, small ones, and extra-teeny-tiny ones is just how Erin likes it.
What are your best tips and tricks for decorating holiday cookies? Share them in the comments section below!
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Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.