Sugar cookies are fun to make, especially for holidays like Christmas, Valentine’s Day, or Easter. They are often thought of as a vehicle for icing and decorations, but there’s no reason why they shouldn’t taste great as well!
These cookies have it all: They are tender and taste great, but are also sturdy enough to support all the icing and decorations your heart desires.
Cream Cheese Makes the Best Sugar Cookies
These sugar cookies have a touch of vanilla extract, almond extract, and lemon zest in them to give them flavor! On top of that, they have a little bit of cream cheese as well.
The cream cheese not only adds a subtle bit of tang to the cookie but also makes handling the dough easier as well.
The buttery cookies bake flat, making them perfect for decorating. They are also stiff enough to handle, but not tough in texture, with a lovely toothsome quality when you bite into them.
How Thin to Roll the Dough?
I like to roll my dough to about 1/4 inch thick. Thinner than that and the cookies start to get fragile when you handle them. Thicker than that and they aren’t as crisp.
Do I Have to Chill the Dough?
Chilling the dough is a vital step in this recipe. If you don’t chill the dough, the cookie dough will be too soft to transfer from the cutting board to the baking pan. Chilling the dough allows you to cut out the cookies – even intricate patterns! – and handle the dough without fear of ruining it.
Tips for the Best Sugar Cookies
Cookie cutters are fun to use, but they can also be frustrating! Here are a few tips on making sure your cut-out cookies turn out picture-perfect.
- Chill the dough before cutting it. Cool dough is firmer and will cut more cleanly than soft, warm dough. So make sure to chill the dough in the fridge or freezer as instructed. If your dough starts to get warm and soft, place it back in the fridge for 10 minutes or so to chill it again.
- Dip your cookie cutters in flour. I like to keep a small plate or pan of all-purpose flour next to my dough. Dip the cookie cutter in the flour first, then cut the cookie out. The flour will keep the dough from sticking to the cookie cutter.
- Use parchment paper! In this recipe, I have you roll the dough out on the parchment paper for two reasons. First, it’s easier to roll out that way. Second, it is easier to cut the cookies. Gently peel back the top parchment paper, then cut the cookies right on the parchment paper. Flip the entire sheet over, and then peel the remaining scrap dough away from the cut out cookies. This will leave you with just the cut out cookies. Now you can easily move the cookies to the baking sheet.
- Keep an eye out while baking: The bake time can vary, especially if you have smaller, more intricate shaped cookies, so keep an eye on them. Take them out just as the edge of the cookies start to brown. You may also want to arrange the cookies so the smaller or more complex shapes are in the middle and the simpler, large shapes are around the edge of the baking sheet.
Can You Make the Dough Ahead of Time?
Yes! This dough is perfect for making ahead of time. Store it in the refrigerator, in flat sheets already rolled out on parchment paper, for up to two days.
You can even freeze the dough! The flat sheets can be stored in a freezer for up to two months. I place the sheets between baking pans or thin cutting boards at the bottom of my freezer, so other items can stack on top of them without damage to the dough.
Though the flat sheets mean the dough thaws out quicker, you can easily freeze the dough in disks as well. Wrap the dough disk tightly with plastic wrap and store it in a heavy-duty freezer Ziploc bag. Thaw the dough completely in the fridge overnight, then proceed with the recipe.
Storing and Freezing Sugar Cookies
Once baked, these sugar cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to five days on your counter or kitchen table. If frosted with royal icing, make sure to let the icing dry completely overnight, then place them in an airtight container with pieces of parchment paper or wax paper between each layer of cookies to keep the icing from being damaged.
These cut out sugar cookies freeze really well, as long as they haven’t been decorated with royal icing. Freeze undecorated sugar cookies or sugar cookies decorated with colored sparkling sugar on a flat baking sheet in the freezer for an hour. Then stack them in a rigid airtight container (one that won’t crush or buckle when moved around in the freezer).
You can try to freeze sugar cookies that been decorated with royal icing, but often the condensation that naturally occurs when freezing and thawing will make the coloring bleed.
Other Ideas for Sugar Cookies!
I suggest that you either sprinkle these cookies with colored sugar before baking, decorate them with royal icing after baking, or use an easy American buttercream frosting like the one we have for our Lofthouse-style cookies.
But these cookies are really versatile! Here are a few other ideas for decorating:
- Color the dough with drops of food coloring to make different colored dough and cookies.
- Use a butter knife and create decorations on the rolled out cookie itself by gently pressing and “drawing” an indentation into the cut-out cookie. If you have a press mold or an embossed rolling pin, you can make patterns on the cookies.
- Make sandwich cookies by smearing Nutella or a nut butter in between two cookies
- Drizzle melted chocolate over the cookies
- Gently press chopped nuts over the top of the cookie, then bake.
- Drizzle with an easy confectionery sugar glaze like the one for our vanilla pound cake.
- Place a stencil over the baked cookie and then dust with confectionary sugar.
- Get really creative with 6 Ways to Decorate Cookies with Royal Icing!
More Cookies to Love!
- Lofthouse-Style Soft Frosted Sugar Cookies
- Spritz Cookies
- Cream Cheese Pecan Cookies
- Thumbprint Cookies
- Chocolate Cranberry Rugelach
Best Sugar Cookies
You can warm up the cream cheese quickly by cutting it into cubes and by placing it in a microwave-safe bowl. Cook in the microwave for 10 to 15 seconds.
If you are using a hand mixer instead of a stand mixer you will want to use cool, but not cold, butter in the beginning. A stand mixer can cream the cold butter but a hand mixer doesn’t quite have the same power. Just cut the butter into 1/2-inch cubes and let the butter sit on the counter for about 10 to 15 minutes. That will take the chill off the butter and make it more pliable for the hand mixer.
- For the cookie dough:
- 1 cup (225 g or 2 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled
- 1 cup (200 g) sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest, from roughly 1 medium lemon
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 ounces (57 g, or 1/4 cup) cream cheese, at room temperature
- 1 large egg
- 3 cups (420 g) all-purpose flour
- To finish:
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour, for cutting out the cookies
- Colored sparkling sugar to decorate, optional
- Royal icing to decorate, optional
Mix the butter with sugar:
In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, place the butter, sugar, vanilla extract, almond extract, lemon zest, baking powder, and kosher salt in the bowl. Cream at low speed until the butter starts to become pliable, then increase speed to medium. Mix until a paste forms that sticks to the side of the bowl, about 1 minute. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula.
Add the cream cheese and beat until incorporated. Repeat with the egg, scraping down the bowl between additions. Don’t worry if the batter looks broken or “curdled” after adding the egg. It will come together with the flour.
Add the flour:
Add 1 cup of the flour and mix on low speed until absorbed. Repeat two more times, adding 1 cup of flour each time.
Roll the dough out:
Divide the dough in half. Place half the dough on a large piece of parchment paper (do not flour the paper). Press down with the palm of your hands to form a disk. Place another piece of parchment paper over the dough. Begin rolling the dough out gradually with a rolling pin.
As you roll the dough, flip the parchment papers with the dough sandwiched between them to create an even layer. If you find the paper starts to “wrinkle” just peel back the paper and then lay it back down, smoothing it out with your hands. Continue to roll and flipping the dough, until the dough is 1/4-inch thick.
Repeat with the second half of the dough.
Chill the dough:
Stack the thin sheets of dough, still sandwiched in parchment paper, on top of each other, then place on a baking sheet. Move to the freezer and chill for 15 minutes or until the dough is cool and firm to the touch. Alternatively, let the dough chill in the fridge for 1 hour or overnight.
Prepare the baking sheets and pre-heat the oven:
While the dough is chilling, preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper.
Cut out the cookies:
Once the dough has chilled and firmed up, transfer one of the dough sheets to your counter. Gently peel away the top layer of parchment paper.
Place 1/4 cup all-purpose flour in a shallow bowl or pan. Dip the cookie cutter in the flour, then firmly cut out cookies (plastic cookie cutters may be stickier than metal ones). Repeat, cutting out cookies until you can’t fit any more onto the sheet. Flip the entire sheet over and peel away the “edge scraps” of the dough. Gently move the cookies to the prepared baking sheet, leaving about one inch around each cookie.
Gather all the scraps together and press to form a disk. Roll the scraps out between the parchment paper (you can reuse the same paper). Move to the refrigerator or freezer and chill as you repeat the process on the second sheet of chilled dough. This will allow the scraps to cool down and firm up.
Repeat with cutting cookies for the second sheet of dough, then refrigerate the rolled out scraps. Repeat until you’ve used up as much cookie dough as you can. (Note: If you only have one baking sheet, only cut out as many cookies as will fill one baking sheet, then chill the remaining dough until you’re ready for the next batch.)
Bake the cookies:
Sprinkle the cookies with colored sugar (if using), then bake for 8 to 12 minutes, depending on the size, shape, and thickness of the cookie. Watch the cookies starting at 8 minutes. Once the edges of the cookies start to turn brown, that’s when the cookies are done. Cool on the baking sheet for 5 minutes before moving to a wire cooling rack.
If desired, frost or ice the cookies once they are completely cool.
If frosted, wait until the frosting or icing is completely dry before storing. Store in an airtight container at room temperature between sheets of parchment or wax paper for up to 5 days.