As a dedicated baker and recipe reader, you're always looking for "the best," right?
The best recipe for sandwich bread. For brownies. For sourdough waffles, and apple pie, and golden cake with chocolate frosting. After all, why waste your time, effort, and money on anything less than the very best?
Problem is, "best" is very subjective, when it comes to baking. Is "the best" brownie cakey and light, or dense and chewy? Do you prefer your pancakes thin and crisp around the edges, or thick and fluffy? One baker's nirvana can be the next baker's abject failure.
Because sugar cookies are a perennial American favorite, I recently embarked on a quest to identify the best sugar cookie recipe on our web site. Starting with our nine basic sugar cookie recipes (yes, nine BASIC recipes), I baked, tested suggested variations, and sampled sugar cookies. I looked at texture, flavor, size, and shape.
It turned out to be quite a job. Several of the recipes suggested two or even three variations, and I tested them all. Suffice it to say my neighbors, friends, family, and the guys at the car repair store down the street have all had their fill of sugar cookies for the time being.
But it was totally worth it. You know why? Because now I can say, with authority, that THIS recipe produces a chewy/tender cookie with balanced sugar cookie flavor; and THIS recipe, a thin/crisp cookie with pronounced butter flavor.
Now, rather than tell you which of the eight* sugar cookie recipes on our recipe site is The Best Ever – I'll simply describe them to you, and let you choose. Sound good? And then, you can tell me which one sounds best to YOU by commenting below. Maybe we actually WILL come up with a people's choice Best Sugar Cookie!
*Due to close similarity with another recipe, I eliminated one of the original nine along the way.
When you want: a please-everyone cookie.
Recipe: Sugar Cookies
Known for: their all-around versatility. I'd term this the quintessential All-American sugar cookie.
Texture: Crisp edges, softer center.
Tip: This is our "guaranteed" sugar cookie recipe. Which means...? We've identified core recipes on our site (deemed "favorite classics") that we feel best represent the most common treats people bake: chocolate chip cookies, banana bread, fudge brownies, sticky buns, etc.
This recipe suggests three variations. I prefer the original (far left), which produces a cookie with some body, though without becoming unpleasingly cake-like.
The corn syrup cookies are flatter and very slightly chewy, though I wouldn't call them a chewy cookie by any means. Those made with cream cheese are smaller/taller, more like little nuggets than cookies. Their texture is soft and fairly dry.
When you want a tender, buttery cookie perfect for holding an imprint.
Known for: Wonderfully buttery flavor.
Texture: Dense without being heavy; tender and crisp, with a touch of crumbliness.
Tip: Shortbread doesn't have to be baked in a shortbread pan. Despite how it's always pictured, it's just as tasty baked as a simple drop cookie. If you do decide to make drop cookies, though, shortbread's a wonderful candidate for a cookie stamp – with no leavening, it holds a pattern beautifully.
Don't have a cookie stamp? Look around the kitchen for something else that might imprint a pretty pattern: here I'm using the business end of my Cuisinart food processor's pusher.
When you want the perfect cookie-cutter cookie.
Recipe: Holiday Butter Cookies
Known for: Rich flavor, especially with the addition of Fiori di Sicilia; easy rolling.
Texture: Crisp, ultra-light; roll them thin enough and they feel practically weightless!
Tip: Roll the dough 1/8" thick for super-light (though somewhat fragile) cookies; roll 1/4" thick for sturdier cookies, better able to withstand the rigors of travel.
We originally had two recipes for cutout sugar cookies on our site. After baking both side by side, I eliminated one as redundant – and slightly inferior. Although the two tasted exactly the same, note how #3 held its shape better than #7. The dough for #3 was also easier to handle. So long, #7!
When you want a super-crunchy cookie without a hint of softness.
Recipe: Vanilla Dreams
Known for: Baker's ammonia, a "secret ingredient" that yields super-light/ethereally crunchy texture.
Texture: Incredibly light/crunchy; possibly the crunchiest cookies you've ever enjoyed.
Tip: If you don't have baker's ammonia, the recipe suggests a baking powder substitution. Understand the texture won't be quite as light/crunchy, though the cookies will still be delightful.
When you want an attractive crackle-top cookie using self-rising flour.
Recipe: Self-Rising Crunchy Sugar Cookies
Known for: Ease of preparation; with self-rising flour, you're able to skip the steps of adding baking powder and salt.
Texture: Nicely crunchy to sturdy/hard, depending on your choice of fat.
Tip: The directions give two options for the fat in this cookie: butter, and vegetable shortening. Use shortening for a puffier/thicker cookie whose texture is a bit hard, rather than crunchy; butter for a flatter cookie with a bit more flavor, and lighter/crunchier texture.
Why the difference? Butter's melting point is lower than shortening's.
Cookies rely partially on fat for their structure. The lower the melting temperature of the fat, the sooner that fat melts. The sooner the fat melts, the quicker the cookies spread, and the flatter they become.
When you want a big cookie with great flavor.
Recipe: Vanilla Sugar Cookies
Known for: Size; large enough to sell as a stand-alone item at bake sales.
Texture: Somewhere in between soft and sturdy; firm rather than crunchy.
Tip: This cookie's a great example of the depth of flavor you get from adding just a touch of almond extract and ground nutmeg to the ubiquitous vanilla extract. Those three flavors together yield a taste that goes beyond simply sweet.
When you want a cookie with old-fashioned bakery cookie flavor.
Recipe: Sand Dollar Sugar Cookies
Known for: Large size – about as big as your palm.
Texture: Soft yet dry; pleasingly crumbly.
Tip: If you've ever enjoyed a big almond cookie at the end of a Chinese restaurant meal, this is a close clone. There's no need to add the whole almonds on top; they're simply a garnish, albeit a tasty one.
When you want a gluten-free sugar cookie.
Recipe: Gluten-Free Sugar Cookies
Known for: Versatility – make simple drop cookies, or roll the dough and cut it with cutters for something fancier.
Texture: As a drop cookie, soft and tender. As a cutout cookie, firm.
Tip: Bookmark this recipe for those occasions when you need a fancy treat for your favorite gluten-free friend or family member. Prepared as cutout cookies and iced/decorated, they're quite festive!
So, now that you've taken the tour, which sugar cookie would you choose as "best"? Please tell us in "comments," below.