The Ultimate Guide For Making Stunning Cut-out sugar cookies

cut-out sugar cookies

Petkus, Emilee. “Winter Cut-Out Sugar Cookies.” 2020, jpeg image.

Written by Emilee Petkus | Edited By: Aditi Khandelwal

December 15, 2020

Looking for an impressive dessert to bake during the holidays? Perhaps decorating cut-out sugar cookies has crossed your mind. Often blurring the line between baking and art, these sweet treats will always be met with a chorus of “wows” from others. Right alongside your mixing bowls, spatulas, and baking sheets you will find yourself reaching for various stencils, tweezers for tiny details, and even paintbrushes. At times, it will seem as though your kitchen has turned into a creative studio! 

Most of us will be spending the holidays at home this year while social distancing, so what better time is there to try out your artistic skills in the kitchen? Our recipes only take at most seven ingredients, and the techniques to make stunning cut-out sugar cookies are not too difficult to master with some practice. So, there’s truly nothing to lose in simply trying! 

We know that these treats can appear a bit daunting, especially when just beginning your sugar cookie journey. To be honest though, mastering the art of decorating is all about practice. To help you avoid some common roadblocks, we have created a complete guide for you to follow along with as you make your little pieces of edible art, including some amazing tips from Bethany, an expert cookie decorator. By the end, you will be making cut-out sugar cookies that not only taste amazing but serve as an experience for the eyes as well! 

The Two Building Blocks of Cut-out Sugar Cookies

1. The Dough

If you try to cut out shapes with the regular, super-soft sugar cookie dough, you’ll sadly end up with blobs after baking them. Instead, you have to go with a more sturdy and dense type of cookie. We recommend trying this foolproof recipe by Haniela to start off, as it has never failed us once. If you follow the directions, your cookies should hold their shape while still tasting amazing, the perfect duo. 

For a gluten-free version, we recommend replacing the flour with a homemade gluten-free blend on a 1-1 ratio. 

A vegan cut-out sugar cookie recipe will differ a bit more, and we recommend this recipe.

If you want to try a healthier sugar cookie, check out our other blog post for some ideas on different sugar substitutes you can use.

cut-out sugar cookies dough

Petkus, Emilee. “Sugar Cookie Dough.” 2020, jpeg image.

Tips For a Perfect Dough

  • Chill Your Dough Twice 

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that you absolutely have to chill the dough twice. Yep, not once, but twice. We know this sounds like a major hassle, but there really is no way around it. The first round occurs right after the dough has been finished. While you can wrap up your dough as one single clump, we would recommend that you split it up into two sections. This will not only help the dough evenly chill but having smaller sections makes it easier to roll out. The second chill time occurs after you cut out your cookies. This helps the butter firm back up, and your sugar cookies will hold their shape while baking. Without these two steps, your snowflake-shaped cookies will inevitably turn into plain circles in the oven. 

  • Roll Out Your Cookies to ¼-½  Inch Thickness 

Anything thinner than ¼ inch and your cookies will puff up and spread out. If they are too thick, the centers won’t cook in time, and your bottoms will burn.

Pro-tip: Take your dough out 15 minutes before rolling to avoid it cracking. We also recommend using a silicone baking mat. Not only is this better for the environment, but it will also help your cookies bake more evenly!

  • Smooth The Tops After They Come Out of the Oven

With your cookies fresh out of the oven, run the flat end of a spatula over the tops. This will flatten the surface and create a perfect canvas for your royal icing.

2. The Royal Icing

If you are looking to make detailed and amazing cut-out sugar cookies, then royal icing is going to be your best friend. This frosting will start hardening quickly within 10 minutes, but while working, you can use a scribe tool to correct any minor mistakes or air bubbles. Our favorite royal icing recipe is from The Honey Blonde, and we recommend that you give it a try.

If you need a vegan version, most recipes just replace the meringue powder and water with aquafaba, or the brine from a can of chickpeas.

Royal icing

Petkus, Emilee. “Royal Icing.” jpeg image, 2020.

Tips For Perfect Royal Icing

  • Add Glycerin for a Fluffy Icing  

If you don’t like the hard bite of traditional royal icing, then you can add a teaspoon of glycerin or corn syrup to your recipe. This will also make it appear more fluffy.

  • Use Clear Extracts Throughout Your Cookie Project 

Make sure to use clear extracts when making your icing in order to maintain its pristine white color. This will also allow you to easily add color later on.

  • More Meringue Powder Will Make Your Icing Set Faster

If your icing is hardening too quickly while decorating, try cutting back on your meringue powder next time.

  • Place Bees Wrap or a Damp Towel Over Your Icing

Placing bees wrap (which is a sustainable replacement for saran wrap) or a damp towel over the top will prevent the royal icing from hardening when not being used.

Now, It’s Time To Decorate!

Royal Icing Consistency

Before we can get into all the different techniques, it’s important to learn about the different consistencies of royal icing, which will actually change depending on what detail you are working on. This means throughout your cookie project you will be altering your icing in small, separate bowls by adding water. 

Consistency is arguably one of the hardest skills to first get down when making cut-out sugar cookies, yet it is the most important. As you are just starting out, we have provided some measurements that will help you become more familiar.

In general, there are about four basic consistencies that should work for just about anything. How most cookie artists determine the right texture is by “counting” the icing. After thinning your frosting a bit with some water, you will want to draw a line straight down the middle and count how long it takes to disappear. This number will determine what consistency you are at. Now, I bet you can’t wait to learn the four consistencies and when you should use them.

cut-out sugar cookies

Petkus, Emilee “Snowflake Cut-Out Sugar Cookies.” jpeg image, 2020.

Cookies inspired by Dulcia Bakery’s tutorial

1. Stiff Icing

Count: infinity, should hold its shape (1)

Similar Texture: cake frosting or buttercream (1)

This is your icing straight from the mixing bowl with no water added. Lisa of Bearfoot Baker likes to call this consistency “fancy icing,” since it is often used for small details that need to hold their shapes such as flowers, leaves, or eyes. (1)

2. Piping Icing

Count: 25 seconds (1)

Similar Texture: pudding or soft-serve ice cream (1)

Uses: lettering, basic line-work, and borders

It will only take a couple of additional spritz of water to reach this consistency, and it should flow out nice and smooth while still retaining its shape.

3. Medium Icing

Count: 15 seconds (1)

Similar Texture: ranch or ketchup (1)

Uses: flooding your cookie without an outline

This consistency will save you time when filling large spaces and can make your edges appear a bit cleaner.

4. Flood Icing

Count: 7 seconds (1)

Similar Texture: honey (1)

Uses: filling large spaces with a border, wet-on-wet effects, and marbling

Flood consistency is the runniest out of the four and will take the longest to dry. As a warning, you should not go below 5 seconds or else your icing will run off the cookie, creating a huge mess.

When you are thinning your icing to reach these four different consistencies, it is extremely easy to add too much. In fact, one little drop is enough to push you from piping to medium. That is why we recommend using a spray bottle filled with water. This was first thought up by Gail of One Tough Cookie NYC and has become immensely popular amongst the cookie decorating community. (1) However, if you find that you still put too much water, do not throw away what you have! You can actually add more powdered sugar, spoonful-by-spoonful, until you reach your desired consistency.

Coloring Your Royal Icing

We are moving along quickly here! You have now got your cookies in hand and your royal icing at the correct consistencies, so next you need to add some color.

When picking out your food coloring, always use gel pastes because they will not compromise the texture of the icing and can create really pigmented colors. You can also follow this guide if you want to learn how to achieve brilliant colors with natural dyes.

However, above all else, make sure to color more than you think. Nothing is worse than running out of icing while you still have four cookies left to frost. 

Some Expert Wisdom From Cookie Decorator Bethany

flour'd by bethany

Photo credits to Bethany (@flourdbybethany)

We had the honor of speaking with Bethany of Flour’d by Bethany, an amazingly talented cookie artist. What inspired her to start? Her husband’s love of sugar cookies! In Bethany’s words “Wanting to surprise him, I did a quick Pinterest search for some recipes and stumbled upon the amazing world of sugar cookies. I was immediately inspired by all the beautiful pictures to try making them myself. Through a lot of trial and error, and tons of Instagram and YouTube videos, I finally started to get the hang of it, and I was hooked!” 

Propelled by her love of baking, she is excited to share the knowledge she has acquired through her own decorating journey, which started a little over a year ago. After reading through Bethany’s list of five super helpful tips, there’s no doubt you will feel ready to take on your very own cookie project!

Also, make sure to hop over to her Instagram (@flourdbybethany) and take a peek at the stunning, detailed work she has been able to accomplish. You definitely don’t want to miss out!

Flour'd by Bethany

Photo credits to Bethany (@flourdbybethany)

Bethany’s Top 5 Tips

  • Practice, Practice, Practice!

“It sounds cliche, but this is definitely something that requires a lot of time and patience to really get down. There are so many resources out there to help. For me personally, I followed a lot of other cookie decorators and watched all their videos where they shared a lot of tips and tricks. I know how much it helped me when I started out, so I try to share as many tips as I can on my page as well.”

  • Invest In Some Key Tools

“These include good tipless bags, quality food coloring, and my favorite, a projector! Although not absolutely necessary, my projector has been such an important tool for me.  With a projector, I’m able to capture details such as lettering and other specific designs onto a cookie.”

  • Get Your Recipes Down

“It is important to find a sugar cookie and royal icing recipe that works for you. There are a ton of free recipes online and you can tweak to your liking. Since royal icing consistency is the foundation of everything, finding the perfect recipe that works for you is crucial. Also finding a cookie recipe that doesn’t spread is important for those perfect shapes.”

This is particularly important to keep in mind when trying out the recipes we shared. You may find that you want to try something different, and that’s okay! Experiment till you find your perfect fit.

  • Reach Out & Connect With Other Cookie Decorators

“The cookie community is so kind and helpful.  So many people are willing to help and answer any questions you may have. I am always honored to help people out when they reach out to me!”

  • Just Be Patient

“This isn’t a skill that you will acquire overnight. As I’ve mentioned before, the more you practice the better you will get, you just have to be patient and not get discouraged. It took me a while to finally get to a point where I was happy with my results. I’m still learning new tips and tricks every day and still practicing all the time. At the end of the day, it can be super rewarding if you allow yourself to enjoy the process and have fun!”

Simple Techniques to Make Your Cookies Into Art

If you are ready to take the plunge and begin making your own cookie creations, then we have some simple techniques for you to begin practicing. By using these, your cut-out sugar cookies will be anything but ordinary.

  • Utilize Sprinkles & Granulated Sugar

If your royal icing dried super lumpy or your lines came out a bit wobbly, simply douse it in some sprinkles. These guys will hide any mistake you make and appear as an intentional design choice.

Pro-tip: You can also make an edible “glue” by mixing water and meringue powder to cover up any parts that have already dried.

  • Marbling

Unsure about using piping bags? Then try out the marbling method instead. Simply fill a bowl with flood icing, add in some lines of color, and swirl around with your scribe tool. With your cookie parallel to the icing, dunk the front in and lift straight up. In a couple of minutes, you will have a whole set of unique, marbled cookies guaranteed to impress.

  • Vintage Crackle Background 

For this eye-catching method, we recommend following Little Cookie Co’s tutorial. Before baking your cookies, paint them with gel food color. They should have this amazing vintage look when you take them out of the oven

  • Brush Embroidery

Brush Embroidery may be the most difficult technique here, but it is definitely worth the effort because of the stunning effect it produces. We recommend following SweetAmbs tutorial on how to perfect this skill.

cut-out sugar cookies

Petkus, Emilee. “Snowflake Cut-Out Sugar Cookies.” jpeg image, 2020.

Christmas tree cut out sugar cookies

Petkus, Emilee. “Snowy Tree Sugar Cookie.” jpeg image, 2020. 

Now that you’re equipped with the best tips and tricks, what are you waiting for? Go on and start making your very own edible masterpieces. Who knows, it may become a new favorite hobby of yours! Don’t forget to check out our other article on sugar substitutes if you need a healthier alternative, and feel free to share any of your cookies with us by tagging us on Instagram. Most importantly, have fun getting creative with your baking!

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