Baking cookies this weekend? Let me help! Today I’m sharing 5 easy and approachable ways to decorate Christmas cookies. Decorated sugar cookies is the December baking challenge and my goal with this post is to keep that momentum going. If you’re intimidated or nervous about making royal icing and creating adorably festive sugar cookies, this is for you.
And so you can fully understand and see it all come together, I’m going LIVE on my Facebook page today at 1pm EST! I’ll make the royal icing and decorate with you. If you can’t catch me at 1pm EST, the video is always saved in my video archive shortly after I’m done. Scroll down to the LIVE video section to find it.
Before we begin decorating, let’s review my sugar cookie recipe. This recipe produces soft sugar cookies with crisp edges and a nice flat surface for decorating. They have a pronounced vanilla flavor and taste unbelievable on their own! They’re my fave.
Only 7 ingredients: butter, sugar, egg, vanilla, flour, baking powder, salt.
With so little ingredients, it’s important that you use them all because each serves a very important purpose. Creamed butter + sugar makes the base of the cookie dough. This creates a buttery flavored foundation and incorporates air into the cookie dough, creating lighter textured cookies. Egg is the cookie’s structure. Vanilla adds flavor. I also like to add a bit of almond extract to make these sugar cookies taste extra special. It’s optional, but I suggest you try it! Flour is an obvious addition, baking powder adds lift, salt balances the sweet. So many *little ingredients* doing their *big jobs* to create a beautiful sugar cookie.
You can flavor with different extracts or spices, like cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice. I actually prefer a pinch of cinnamon in them. So good!
The dough is nothing out of the ordinary, but my method is unique.
I discussed this a couple weeks ago, so I’ll only lightly touch on it again today.
This sugar cookie dough needs time in the refrigerator to solidify the butter and to guarantee the cookies hold their shape in the oven. Instead of chilling it as one massive chunk of dough (see above picture in the bowl!), roll the dough out and THEN chill it in the refrigerator. The dough is so much easier to roll out before it’s chilled. To make this even easier for you, divide the dough in 2 then roll it out. It’s much more manageable to work with in smaller portions.
I like to roll the dough out on a silicone baking mat or parchment paper. Why? Since we will chill the rolled out dough in the fridge… are we going to just pick up this rolled out mass of dough? No! Roll out on a nonstick surface that you can literally pick up, put on a baking sheet, and place in the fridge.
I created a separate post for my favorite royal icing. If you ever need a royal icing, I wanted you to be able to find it in one easy spot. It’s my favorite because it’s easy to work with, tastes great, sets quickly, and doesn’t require raw egg whites. And, best of all, it doesn’t have a hard cement-like texture. It won’t break your teeth like other royal icings!
Here is the sugar cookie recipe written out for you. After that, you’ll see how to decorate each fun shape pictured today!
Cookie Cutter Sugar Cookies
- 2 and 1/4 cups (280g) all-purpose flour (spoon & leveled)
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup (1 and 1/2 sticks; 180g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
- 3/4 cup (150g) granulated sugar
- 1 large egg, at room temperature
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- optional for flavor: 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
- royal icing
- Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt together in a medium bowl. Set aside.
- In a large bowl using a hand mixer or a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar together on high speed until completely smooth and creamy, about 2 minutes. Add the egg, vanilla, and almond extract (if using) and beat on high speed until combined, about 1 minute. Scrape down the sides and up the bottom of the bowl and beat again as needed to combine.
- Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix on low until combined. If the dough seems too soft, you can add 1 Tablespoon more flour until it is a better consistency for rolling.
- Divide the dough into 2 equal parts. Roll each portion out onto a piece of parchment paper or a lightly floured silicone baking mat (I prefer the nonstick silicone mat) to about 1/4-inch thickness. The rolled-out dough can be any shape, as long as it is evenly 1/4-inch thick.
- Stack the pieces, with parchment paper between the two, onto a baking sheet and refrigerate for at least 1-2 hours and up to 2 days. If chilling for more than a couple hours, cover the top dough piece with a single piece of parchment paper.
- Once chilled, preheat oven to 350°F (177°C). Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats. Remove one of the dough pieces from the refrigerator and cut into shapes with cookie cutter(s). Re-roll the remaining dough and continue cutting until all is used. Repeat with 2nd dough piece.
- Arrange cookies on baking sheets 3 inches apart. Bake for 11-12 minutes, until lightly browned around the edges. Make sure you rotate the baking sheet halfway through bake time. Allow cookies to cool on the baking sheet for 5 minutes then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely before decorating. I like to decorate cookies directly on baking sheets so I can stick the entire baking sheet in the refrigerator to help set the icing. So place the cooled cookies back on baking sheets.
- Decorate with royal icing.
- Decorated or plain cookies will stay fresh covered at room temperature or in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
Make ahead tip: Plain cookies freeze well up to 3 months. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator. I do not recommend freezing with icing on top. You can chill the rolled-out cookie dough in the refrigerator for up to 2 days (step 5). You can also freeze the cookie dough (before rolling out in step 4) for up to 3 months. Then allow to thaw overnight in the refrigerator and bring to room temperature before rolling out. Chill for only 30 minutes in step 5 as opposed to 1 full hour.
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Here’s what I’ve learned about decorating sugar cookies: set your expectations appropriately. Start basic and go from there. With each batch, you will improve.
*Use my royal icing recipe. Icing will completely set in about 2 hours at room temperature. If you’re layering royal icing onto cookies for specific designs and need it to set quickly, place cookies in the refrigerator to speed it up.
Here’s what you need:
- cookie cutters – I love this set. It has a snowflake, gingerbread man, Christmas tree, snowman, and more!
- couplers – only needed if you’re using the same icing color, but need to switch tips.
- piping bags – I prefer the 16 inch size for decorating.
- gel food coloring – get the whole set. I love these colors for royal icing, cake batter, frosting, etc. They’re high pigmented so you don’t need as much coloring.
- round piping tips
I don’t create intricate designs on my cookies because (1) I’m bad at it and (2) my hands are too shaky. I prefer a basic approach and for that, you only need a couple piping tips. I always use Wilton piping tip #5 for outlining and flooding the cookie with icing. This is a wonderful basic piping tip to have in your collection. For any detail, I use a thinner round tip like Wilton piping tip #1 (super thin), Wilton piping tip #2 (a little larger), Wilton piping tip #3 (a little larger than that), or Wilton piping tip #4 (a little larger than that!).
Just starting out? I suggest #1 (smallest), #3 (medium), and #5 (largest of the bunch). You can create anything basic with these three.
1. Christmas Trees
Add 1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon to the cookie dough with the dry ingredients. (Optional, but delicious!!) Tint 3/4 of the icing green until you reach your desired shade. With the remaining 1/4 of the icing, tint half brown and the other half red. *Remember, colors always dry darker!
To create three “tiers” on your trees, pipe the center of the Christmas tree with piping tip #5. Allow to set. Pipe the top and bottom of the Christmas tree with piping tip #5. If you have star sprinkles, carefully place one at the top. Allow to set. Pipe the brown tree trunk with piping tip #5. Pipe red dots with piping tip #3.
Not interested in the “tiers”? Just outline and flood the whole tree with piping tip #5. Let that set. Then pipe the tree trunk and red dots on top.
2. Striped Candy Canes
These are easier than you think, I promise. Tint 1/3 of the icing red until you reach your desired shade. Remember, red icing dries darker– so don’t go overboard with the food coloring. Outline and flood the entire candy cane white with piping tip #5. Before letting that set, pipe diagonal red lines on top with piping tip #3. Run a toothpick around the white edge. The toothpick will drag the red to create the “swirly” look.
Gather 3 small bowls. Spoon 1/4 cup of icing into each bowl. Keep the rest of the icing white. Stir red food coloring into 1 bowl until you reach your desired shade. Stir black food coloring into another bowl until you reach your desired shade. (I find that black always dries darker so stop adding coloring when you reach a dark gray.) Stir orange food coloring into the last bowl until you reach your desired shade. Outline and flood the entire snowmen white with piping tip #5. (Leave room for the black hat!) Allow to set. Using this same piping tip, pipe the scarf with red icing on top of the white icing. Using piping tip #1, pipe the hat, eyes, and buttons with black icing. Using this same piping tip, pipe the nose with orange icing.
Using a round piping tip (piping tip #4 or #5 are perfect), pipe a simple snowflake design on the cookie. I placed an edible blue “mermaid bead” in the center and sprinkled white sparkling sugar on top so they look snowy!
Easiest of the bunch. These are my maple cinnamon star cookies topped with the royal icing. Outline and flood the entire star white with piping tip #5. Top with sprinkles.
Have fun decorating! Feel free to share your decorated cookie photos using #sallysbakingchallenge or #sallysbakingaddiction on Instagram or email me, tweet me, or upload a photo of your recipe to my Facebook page or Facebook group. 🙂
SHOP THE RECIPE
Here are some items I used to make today’s recipe.
KitchenAid Stand Mixer | Rolling Pin | Christmas Cookie Cutter Set | Silpat Baking Mat | Cookie Sheet | Cooling Rack | Meringue Powder | Americolor Gel Paste Kit | Piping Bags | Couplers | Round #2 Piping Tip | Round #5 Piping Tip |
Some of the links above are affiliate links, which pay me a small commission for my referral at no extra cost to you! Thank you for supporting Sally’s Baking Addiction.