How to Decorate Sugar Cookies

Christmas holiday decorated sugar cookies including snowmen, candy canes, Christmas trees, snowflakes, and stars

Baking sugar cookies for Christmas? Let me help! Today I’m sharing 5 easy and approachable ways to decorate Christmas cookies. If you’re intimidated or nervous about making royal icing and creating adorably festive sugar cookies, this post is for you.

Before we begin decorating, let’s review my sugar cookie recipe. This recipe, pictured below as adorable little hearts, have slightly crisp edges and a nice flat surface for decorating. They have a pronounced vanilla flavor, super soft center, and taste unbelievable on their own.

stack of decorated heart sugar cookies

Sugar Cookie Dough

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.

The dough is nothing out of the ordinary, but my method is unique.


The Method

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.

A visual:

collage of sugar cookie dough process photos

I created a separate post for my favorite royal icing. 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. If royal icing isn’t for you and you still want to bake festive sugar cookies this holiday season, try my stained glass window cookies or drop style Christmas sugar cookies.

Here is the sugar cookie recipe written out for you. Below the recipe, you can see how to decorate each fun shape pictured today.

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Christmas holiday decorated sugar cookies including snowmen, candy canes, Christmas trees, snowflakes, and stars

Cookie Cutter Sugar Cookies

  • Author: Sally
  • Prep Time: 2 hours
  • Cook Time: 12 minutes
  • Total Time: 4 hours
  • Yield: 24 (4-inch) cookies
  • Category: Cookies
  • Method: Baking
  • Cuisine: American

Description

You can make 5 super easy Christmas cookies with this extremely easy sugar cookie dough!


Ingredients

  • 2 and 1/4 cups (281g) 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 – 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • royal icing

Instructions

  1. Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt together in a medium bowl. Set aside.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Decorate with royal icing.
  9. Enjoy cookies right away or wait until the icing sets to serve them. Once the icing has set, these cookies are great for gifting or for sending. Plain or decorated cookies stay soft for about 5 days when covered tightly at room temperature. For longer storage, cover and refrigerate for up to 10 days.

Notes

  1. Freezing Instructions: Plain or decorated sugar cookies freeze well up to 3 months. Wait for the icing to set completely before layering between sheets of parchment paper in a freezer-friendly container. To thaw, thaw in the refrigerator or at room temperature. You can also freeze the cookie dough for up to 3 months before rolling it out. Prepare the dough through step 3, divide in half, flatten both halves into a disk as we do with pie crust, wrap each in plastic wrap, then freeze. To thaw, thaw the disks in the refrigerator, then bring to room temperature for about 1 hour. Roll out the dough as directed in step 4, then chill as directed in step 5– no need to chill for 1-2 hours, 45 minutes should be plenty.
  2. Almond Extract: I love flavoring this cookie dough with 1/2 teaspoon almond extract as listed in the ingredients above. For lighter flavor, use 1/4 teaspoon.
  3. Special Tools: KitchenAid Stand Mixer | Rolling PinChristmas Cookie Cutter Set | Silpat Baking Mat | Cookie Sheet | Cooling Rack | Meringue PowderAmericolor Gel Paste Kit | Piping Bags | CouplersRound #2 Piping TipRound #4 Piping Tip
  4. Be sure to check out my top 5 cookie baking tips AND these are my 10 must-have cookie baking tools.

Time to Decorate!

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 #4 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), or Wilton piping tip #3 (a little larger than that).

Christmas tree decorated sugar cookies

1. Christmas Trees

  • green + brown + red food coloring (link)
  • piping bag (link)
  • piping tip #5 and #3 (link and link)

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.

candy cane and snowman decorated sugar cookies for the holidays

2. Striped Candy Canes

  • red food coloring (link)
  • piping bag (link)
  • piping tip #5 and #3 (link and link)

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.

decorated snowman and snowflake sugar cookies

3. Snowman

  • red, black + orange food coloring (link)
  • piping bag (link)
  • piping tip #5 and #1 (link and link)

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.

4. Snowflakes

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!

star and Christmas tree decorated sugar cookies

5. Stars

  • piping bag (link)
  • piping tip #5 (link)

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.

maple sugar cookie dough rolled out on a silpat baking mat with a star cookie cutter

40 Comments

  1. This is THE sugar cookie recipe. I’ve tried tons and this is the one that I use and recommend to everyone. Most people dismiss the sugar cookies on the Christmas platter. They assume they are just there to be pretty and will be rock hard, flavorless, or both. This recipe always shocks people- they always stop and say.. wow, these are awesome!! I never liked sugar cookies that much until I started making these. Here are a few extra tips from me: definitely use the almond extract and cinnamon. I also like to pop my cookies in the freezer for a few minutes (on the baking sheet) after I cut them, before I bake. I have no idea if I’m just weird, if I read this somewhere or what, but I always end up with razor sharp edges- no fat cookies! Its amazing.. even though the cookies maintain a perfect shape, they are full of flavor and still soft. And they stay soft for days after to enjoy with coffee!! I’ve been using the ‘easy icing’ for the last few years, but I want to give the royal icing another try. With the video, I hope I will finally nail the consistency. So excited to make these on Christmas Eve! Thank you Sally, as always, for your fantastic recipes- and decorating tips!

  2. This is the BEST sugar cookie recipe! I always add the almond I love the flavor it gives the cookies! These are fabulous techniques for decorating sugar cookies, I’m going to try some of these tonight! Also I’m excited about your live later today and plan to catch it live, my alarm is set on my phone! 

  3. How does your royal icing taste? I normally use a butter, milk, confectionary sugar frosting style that hardens that tastes great, but I want to try the royal icing, but I’m more concerned with the flavor…

    1. Hi Lynn! It tastes like a meringue cookie. Sweet, for sure. And what I love most is that it doesn’t dry super crunchy and hard like other royal icings.

  4. Natalie Suttmoeller says:

    This is THE BEST SUGAR COOKIE recipe. The ingredients are simple and as long as you follow the steps just like she says they will be perfect every time. Don’t screw with the recipe she really has it all figured out.

  5. Annie Mercuro says:

    I make these sugar cookies for every holiday and have been using your recipe since 2014!!! They are always such a hit. I always bake one day, and then decorate a day or two later. Can’t wait to get started on these later this upcoming week for Christmas! Happy holidays Sally!

  6. I made your chocolate sugar cookies today, and they are amazing!  They have so much chocolate flavor.  Also rolled the dough before chilling as your directions stated, and I’ll never do it any other way!  Will have to try your vanilla version soon!

  7. Delicious. Turned these babies into slice and bake, dipped into dark chocolate and sprinkled crushed pistachios. Whhhaaaatttt! Amazing. Thanks Sally. 

  8. I actually made this sugar cookie recipe for Halloween cookies and it was SO much easier to work with this dough than my family recipe – and the flavor (even w/o the almond extract) was better too! So I’ll be using this from now on. Me and the kiddo will be making Christmas sugar cookies in the next few days (these will be our Santa cookies) but I’ll be trying the royal icing for the first time. Hopefully with your instructions it’ll go well! Either way, I’m excited to learn a new frosting technique.

    Happy Holidays!

  9. Eileen Pashute says:

    I want to use this recipe ASAP – I have one question. I’m in the UK and was wondering if the oven temperature is for a fan assisted oven or not ? I have two of your books, (so far ) and cant find a reference to this and I’ve read quite a few pages lol 
    Thanks in advance 

    1. Hi Eileen! My recipes are written for conventional ovens. If using convection/fan-assisted I recommend lowering the temperature by 25 degrees. 🙂

  10. Rebecca Killoran says:

    Hi Sally! I loved your live video– thank you for taking the time to do that!! I’m making cookies tonight, but can I wait to decorate them until tomorrow? Do they have to be iced fresh out of the oven? Thanks so much for your tips!! 

    1. You can definitely wait until the next day (or a few days!) to decorate. I usually bake them the night before and decorate the following day. Just cover them overnight.

  11. Rachel Levinson says:

    Can you make this dough ahead of time and leave it in the fridge a day or so before you shape and bake the cookies?

    1. Sure can! About 2 days.

  12. I always use your cookie recipe from 2014 when I make sugar cookies.  It’s so easy and I love the technique.  I like the almond too!  Thank you for posting the icing information–I’ve been interested in trying this since my preschool-age daughter’s favorite thing to watch are cookie decorating videos!

  13. Thanks so much for these decorating tutorials! I always appreciate how specific you’re directions are. The snowmen are so adorable, they make me wish I had some little kids to decorate cookies with. Also, I didn’t know that you did Facebook live. I’ll have to catch you next time – exciting!

    1. Joanne Lesley says:

      The cookies had a great taste although they were rock hard and had about 4 times too much icing ! I will try and bake them for less time and cut down on the icing

      1. My first batch came out rock hard as well. I knew I had done something wrong even though I followed the recipe exactly as it said. I found that when I used stick butter I didn’t allow the butter to soften enough so I didn’t measure it. Turns out 3/4 cup of stick butter is not equivalent to 3/4 soften butter. Second batch excellent!!!

  14. This was my first time using royal icing and overall, I think my cookies turned out pretty good.  I had a few issues (mostly because I didn’t have the right size piping tips and didn’t have couplers), but the one thing I’m scratching my head most about is that my icing dried a dull matte color, not shiny at all. Any advice on that end?

    1. Hi Elaine! What brand food coloring and meringue powder did you use? I find that my royal icing consistency and appearance varies depending on the products I use. I like Wilton brand meringue powder and Americolor gel food coloring.

  15. This is my favorite go to sugar cookie recipe! This recipe never disappoints. Great job Sally!

  16. Hi Sally,

    Would it be okay to roll these and cut them out before refrigerating? I’d like to store them overnight on prepared baking sheets and then just put them in the oven the next day. Let me know!

    Thanks!

    1. Hi Beth! The dough is too soft to cut into shapes right after rolling out. It’s best to cut into shapes after chilling.

  17. Nicole Herbst says:

    Hi Sally!
    I am not a fan of royal icing on sugar cookies:( I feel it is too hard and I prefer the taste of buttercream frosting similar to what is on Cheryl’s cookies. I usually use the buttercream frosting recipe from the joy of cooking but sometimes it is thick & hard to use. I decorate the cookies with my 4 year old & we usually just use a small spreader to put it on the cookies & then add sprinkles. So nothing fancy! We may add some details using a piping bag. What would you recommend? Any thoughts or suggestions? Thanks!

    1. Hi Nicole! I find this vanilla buttercream smooth and EASY to work with, especially on sugar cookies. Wonderful for piping too.

  18. How do you keep the parchment from sliding around when you roll out the dough? I tried weighting it with a gallon of water and it still slid around and made it very difficult to roll.

    1. Try rolling the cookie dough between two pieces of parchment paper. Go slowly at first. It becomes easier the thinner the dough gets.

  19. This is by far the best sugar cookie recipe I’ve tried and will be my go-to going forward! I was amazed by how easy it is to work with and not that messy since I rolled it out following your directions. Thank you so much for all the good tips and instructions!

  20. Fantastic sugar cookie recipe! I’ve made it with regular vanilla and with clear artificial vanilla and, dare I say it, I might like the artificial vanilla version best. Thanks for the great recipes.

  21. Any thoughts on how to keep the cookies fresh while the icing is drying? I tried this icing twice and it took over 12 hours to harden regardless if I used the fridge to speed things up. (It’s not humid here, either. NYC in winter, so quite dry.) With this latest batch I’m layering the icing. Three batches of flooded cookies are currently drying on a variety of cookie sheets, oven dishes, and cutting boards stacked in my oven. They will need to dry twice more for quite some time, and I’m getting worried the cookies will get stale. Thank you!

    1. Hi Tracy, If they are stacked in your (cool!) oven with the door closed they shouldn’t get stale. These cookies stay remarkably soft for quite some time left out at room temperature!

  22. Great article! I am going to bake and decorate cookies for the first time and feel much confident after I’ve read it!
    I have a question. Can I keep icing in the same piping bag for a few hours while waiting for the first coat to settle. I will be using the same colour of icing but with the different tip.
    Thank you!

    1. Hi Julia, I’m so glad you enjoyed this post! You can keep the frosting in the bag, but be sure to remove the tip and *tightly* cover the end of the bag (I use Press and Seal wrap). If the icing begins to dry in the tip it can be very difficult to clean!

  23. Hi

    This recipe and your royal icing recipe is amazing. My question is how to package them. I packaged them into little cellophane bags but found they went more soft and broke easily. Were as ones wrapped in cling film have stayed hard but soft in middle. How long do these last??
    I’m based in the uk

    Thanks

    1. I’m so glad you enjoy the recipes, Ty! I find that these cookies stay fresh as long as they are covered for at least 5 days. For longer storage can keep them covered in the refrigerator for up to 10 days.

  24. Hello! I was wondering if you ever tried decorating chocolate chip cookies instead of the sugar cookie?

    1. Stephanie @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Jill, You certainly could decorate any cookie you wish! We like to decorate rolled sugar cookies (or gingerbread!) because they have nice flat tops.

  25. Hello Sally, Can I freeze baked cookie, and ice after thawing, will icing still stick? Afraid iced cookie might get smashed in freezer. Trying to bake ahead. Thanks for the help. This is the best sugar cookie ever!
    Christie

    1. Lexi @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Christie, yes, just make sure the cookies are fully thawed before adding the icing. Glad to hear you love these cookies!

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