How to Decorate Sugar Cookies

Create beautiful decorated Christmas sugar cookies with this awesome sugar cookie and royal icing recipe! sallysbakingaddiction.com

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!

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:

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!

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

Print

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 (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 – 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).

Create beautiful decorated Christmas sugar cookies with this awesome sugar cookie and royal icing recipe! sallysbakingaddiction.com

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.

Create beautiful decorated Christmas sugar cookies with this awesome sugar cookie and royal icing recipe! sallysbakingaddiction.com

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.

Create beautiful decorated Christmas sugar cookies with this awesome sugar cookie and royal icing recipe! sallysbakingaddiction.com

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!

Create beautiful decorated Christmas sugar cookies with this awesome sugar cookie and royal icing recipe! sallysbakingaddiction.com

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 cinnamon star cookies on sallysbakingaddiction.com

98 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. Can’t wait to try these and most of your other recipes!! It’s nearly 2:00 am and I’m glued to the computer going through all of your recipes! They sound so good and I really like your writing style on your blogs on Pinterest. I had you pegged for an older heavy (from all these delicious recipes) woman. To my surprise your young, thin and beautiful- quite a combination with your talent!

      1. Hey Sally, could I color half of this dough with
        Food coloring and roll it into a log to create a swirl effect, then slice and bake these? Rather than rolling and cutting them with cutters?

      2. Yes, absolutely! I recommend rolling into 2 separate swirled logs, then chilling the logs for at least 2 hours before slicing and baking. The cookies will hold their shape better that way.

      3. Okay! So dont just roll one massive log, make two discs of colored and two discs of plain and roll the pairs separately into smaller logs?

  3. My kids love cut out sugar cookies! We made a huge batch already and went for the decorating technique you describe for the maple-cinnamon-stars: white icing and sprinkles – we used a multicolored mix and white and golden star sprinkles. We are giving most of them away at our church’s bake-sale this weekend so we will make another batch for christmas – yay!
    Also, we are going to set up a gingerbread house this weekend, so there will be plenty of decorating! 🙂 Actually, I’ll be using royal icing for the first time in this, I’m a little nervous…

    1. Have fun baking and decorating that gingerbread house! That’s on my to-do list sometime. Maybe when Noelle is old enough to help in a couple years!

  4. 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! 

  5. Sooooooo cute!!! These cookies look just perfect for Christmas and I love the idea of making it in so many different designs.

  6. We made these last weekend and it was my first time doing royal icing.  Definitely takes some patience.  I froze some of the snowflakes and am going to ice them before we travel for the holidays next weekend.

  7. As a child, my siblings and I would paint iced sugar cookies. We used liquid food coloring and toothpick to “paint” scenes on iced cookies. To this day, I have never heard of anyone else who did this.

  8. 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.

  9. I’ll be making my 2nd batch of dough today…can’t wait to see the video, and I love the idea of adding cinnamon. These cookies are soooo addictive!

    1. Hi Cassie! Always store it with a moist paper towel directly on the surface of the icing. This prevents it from drying out. I store it in the fridge inside the mixing bowl with that paper towel on it. Good for a couple days that way. Give it a mix with the mixer before using again– you may have to add a Tablespoon or 2 of water to get it back to the right consistency.

  10. 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.

  11. Hi Sally! You’re timing is impecible! I’m going to be trying your sugar cookie recipe for the first time tomorrow! I literally just layed out all the butter and eggs on my island as I’m making all my batters, including the sugar cookie one, tonight to refrig all over night. Tomorrow, my 11 year old neighbor, Sarah, is coming over for a Baking Blitz…ALL DAY! I even custom made us Tee-Shirts (2017 Baking Team!) for the occasion. I’ll have a card table set up for the ‘decorations’….I’ll admit…I been intimidated to decorate cut-outs for the same reason you specify above…I’m not good at it!”….but your instructions above are awesome! I’m printing it all as we speak. One question…..I did see a neat short cut around using piping bags…because they as you know get messy….Squirt Bottles! Fill them with your Royal Icing and then you have a nice thin tip always….I was planning on filling 3 of them…with Red, Green, White. Have you ever tried this? How long do you think the Icing would last until it gets hard in the bottle?

    1. What a FUN DAY!! I hope it was a blast yesterday. I love the t-shirt idea. Make it a real “event” !!!

      I’ve done the squirt bottles before, yes! I like to use them when I decorate with simple designs. I prefer a thinner tip when I want to pipe a little more detail 🙂 But the squirt bottles are AWESOME for kids!

  12. P.S. – You can fill them nicely with a narrow funnel. Also – Does BROWN color come standard in most dye pkgs you buy in the grocery Store? I don’t think I’ve seen that color…?

    1. You’re right, I hadn’t even thought about how that could be confusing. Let me reword it. Thanks so much for keeping me on my toes!

  13. If my #1 tip kept getting clogged, should I try a different meringue powder? I found my powder to be rather gritty. I sifted my powdered sugar and did everything according to the directions but the clogs kept happening so often I ended up doing the details on the snowmen with your easy icing recipe.

    1. Hi Sarah! It could be the meringue powder. What brand are you using? I wonder if your royal icing is too thick as well. You can try making it a little thinner next time if you try it out again. Also, I always use a toothpick to unclog it.

  14. The cookies and your photography for this post are breathtaking! I love making so many of your recipes, especially cookies, and I am always impressed by your photography, but these pictures are over the top!

  15. Hi Sally
    I just caught the FB video on decorating sugar cookies. Thanks so much for doing it. I learned so much. 

    I’ve never even baked sugar cookies, much less decorated them. I feel so much less intimidated after watching your video. Hopefully I can do the December baking challenge. 

  16. Funny enough I am making holiday cookies with my kids tomorrow, and this has really given me some great ideas! Thank you for all these great tips and cookie dough recipe

  17. 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!

  18. I just purchased your baking addiction book. I am looking forward to trying some of your recipes for my Christmas baking. Have a Merry Christmas!!

  19. 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!

    1. The chocolate sugar cookies are a fun switch up from the traditional vanilla version everyone always makes 🙂 Let me know if you try the vanilla sometime though!

  20. I wanted to try the icing, so I just used a tube of cookie dough. The cookies are ugly, but thanks to the video, I feel like I have icing success! Wasn’t brave enough to do more than one color, but it was super easy.  Just waiting for them to dry. 

  21. Thanks for sharing this recipe, Sally!
    Do you know of any good egg substitute to add in these cookies? My daughter is allergic to eggs! 

    1. Hi Molsi! I don’t, so sorry! Is there an egg-free sugar cookie recipe you can search for online? I’m sure another website has one!

  22. Many, Many…sites offer recipes, but very few “pan out,” but you, Sally, are on another level! From the strawberry cheesecake muffins, years back, to pizza, chicken noodle soup….you rock my kitchens world!! Just finished making these sugar cookies, and Yes, you’ve done it again!! DELICIOUS!! You have always stayed true to your follows!! Thanks girl!! Happy happy holidays and 2018!! Xo

    1. Thank YOU, Lindsey for being a long time reader!! I’m so thrilled that you have found success with so many of my recipes! Happy holidays to you too 🙂

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

  24. 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!

  25. 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. 🙂

  26. 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.

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