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January 31, 2013 / RA

7 truths of sugar cookies

30!I offered to make sugar cookies for my friend Colin’s birthday party because he has always enjoyed the ones I would bring to various get-togethers. His wife estimated that there would be about 50-60 people at the party, so I surveyed Twitter to figure out how many cookies that meant. Survey says! Depending on cookie size, about 1-6 per person, which meant … 50-360 cookies. What?! I decided to split the difference between cookie abundance and going insane and ended up making and decorating 195 cookies, ranging in size from 1-3 inches. I will repeat for emphasis: ONE HUNDRED NINETY-FIVE COOKIES OMG.

During the hours spent piping and flooding, I contemplated my cookie philosophy, and I think it comes down to these 7 truths of sugar cookies:

Cookie designs1. You don’t need a million cookie cutters.
I only use a fraction of the 100+ cutters I own (most from a giant canister I got as a gift) because many are too large (most people balk at a cookie larger than 3 inches across), intricate (a struggle to cut cleanly), or specific (I have never used the “shooting star” cutter). For the birthday cookies, I used only 4 cutters to make all of those cookies: 3, 0, and stars of 2 sizes. That’s it!

If you are starting out with decorated cookies, I recommend these cutters to start:

  • Letters
  • Numbers
  • Shapes (about 1 inch and 3-inch): circle, star, heart

These cutters suit me just fine for the vast majority of my projects. When you need a specific shape (like when I bought an umbrella cutter for shower favors), you can just buy that one.

2. You don’t need a million shades of food coloring.
This is shameful, but I don’t use real decorating food coloring; I use the Betty Crocker (I think?) gel food coloring you find in the baking aisle at the grocery store. For a time, I used those little pots of color by Wilton or whoever, but I thought it was a huge pain to get the color out of them in a measured way, I always wasted a lot of it when the pot was running out, and I would inevitably dye myself trying to get the cap back on. No more. Now I just squeeze out what I need and don’t waste the money. I’m no artist, but I manage to mix my own colors. Sometimes, I have to look up how I can arrive at a shade I want (like football brown), but I get it together with those cheap primary colors. You can, too. Colin’s cookies ended up being a little more eye-searing than I expected, but whatever, it was festive, right?

3. You don’t need decorating gadgets.
This is the gear I used to decorate the birthday cookies:

  • 1 zip-top bag
  • 1 decorating coupler
  • 1 Wilton decorating tip, size 1.5
  • 3 squeeze bottles
  • Lots of toothpicks
  • Damp paper towel

No Kopycake projector. No piles of tips. No real piping bags, people. Not that there’s anything wrong with those things! I’m just saying, you don’t need them. Of course, it helps that I have a lower-maintenance design style.

4. You don’t need elaborate designs.
I love elaborate cookies as much as anyone else. I mean, check out the awesomeness at Sugar Belle, Sweetopia, and Annie’s Eats. Right? So pretty. But the reality is that I do not care enough to take the time to execute an elaborate design on something whose fate is to be eaten. For my cookies, I try to abide by these rules:

  • Only use 2 colors of icing. The more colors you dye, the more icing you waste.
  • Use wet-on-wet decoration as much as possible.

For the birthday cookies, I only dyed orange and green icing, so I had 3 colors to work with, including white. I’ve fudged this rule by using, say, shades of one color and progressively diluting with white icing. I’ve also dyed icing in colors like yellow and blue and then mixed the dyed icing to get green. I also simplified by piping outlines in white, so I didn’t have to mess with making piping and flood icing for all the colors.

Wet-on-wet technique is using flood-consistency icing to accent a flooded cookie while it’s still wet, in contrast to the more traditional (but harder and more time-consuming) technique of piping over a flooded cookie. You can see examples of this technique on Hawaiian shirts, Christmas ornaments, and Valentine hearts. I live and die by this method because I am terrible at freehand piping (especially in curves; my zeroes were the worst of the lot), and I hate storing icing in piping bags for the second round of decoration. I make a bunch of flood icing and do it all at once, usually adding polka dots or marbling to make it more interesting. This is how I made the large star designs; the marbled and plaid ones were my favorites. When the icing dries, it finds its own level and dries flat, which you can see below.

Marbled star Plaid!

All piled up

Occasionally, I do pipe over a flooded cookie, like these Java cookies, but in general, I use this technique to save me time and sanity. See what you can do with this?

Wet-on-wet technique

I am also a big fan of decorating sugar and pearl sprinkles, and I find them at the grocery store, too. For the sugar, I thin out royal icing until it’s like a glaze, brush it on the cookie with a pastry brush, and press the cookie into a plate of sugar. It’s much faster than decorating with icing. The sprinkles make nice mini polka dots and accents. See?

Decorating sugar and pearl sprinkles

5. It will take a lot of time.
For these birthday cookies, over the course of a week, I probably spent 1.5 hours making dough (3 batches: 2 sugar and 1 chocolate), 4 hours cutting and baking the cookies, and 8 hours mixing icing and decorating. That doesn’t include overnight drying time, packing and re-packing between steps, and laying out the platter. Yeah. It’s a lot, and I didn’t even do the most intricate designs. Making decorated cookies is time-consuming, no matter how you do it.

6. With practice, you will improve.
When I started, I kept breaking piping bags because my icing was too thick, underestimating the time required, and overestimating what kind of artistic vision I could pull off. Eventually, I figured out my cookie groove, and these days, although the process is long, I have a much better idea of what’s involved. I don’t find myself covered in powdered sugar, mopping up puddles of royal icing, or willing my cookies to dry. It takes some repetition and patience to understand what the process will look like for you.

7. People love homemade cookies, no matter what they look like, because you made them.
This is the most important point. It really doesn’t matter what homemade cookies look like. So experiment! Make messes! Pawn off your attempts to willing tasters, and no one will complain. For those of you who find me by searching “how to decorate sugar cookies with canned frosting” — I can see you! — yes, you can do that. You should do that, if it will save your sanity. No judgement here. (As to “how,” um, you open the frosting and slap it on the cookies.) However, I feel strongly that cookies should taste good, so find recipes you love and go to town. You can do it!


  1. Lisa @ Lisa the Vegetarian / Jan 31 2013 1:17 pm

    I love the way your cookies always come out! They look so professional, not to mention delicious. I’d love to attempt this myself sometime and when I do, I’m following your tips!

  2. Naturally Minimalist / Jan 31 2013 1:28 pm

    I’m always so impressed with your cookie creations. I figured they took a lot of time, but…wow! That’s some dedication right there. But as you said, they are always appreciated and well-received. :)

  3. Jesabes / Jan 31 2013 1:32 pm

    Those cookies look fabulous. I’m definitely a person who could have eaten six, if I could have gotten away with it without looking like a pig:)

    • RA / Feb 4 2013 10:35 am

      Ohh, you totally could have gotten away with it! The party was dark, and people were snagging cookies all night. :)

  4. Kandi / Jan 31 2013 1:59 pm

    Three things: You are an awesome cookie decorator. You must have a lot of patience when it comes to sugar cookies. I now want to eat all the sugar cookies!

  5. heidikins / Jan 31 2013 2:46 pm

    I love this. I love your cookie decorating. I keep buying cute cutters on sale, but have yet to actually use them. This post gives me hope and motivation.


  6. Erica / Jan 31 2013 3:31 pm

    You are incredible! The little hearts on the umbrellas? Amazing. I think, though, that you need patience and an attention-span to decorate like that. I have neither, which is the reason I hate sewing. However, I will admire from afar and continue with my own delicious but sloppily decorate cookies.

  7. Joann / Feb 16 2013 9:42 pm

    how long do you leave sugar cookies out when using canned icing for it to harden… Will they go stale sitting out over night? How long can you keep frosted sugar cookies Thanks

    • RA / Feb 18 2013 10:56 am

      I’ve never used canned frosting like this, but I’d just let it set for a couple of hours. Jab it with a finger or a toothpick to test for hardness. Sugar cookies don’t go stale overnight as royal icing dries, but other than that, they need to be stored in an airtight container, and they should be okay for about a week.

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