The other day, Olive was reminiscing about the cookie parties we used to host for Valentine’s Day. We’d bake a whole bunch of sugar cookies, gather all the different sprinkles, make several colors of frosting, and invite friends over to decorate a plate of cookies they could take home and share with their family. Good, messy, creative, delicious fun.
But it’s been ages! It’s been ages since we’ve hosted a cookie party, and it’s even been ages since we made and frosted our own sugar cookies. But Lindsey swears she has a sugar cookie frosting recipe that will get us back on track.
Here’s what Lindsey says:
The best part of making sugar cookies is always the sugar cookie frosting, am I right? A delicious, reliable sugar cookie frosting is worth its weight in gold.
And Valentine’s Day is a great time to make and decorate sugar cookies. In fact, if I don’t manage to get much baking done for Christmas, I know I’ve got Valentine’s Day for back up. There’s way less pressure, you know? So I find the whole process is more enjoyable.
My go-to sugar cookie frosting has come from years of tinkering with a basic American buttercream. American buttercream = butter + powdered sugar frosting, as opposed to European buttercream recipes that include whole eggs, yolks, or whites, a sugar syrup, and loads of butter. (I’m a fan of both.)
For the perfect sugar cookies, I think you just have to go with a powdered sugar frosting, because when decorating with sugar cookie frosting, it should eventually set up or dry on the surface. Other types won’t do that. You also want a slightly stiffer frosting that can be piped, if desired, and hold its shape afterwards. American buttercream holds up in warm kitchens too.
Also, I should note that there is another type of sugar cookie frosting that I have yet to mention, called Royal Icing. Royal Icing is made from egg whites and powdered sugar. It is ideal for intricate decorations. It can be thicker and stiffer for piping, and thinner to use as “flood icing.” You’ve probably seen those addictive cookie decorating videos on Instagram where the design is piped out in thin lines and then the more liquid frosting is piped in and it floods to the piped border.
There’s nothing wrong with Royal Icing. I have used it often, but when it comes to sugar cookies I really want to sink my teeth into… I’m going with my buttercream sugar cookie frosting instead. (I’ve also included my beloved sugar cookie recipe. It’s a good one!)
Secret Ingredients For The Best Sugar Cookie Frosting Ever
So what makes my sugar cookie frosting so special? There are a few “secret” ingredients in there that add extra flavor and make it just a little more special than a run-of-the-mill sugar cookie frosting.
My tried-and-true top secret ingredients:
- Salted butter — salt enhances the flavor of sweet. If you use unsalted butter, add a good 1/4 teaspoon salt to the recipe. Also, don’t even bother with using margarine or shortening. Butter is the only way, my friends. (Unless you’re vegan or have a dairy allergy. Then please go use vegan butter or shortening!)
- Cream cheese — does the frosting end up tasting like cream cheese frosting? No, not at all. Cream cheese frosting is too runny for decorating sugar cookies. But a tiny little tablespoon adds a nice little tang.
- Half-and-half or heavy cream — Do milk or water work? Yes, of course. But fat = flavor and richness. Using a bit of half-and-half or cream adds to the luscious texture and mouthfeel. So creamy. So delicious. Pinky swear.
- Almond extract — stay with me on this. A little goes a long way, and that’s all you need here. In combination with the cream cheese, butter, and vanilla extract, the almond extract adds a little “something” that takes things up a big notch. Super tasters will know the secret right away, but the rest of us will taste the sugar cookie frosting and think, “Hmmm. This is delicious! I just can’t quite put my finger on what makes this different and SO YUMMY.” It will happen just like that.
What is The Best Kind of Food Coloring to Use For Sugar Cookie Frosting?
When it comes to tinting sugar cookie frosting, I always, always go with gel food coloring. Powdered food coloring works too. It doesn’t thin the frosting like the liquid dyes do and the colors are much more vibrant. Also, I don’t know if you’ve ever checked out the cake decorating section at your local craft store, but holy moly, there are so many colors to choose from these days.
Now if you really don’t want to go with the gel or powdered colors and you’ve got those cute little bottles with gnome hats on them, just reduce the amount of liquid you use or add extra powdered sugar. I won’t judge you.
Another popular option these days is to use natural food colors like spirulina for green, beet root powder for pink/red, butterfly pea flower for blue, and turmeric for yellow. Not much is needed for beautiful colors. There are also several brands that sell natural food colors online and in health food stores.
I’ve also used pulverized freeze-dried berries and other fruits to add natural color and fruity flavor to sugar cookie frosting.
Do You Need an Electric Mixer to Make Sugar Cookie Frosting?
Technically, no. But unless your arms have been specifically trained for beating butter with a wooden spoon (or whisk), then stick with an electric hand or stand mixer or they may fall off the next day. (Not really. I’m exaggerating.)
You also don’t want to over-beat the frosting. Beat it just enough to be fluffy-ish, but not so much that it looks like clouds or whipped cream. It will be more difficult to pipe, if you go that route, but it will still be great for spreading.
Over-beating may also cause the sugar cookie frosting to separate. This can happen when using heavy cream because beating cream turns it into butter. There will be a watery liquid that leaks out and your frosting will look curdled. Don’t beat it anymore, but stir in some powdered sugar by hand to bring it back together.
What is the Ideal Butter to Sugar Ratio?
This is a hot topic of debate. At least I imagine it is. I had this debate in my head with my mom where I told her she never used enough butter in her sugar cookie frosting. It was too thin on flavor, overly sweet, and not at all creamy. Her frosting is better these days, but as a kid… bleh. And it wasn’t fun to decorate with.
Don’t be afraid to use the butter. Use it well. I’ll say it one more time, butter = flavor. I want my sugar cookies to taste as good as they look. I bet you do too.
I find that the ratio of 1 stick of butter to 2-3 cups of powdered sugar works perfectly. Too much butter and the frosting feels greasy. Too little, and the flavor suffers.
Thick and Soft or Thin and Crisp? How Do You Like Your Sugar Cookies?
I grew up with the thick and soft cookies just like those giant sugar cookies you can buy at gas stations and I wasn’t much of a fan. Then one day our neighbors brought us a plate of sugar cookies that was to die for. It was the first time I thought, “I like sugar cookies!” It was a momentous day.
We have used that recipe ever since. I’m including below because it really is the best recipe I’ve tasted. You can roll the dough thicker for softer cookies or thinner for crispy cookies. They are that texture that’s right in the middle between buttery shortbread and soft, pillowy sugar cookies.
- 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon pure almond extract, optional
- 1. Whisk dry ingredients together in a bowl and set aside.
- 2. Using a stand or electric hand mixer, cream butter and sugar until creamy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each one. Beat in the vanilla and almond extract, if using.
- 3. Add the dry ingredients in three additions, mixing just until combined after each addition. Do not over-mix the dough or it will be tough.
- 4. Lay out a piece of plastic wrap or parchment paper. Turn the dough out onto the wrap or paper and pat down to form a smooth round disk. Wrap well and chill for at least 3 hours or overnight.
- 5. Preheat oven to 400°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
- 6. Lightly dust a clean, dry surface with flour. Unwrap the chilled dough and place on the surface. Lightly dust the top with flour as well. If the dough is straight out of the fridge, allow it to warm up a little bit in order to prevent the dough from cracking.
- 7. Roll the dough out to the desired thickness. (I usually do 1/4-inch.) Cut into shapes using cookie cutters.
- 8. Carefully transfer the cut outs to the baking sheets leaving at least 1-inch between the cookies.
- 9. Gather the dough scraps together and roll again as needed. You may need another baking sheet or two depending on the size and shape of the cookies.
- 10. Bake cookies for 6-8 minutes for 1/4-inch thick cookies and 5 minutes for 1/8-inch thick. The cookies should be barely golden and the tops will be dry when the cookies are properly baked. Remove from oven and let cool on the cookie sheets for 5-10 minutes before transferring to racks to cool completely. Store cooled cookies in an airtight container until ready to decorate.
Variation — For Chocolate Sugar Cookies: substitute 1/2 cup cocoa powder for an equal amount of flour.
Note: For the easiest cleanup and rolling out of the cookies, lay a large piece of parchment paper on a clean, dry surface and dust lightly with flour. Roll the dough to the desired thickness and bake as directed.
The BEST Sugar Cookie Frosting
- 2 sticks (8 ounces) salted butter, at room temperature
- 2 tablespoons cream cheese, at room temperature
- 5-6 cups powdered sugar
- 2-3 tablespoons half-and-half or heavy cream
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1/8 teaspoon pure almond extract
- Food coloring, optional
- 1. Using a stand or electric hand mixer, beat butter and cream cheese, if using, until creamy.
- 2. Add 1 cup of powdered sugar and mix well. Add a little of the half-and-half or cream alternating with the remaining powdered sugar until the desired consistency is reached. You may not need all of the liquid. Add the extracts and continue beating for 2-3 minutes on medium high speed. The frosting should be lighter, a bit fluffier, and really creamy. Don’t over-beat or the frosting may separate.
- 3. If not using frosting immediately, cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a lightly damp dishtowel to prevent the frosting from drying out on the surface. Refrigerate or place in a cool spot until ready to use. Give the frosting a quick stir before using.
- 4. To decorate, divide the frosting into smaller bowls, if desired, and tint with gel food colors. Pipe or spread onto the cooled cookies and decorate as desired.
Photos and recipes by Lindsey Rose Johnson for Design Mom.