How to Decorate Sugar Cookies to Perfection

The pros show you how to decorate sugar cookies from start to finish. They also dispel a common myth about what it takes to get perfectly decorated sugar cookies.

‘Tis the season for holiday cookie baking, so we reached out to Jason Schreiber, a food stylist and sugar cookie expert, for his best tips on how to decorate sugar cookies. And here’s the thing: The perfectly decorated sugar cookie isn’t all about the icing. A properly baked cookie is the foundation for a beautiful treat worth gifting. Keep reading for Schreiber’s best practices from rolling and cutting to baking and finishing.

1. Roll At The Right Temperature

When you’re ready to roll out your dough (use our Do-It-All Sugar Cookie recipe), you can pull it straight from the fridge but you might regret it. To bring it closer to ideal rolling temperature (cooler than room temp but not icebox cold), use the heat of your hands and press down firmly on the dough to warm it up ever so slightly. Still too stiff? Take your rolling pin and give the dough a few thwacks to help flatten it out and soften it up.

2. Lightly Floured Means Lightly Floured

Rolling your cookies on a too heavily floured surface can lead to tough, floury cookies. You’re looking for just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking as you roll. To create that lightly dusted effect, put a small handful of flour in your hand. With your fingers lightly closed around the flour and your palm facing up, shake the dough across the surface with a skipping stone motion, releasing the flour at the end of the action.

3. Roll Out an Even Piece of Dough

Always start rolling from the middle of the dough toward the edge. Starting from the center, roll out and away from you toward the top edge of the dough. Stop and rotate the dough a quarter turn and repeat. Keep working from the middle of the dough outward, rotating every few rolls, until you’ve reached your desired thickness.

4. Cut Carefully and Avoid Cracks

What happens if your dough starts cracking? It doesn’t mean you can’t use it, just be mindful when it comes time to cut out shapes. Line up your cutters on either side of the cracks and you should be fine. Sometimes the shapes will stick to the cookie cutter which makes it easy to pop them out onto your parchment-lined sheet. But if the shapes stick to the surface, don’t try to pick them up with your hands. Instead, peel back the scraps and use a spatula to loosen the cut outs from the surface. And if you don’t have cookie cutters, you can always use a glass to punch out circles or a knife for easy diamonds and squares.

5. Bake With Care

We can’t say this enough: For sharp edges you want your cookies to be frozen solid before they go into the oven. Freeze at least 15 minutes until firm and bake straight from frozen. And be sure to let the cookies cool completely before decorating.

6. Frost With Royal Icing

Use this easy royal icing recipe for basic decorating. If you’re making a great big batch of icing, you can use your stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (NOT the whisk—that will turn it into meringue). For a single egg white icing, a whisk works great. Add a pinch of salt to help break up the white. Whisk until frothy and uniform with bubbles. Start whisking in the powdered sugar a couple of spoonfuls at a time. You might not need all of it (“every egg is different,” says Jason). Keep whisking in the sugar until the mixture thickens and gets more difficult to whisk. At this point, switch to a rubber spatula to help work out any lumps. You’re looking for the consistency of toothpaste: something glossy that will hold its shape when piped and eventually dry to the touch. Note* Feel free to make your icing ahead, just cover it with plastic wrap and be sure the plastic makes direct contact with the icing so it doesn’t form a skin.

7. Use a Pastry Bag

Reusable pastry bags are a smart sustainable choice if you think you’ll be decorating cookies for years to come. But you can also find disposable plastic pastry bags for easy cleanup. Pastry tips and a coupler make the easiest work of decorating and give you pretty and precise results. If Instagram-worthy cookies are what you’re after, make the investment in a set. Finally, don’t be tempted to put your entire batch of icing in the pastry bag at once. You should be able to twist the back end of the bag so the icing stays securely inside and doesn’t sneak out the back. You can always refill the bag.

Once you’re ready to decorate, decide where you want to start icing. Keep the tip slightly above the cookie and let the icing fall into place, rather than drag it along the edge. Only pick up the tip when you want to change direction. But don’t stress: simple dots and lines can be a chic addition to any cookie (and easier for beginners). If you want to top your cookies off with a sparkle of sanding sugar, shake it on while the icing is still wet so it sticks. Let the cookies dry completely, overnight, uncovered at room temperature, before storing. Feel free to eat them before that, just know that it could get messy.