Decorating sugar cookies at Christmas wasn’t a tradition in my family growing up.
My step-mom though, started this tradition with my own kids when they were barely old enough to walk.
My step-mom now lives with Jesus, so it’s up to me to carry on her tradition of decorating cookies at the holidays with the kids.
I know her sugar cookie recipe wasn’t the healthiest, so I set out to create a healthy sugar cookie that I won’t feel guilty for making or letting my kids (or myself!) eat all year long.
I’ve been experimenting with baking with natural sweeteners ever since we quit white sugar a few years ago. I’ve found that you can consistently substitute honey and/or maple syrup for sugar in most quick breads and muffin recipes. In fact, my peanut butter chocolate chip muffins only use maple syrup, and my zucchini bread muffins use a 50/50 ratio of honey and maple syrup.
I’ve also found that you can use honey and/or maple syrup in recipes that don’t require a rise, like in brownies. Neither my black bean brownies nor my white bean blondies use processed sugar – they both use only maple syrup and honey, respectively.
The only catch with using honey and maple syrup is when you’re making cookies and cakes. Both of these sweeteners are liquids, and in cookies and cakes you need a specific wet to dry ratio otherwise your cookies won’t hold shape and your cakes won’t rise.
Sugar cookies are even more an exception, because most often we want dough that can be rolled, cut out, baked and then decorated.
I’m not saying that’s impossible to achieve, but I am saying that makes for a finicky dough to work with.
And I know how I work – if making sugar cookies is hard or seems like a chore, I’m not going to want to to do it.
The Christmas season feels busy enough, and I don’t want to add to that. I want to slow down and enjoy the season with my family. I WANT to make and decorate cookies with my kids, but if they feel like a lot of work, it’s simply not going to happen.
My goal then, is to make a healthy sugar cookie using common sense, substituting with healthier options and using less of the stuff that gives cookies a bad name in the first place.
I tested several different sugar cookie recipes in order to find the one that met important criteria:
Easy. As I just mentioned, the recipe has to be easy. Complex recipes aren’t happening in this season.
Fast. I know some sugar cookie recipes call for an overnight chilling. I promise that if I had to make the dough YESTERDAY, cookies aren’t happening.
Short. Some sugar cookie recipes have a VERY long list of ingredients. The basic essentials of any cookie recipe is flour, sugar, eggs, butter, vanilla and salt… if the ingredient list is any longer than that, then I’m looking for a different recipe.
Easy to Work With. We’re rolling and decorating, remember? The dough needs to be relatively easy to work with, for both myself AND the kids.
When my kids were little, my step-mom made the cookies and the kids decorated. Now that the kids are bigger, they’re cutting the cookies themselves.
As the kids get older still, I want them to be able to do more of the recipe… maybe next year they roll, and the year after they mix the ingredients. I need a healthy sugar cookie recipe that works for us now, and will continue to work for years to come.
Delicious. Just because we’re making a healthy sugar cookie, doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice taste. What’s the point of going through all the trouble of making and decorating cookies, if no one wants to eat them because they taste bad?
After testing several batches of sugar cookie dough, I think I’ve created a healthy sugar cookie recipe that meets all of that criteria above, and then some. My kids have been begging for a cookie in their lunch box AND as an afternoon snack…
And I’m not ashamed to say that I had sugar cookies for lunch the day I took all these pictures!
I learned a few lessons in the testing process, so let me share them with you before you dive in:
I tested this recipe using 100% all-purpose, 100% whole wheat and every combination in between. My favorite, and what I suggest using, is 100% all-purpose flour.
If you want to use whole wheat, I suggest using WHITE whole wheat and not red whole wheat if at all possible. I did a test several years ago to see which wheat flour was best for cookies, and white whole wheat won by a landslide. To use white whole wheat in this sugar cookie recipe, I recommend making a half batch and start with a 50/50 ratio of all-purpose to white whole wheat flour. From there, you can tinker with either more or less, to your liking.
If you only have red whole wheat (which is the typical whole wheat you’ll find in grocery stores), I suggest making a half batch and substituting one-third of the all-purpose flour with whole wheat. If you use more than one-third whole wheat flour, the cookie becomes crumbly when you eat it. You may be okay with this, but start with just one-third whole wheat and adjust from there.
Most traditional sugar cookie recipes use 1 cup of sugar to 3 cups of flour. In my recipe below, I reduced the sugar to 1/3 cup AND I used Turbinado sugar.
According to this article, Turbinado sugar is less processed than traditional white sugar, still retains some of the natural molasses and the size each granule is slightly bigger too (which means by default, there’s not quite as much sugar in the measuring cup because each granule takes up more space).
Turbinado sugar isn’t super dark in color, which makes it a great substitute for white sugar. Since we stopped using processed white sugar, I use this instead, which I consider to be one baby step in the direction of “better.”
The catch with sugar though, is that all of our taste buds are different. How much sugar you use will depend on how long you’ve been eating whole foods (or if you’re just now making the transition to healthier eating), on whether or not you’ll be icing the cookies (and even what type of icing you’re using) and your own preferences. Here are some guidelines:
- If you’re new to eating real foods and are used to very sweet sugar cookies, I suggest making a batch with ½ cup of sugar and ice and decorate as you normally do. These will be sweet for sure, and I promise you won’t notice the reduced sugar.
- If you’re used to baking with less sugar, I suggest keeping the 1/3 cup sugar. This alone will make a delicious sugar cookie that is just barely sweet. You can decorate if you want, but you will certainly notice the higher level of sweetness if you use a lot of icing, or a super sweet icing.
- If you’re used to eating less sweet foods AND you want to decorate the cookie, I suggest reducing the sugar to ¼ cup. You’ll end up baking a cookie whose sweetness comes mainly from the icing, which you can control even more to adjust the level of sweetness.
Icing / Frosting
Our own family tradition wouldn’t be complete without decorating the cookie, so I included a very simple icing that lets you ice without adding too much sweetness.
My icing recipe below is similar to royal icing, except that I didn’t use egg whites in any form. In royal icing, egg whites make the icing a pretty glossy shine. Since I’m not entering a decorating contest with my cookies (nor do I keep powdered egg whites in my pantry), I created a very simple icing recipe.
This particular icing recipe is thick enough to pipe, but you can easily create a smooth surface by using a knife OR by wetting your finger and smearing on the cookie (I prefer the finger method).
There’s enough icing to put a very thin layer of icing on one full batch of cookies.
For us, it’s the perfect balance of sweet and healthy.
Something else I’ve learned over the years, is that kitchen tools make cooking EASY. And enjoyable. I don’t own a lot of tools, but what I do own, I use often and love. For this recipe in particular, I used:
- KitchenAid Mixer (plus here’s a post on 30+ Creative Ways to Use a KitchenAid Mixer)
- Parchment Paper (buy what you need now, then watch for sales after the holidays and stock up for the year!)
- Plastic Wrap
- Silpat Mats (You can bake on these too, but they’re great for rolling out dough and keeping the counters clean.)
- Cookie Cutters (I have a few sets, but I used this set for these sugar cookies)
- Large Cookie Sheet (I used to have several smaller ones, but have invested in a few larger ones over the years instead.)
- Cooling Rack (I use these for cooling cookies of course, but also when flash freezing foods and need to stack cookie sheets on top of each other!)
One more quick tip – if you want these cookies to resemble those thick sugar cookies you can get at the grocery store bakery, roll them out to 1/4” thick. These will make a deliciously chewy and AMAZING cookie.
If you want them a bit thinner, aim for 3/8” thick.
Happy cookie making!
- ⅓ cup granulated sugar (I used Turbinado)
- 8 Tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1 egg
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1 ½ cups flour (I used all-purpose)
- ⅛ tsp salt
- ½ tsp + ⅛ tsp baking powder
- 1 cup powdered sugar
- ½ tsp vanilla
- pinch salt
- 3-4 tsp whole milk
- Make the Cookies: In a bowl of a stand mixer OR using a large bowl with a hand mixer, cream the sugar and butter until it is very light in color, about 5-10 minutes.
- Add the egg and vanilla and mix until well combined.
- Add 1 cup of the flour, the salt and baking powder and turn on low. Add the remaining flour and mix until the dough is no longer crumbly and starts to stick together, possibly cleaning the sides of the bowl.
- Wrap in a piece of plastic wrap and place in the fridge for 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375F and line a large cookie sheet with a piece of parchment paper.
- When the dough is chilled, lightly flour a silpat mat (or your working surface) and place your dough on top of the flours, sliding it around slightly in the flour so that the underside is lightly coated. Take the same plastic wrap that it was wrapped in, unroll it and place it on top.
- Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough to either ¼" thick for thicker, chewy, bakery-style cookies OR roll it out to ⅜” thick for classic sugar cookies.
- Use the cookie cutters to cut your desired shapes. Place the shapes on the cookie sheet, leaving 1” of space between each cookie.
- Knead the scraps together and repeat the previous two steps until all the dough has been cut.
- Bake the cookies for 7 minutes. Rotate the pan and bake for 1-2 minutes more, just until the edges are barely golden brown. They might seem under baked, but they’re not!
- When they’re done, remove the cookies from the oven and let them cool on a cooling rack for 5 minutes. Carefully move the cookies from the pan to the cooling rack to cool completely before icing.
- Ice the Cookies:Combine the powdered sugar, vanilla, salt and 3 tsp of whole milk in a small bowl.
- Use your arm muscles to whisk very well until the icing is smooth and makes thick ribbons when you hold the whisk up from the bowl.
- Add the last teaspoon of milk if the icing is too thick.
- Either pipe the icing onto the cookies, use a butter knife to spread the icing or use a wet finger to smooth the icing over the cookies.
- Let the cookies dry at room temperate for at least 2 hours before stacking.
- Store cookies in a container with a lid for up to one week.