When it comes to holiday baking, everyone tends to bite off a little more than they can chew. With good reason: we all have access to a world full of holiday baking tradition, just an internet search away. From German lebkuchen to Swedish pepparkakor, Austrian linzers and Argentinian alfajores, British brandy snaps to Filipino polvorónes, we’re not wanting for inspiration. That’s why even the oven-phobic and flour-averse among us attempt ambitious, fussy recipes once December rolls around—with admittedly mixed results.
But holiday baking needn’t be a headache. It can even be (dare we say!) fun. With just a pinch of planning and a spoonful of technique, Christmas cookies can be more than delicious enough to justify a bit of effort. Here are our favorite tips, tricks, and techniques to help your holiday baking go off without a hitch—no matter how ambitious.
Choose your cookies wisely
As with all things, planning is half the battle. If you’re looking to make a wide variety of treats for a plentiful platter, pick cookies that can be shaped from the same versatile dough. For example, the rich, almondy dough of a linzer cookie can also be rolled out and cut into sugar cookies, or shaped into a slice-and-bake log. Once you have your basic dough squared away, choose recipes with a variety of flavors, textures, and shapes. Balancing chocolatey, minty, buttery, sweet, and salty flavors will provide something for everyone.
When mixing doughs, time and temperature are key
Nearly all sugar cookie-based doughs start with the same technique: creaming butter and sugar together. Most recipes, though, woefully underestimate the amount of mixing it takes to cream butter and sugar. You aren’t just looking for a uniform texture—creamed butter has air whipped into it, providing lift and lightness that are essential to the finished cookie’s texture. When creaming butter and sugar, time and temperature are the most important factors. For most doughs, 5 minutes in a stand mixer set to medium-high should get you where you’re trying to go. (Don’t forget to scrape the bowl often to ensure a uniform texture!)
The directive to ‘soften’ butter for creaming is equally misleading. Over-softened butter will never whip up to the correct texture—it’s too melty and slack. It’s better for butter to be a bit too firm than a bit too soft. If you’re impatient to get started, cut your butter into chunks and beat it in your stand mixer on low for about 30 seconds to break it up. Let the bowl sit at room temperature for about 15 minutes until butter has softened. To speed up the process, turn on the mixer for a few seconds every 5 minutes. Once butter is soft, proceed with your recipe.
Rested dough = rested baker
In most cases, resting your cookie dough in the refrigerator for a few hours, or even days, will make the dough easier to work with and even tastier. Dough that’s allowed to cool is easier to roll out, less prone to sticking, and keeps its shape better during baking. It’ll also give you a welcome break between the work of preparing the doughs and the work of shaping and baking. But it’s not all about ease—giving dough time in the refrigerator allows the moisture from the wet ingredients to fully penetrate the grains of flour, creating a tender texture and more developed flavor.
Store your cookies wisely
Don’t go to the trouble of achieving the perfect texture only to ruin it through improper storage. A good rule of thumb when storing crunchy and chewy cookies is to keep like with like. Chewy cookies should be kept in an airtight container. Try storing them with an apple wedge to preserve softness. Cookies with strong flavors, like peppermint, should be stored on their own so their milder brethren don’t absorb odors. Keep crisp cookies in a semi-airtight container, like a cookie jar.