The Most Important Rules for Baking a Perfect Batch of Holiday Cookies, According to Our Food Editors

Discover expert tips for making the dough, rolling it out, baking, and decorating your cookies.

Photo: Romulo Yanes

Our food editors have made hundreds—no, thousands—of holiday cookies and confections over the years, so it should come as no surprise that they've picked up plenty of tricks along the way. Our test kitchen team's secrets, as well as their time-tested (and retested) wisdom will help you make your best batch of holiday cookies yet.

Measure Ingredients the Right Way

It might sound obvious, but measuring is essential for good results. Baking is as much chemistry as it is art, so don't eyeball it. Use a handled dry-measure cup for dry ingredients, but not as a scoop: Instead, spoon flour into it and pile it above the rim, then sweep the top with a knife to level it, sending the excess back into the canister. For wet ingredients, use clear, spouted cups and lower yourself to eye level with the lines for accuracy.

Work With Room Temperature Ingredients

Working with room temperature ingredients when baking really is worth the effort (and foresight). For properly creamed cookie dough, your eggs need to be room temperature and your butter softened. Ideally, you can leave them on a counter for a few hours before baking, but if time doesn't permit, there are a few speedy cheats you can employ.


For eggs, fill a medium-size bowl with warm water, and let them sit in it for five to 10 minutes. They're good to go when they no longer feel chilled to the touch after you remove them.


If it's the butter that you forgot to pull out of the fridge, dice up or grate the stick on press cubes or flakes onto a small plate to expedite the process. Using the microwave isn't advised—but if you do, microwave the butter on low power in five-second increments, flipping it from side to side as you go. Check it frequently to make sure it hasn't started to liquefy.

Whisk, Don't Sift

Older recipes often call for sifting dry ingredients to thoroughly combine them, aerate the mixture, and get rid of clumps. However, whisking works just as well, and it saves you from hand cramps. The one exception is cake flour: It tends to stick together, so we shake it through a sieve while lightly tapping the side.

Set Timers

When you're prepping multiple batches or recipes, it's easy to lose track of when something needs to come out of the oven (or the fridge, if you're chilling dough). That's why we rely on multiple timers. Set them on your phone or smart-home device; we find they're the most reliable.

Take Precise Temperatures

Buy an oven thermometer and replace it once a year, as they get less accurate over time. To cook sugar for candies or fry sufganiyot for Hanukkah, you'll need a candy (sometimes labeled "deep-fry") thermometer. To check its accuracy, place it in a small pot of water and bring it to a boil. It should always read 212° F at sea level (the boiling point is lower at higher elevations; check your altitude). If not, buy a new one.

roll cookie dough parchment paper
Lennart Weibull

Correctly Roll Out Cookie Dough

The trick for cookie dough is placing it between two sheets of floured parchment paper and rolling it out immediately after mixing, when it's at peak pliability.

  1. First, flour a piece of parchment and lay the mound of dough on top.
  2. Dust the dough with flour and place the second piece of parchment on top.
  3. Roll until the dough starts to stick to the paper, then lift the parchment off it, dust with a bit more flour, and replace the paper.
  4. Flip the entire package over and repeat these steps on the other side. Continue until the dough reaches your desired thickness.

Mix Sizes of Sanding Sugar

This decorating secret prevents bald spots and deposits extra sparkle. Combine two different sanding sugars, fine and coarse. Roll a slice-and-bake log in the mixture for glittery edges, or dust it on round cookies or spritzes with your fingers, like you're sprinkling salt. Sarah Carey, the former editorial director of food at Martha Stewart Living, likes to use unexpected colors, like hot pink or metallic silver, to jazz up her gift boxes.

Shape Your Cookies

Want to make picture-perfect cookies every time? We have four tips for different shapes.

Slice and Bake Method

First, there's the slice-and-bake method. For round treats, like our Brown-Sugar Chocolate-Chunk Shortbread, snip down the length of an empty paper-towel tube, put the dough inside, and tape shut so it holds a cylinder shape (meaning it doesn't flatten on the bottom side) while chilling. After slicing, reshape the rounds into neat circles if needed.

Drop Method

Next up is the drop method. You'll need to grab an ice cream scoop, which makes quick work of measuring and ensures consistently sized cookies. Bonus tip: You can freeze scooped balls in a single layer and transfer them to freezer bags for dessert on demand (add a few minutes of baking time).

Cookie Cutter Method

The key to clean edges when working with cookie cutters is chilling the dough twice: Once after rolling it and again after stamping out the shapes. Halfway through baking, take the pans out, bang them a few times on the counter, and return them to the oven. This flattens the cookies for easy decorating.

Thumbprint Method

Last but not least, there's the thumbprint method. As the name implies, you'll press a finger into the dough to make indentations. Halfway through baking, reshape each one with the handle of a large wooden spoon to ensure deep, round wells for the jam.

Rotate Cookie Sheets During Baking

For even results, always rotate cookie sheets from top rack to bottom (if you're using more than one at a time) and back to front halfway through baking time. Also, you don't have to make your cookies the exact size called for in the recipe, but if you deviate, start with a small test batch to gauge the proper cooking time.

Prepare Your Nuts

Want to get nutty with your cookies? We've got three tips to help you prep nuts like a pro.

Taste Them

First, taste them: You'd be surprised how quickly nuts go rancid. To prevent that bitter end, store them in the refrigerator or freezer, and always try one before you start a recipe.

Toast Them

Next, be sure to toast them. This enhances their flavor and aroma. Arrange them in a single layer on a baking sheet, then bake at 350°F until fragrant and golden all the way through, 10 to 12 minutes (check often!), or a bit longer if they started frozen.

Chop Them

The test kitchen's favorite tool for chopping nuts is an offset serrated knife. The notches make quick work of craggy nuts (and chocolate, too), and the raised handle keeps fingers clear of your work surface.

Temper Chocolate

Slowly heating and cooling chocolate while stirring it provides a snappy texture and a beautifully shiny, professional appearance. It also results in a longer-lasting treat: Candy made with tempered chocolate—or cookies dipped in it—can sit at room temperature without developing a white coating, which is known as a bloom.

The process isn't difficult, but it takes time and precision—and requires a special thermometer—so over the years, bakers have come up with shortcuts that approximate the results. Here's the simplest: Stir a tablespoon of shortening into 12 ounces of melted chocolate. Confections made with this combination should be refrigerated to avoid blooming.

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