Secrets for Baking the Best Healthy Sugar Cookies

By: Hilary Meyer, EatingWell Recipe Contributor

Follow these expert tips for tender, buttery sugar cookies and ways to make them healthier.

We love sugar cookies. They're buttery, tender, subtly sweet and easy to make a little healthier without messing with their lovely, simple flavor. Follow the tips below for your best (and healthiest!) sugar cookies yet.

Related: Our Best Sugar Cookie Recipes

1. Add Some Whole Grains

Christmas cookies

If you want to give your cookies a nutritional boost without compromising the texture, try substituting half of your all-purpose flour with white whole-wheat flour. It's mild enough that it won't overwhelm the flavor and it's light in color so your cookies won't look any different. And, in the end, you'll get the added benefit of a little more fiber (4 grams fiber per 1/4 cup of white whole-wheat vs. 1 gram fiber for all-purpose flour).

Related: 6 Tips for Making Your Cookies Healthier

2. Adjust for Your Dietary Preferences

Gluten-Free Sugar Cookies

Pictured Recipe: Gluten-Free Sugar Cookies

Do you have a gluten intolerance or allergy? Try substituting gluten-free all-purpose flour for wheat flour. Eating vegan? Swap out butter for coconut oil and try flaxseed or applesauce in place of eggs. If you're following a heart-healthy diet, cut back on the butter. Butter is the backbone of a good sugar cookie, but that doesn't mean you have to use a ton of it. Using some butter mixed with a flavorless oil like canola oil or avocado oil gives you what you need in the flavor department while slashing saturated fat.

Related:
Vegan Substitutes for Baking
How to Make Gluten-Free Baked Goods

3. Mix Your Ingredients, but Don't Overmix

Mix your ingredients to form a dough, but resist the urge to overmix or handle the dough too much. Too much mechanical action of the dough will result in hard cookies. The more you mess with it, the more gluten develops and the tougher your cookie gets. And no one likes a tough cookie (well, at least the kind that comes out of the oven). Luckily, there are ways you can avoid this issue. Using a flour that's lighter in protein (like cake or pastry flour) can help, but if your recipe calls for regular all-purpose flour, go light on the mixing.

4. Keep Your Dough as Cold as Possible

Sugar cookie dough

Our most important tip about rolling is to work with your dough cold. Divide your dough out of the mixing bowl into halves or thirds. Form each section into a flat-sided disk, sandwich each disk between two pieces of wax or parchment paper and stick them in the freezer to chill out for at least 30 minutes before you roll them. Roll one section of the dough at a time. And that parchment-paper sandwich you made? Keep it intact when you roll. That way you won't have to work in more flour on your work surface and rolling pin to prevent the dough from sticking. You can just peel back the top layer when you're ready to cut them out. If your dough looks glossy or flimsy, re-form it into a disk and throw it back in the freezer.

5. Cut Out Your Cookies Carefully

Sugar cookie dough

Try your best to roll the dough evenly. If some cookies are thick and some are thin, then they will bake unevenly. A quarter-inch thick all around is a good bet. Place your cutters as close together as possible and use smaller cookie cutters for the edges or other small spaces to avoid wasting dough. While lumping together the unused scraps and rolling them again is diligent, each subsequent time the dough hits the rolling pin, will make it tougher. You can get away with rerolling your scraps once, but more than and that you're better off, well, scrapping them.

Running out of time? No problem. You can freeze raw dough for up to three months and then just pick up where you left off.

6. Bake Them Up & Keep an Eye on the Oven

If you are using decorating sugar or decorative seeds, sprinkle them onto your cookies before you put them in the oven and gently pat to adhere. Bake the cookies on the middle rack one pan at a time.

Keep an eye on your cookies and don't bake them too long. Sugar cookies do not appreciate being overcooked. Unlike most cookies, you are not looking for "golden brown" on the top. If you see that, you've gone too far. Gauging doneness can be a bit tricky, so it may take a little experimentation and getting to know your oven. Take the first batch out a minute or two shy of the recommended baking time. Lift a cookie gently with a thin spatula. If it's beginning to color on the bottom, it's done. Once they're done, transfer them to a wire rack to cool. Make sure they are cooled completely before you store them in an airtight container so they retain their texture.

7. Skip the Icing to Cut Down on Sugar

Chia Seed Cookie Thins

Pictured Recipe: Chia Seed Cookie Thins

Let's be honest, this is a sugar cookie we're talking about. You won't be able to have a good, classic sugar cookie without the sugar. But you can put a cap on the amount you use by making your cookies smaller or by topping them with ground nuts, a drizzle of dark chocolate or seeds instead of sanding sugar or royal icing. Using extracts like vanilla, almond or lemon can add a confectionery flavor without adding more sugar.

8. Ice Your Cookies with Natural Colors

Natural Cookie Icing

Pictured Recipe: Natural Cookie Icing

If you can't have your sugar cookies without the classic festive icing, there are a few ways to make it a little healthier. Keep your icing its natural white color or seek out natural food dyes. You can find these plant-based dyes in well-stocked supermarkets, online or at natural-foods stores. Just be aware that they won't deliver the same vibrant bright reds and greens you may be used to with the artificial stuff, but the result is still very pretty.

Watch: How to Make Slice & Bake Sugar Cookies

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