Beginners’ Guide to Baking Christmas Cookies

This is for all you folks out there who dream of baking home-made, delicious cookies from scratch for the holidays but don’t know where to start.

The Cardinal Rules of Baking

Rule #1 – Choose Two: Delicious, Healthy, Simple

Make sure your recipe is tracking with your goal. Choose two goals to focus on, because you can’t have all three: delicious, healthy, simple. If you’re totally new, and you only intend to bake these cookies once for Christmas, go for delicious and simple.

Rule #2 – Ambition is the enemy of success

This is one of my favorite quotes from Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother. I often remind myself of this when I am searching for new recipes. It’s best to follow the old adage of K.I.S.S = Keep It Simple, Stupid. (And also, kiss your loved ones in the kitchen often, I am a big fan of this.)

  • Gravitate toward recipes that use less than 10 ingredients. The less you have to keep track of, the better.
  • Try to find recipes that use ingredients you regularly stock in your kitchen, so when you’re done baking you can still use them.
  • Avoid recipes that are asking you for techniques way beyond your comfort level. You’ll know those words when you see them because your heart rate will go up.
  • Keep in mind food allergies of your guests, but don’t go overboard. Alternative baking like gluten free, dairy free, and egg free are harder to make and don’t taste as good unless you are already used to the taste of minimal sugar or rice flour or the like. While it’s sweet for you to care about your guests’ needs, it’s probably better for you to stop at your local grocery store and pick up some store bought gluten free goodies.

Rule #3 – Know thy Recipe

If you are new at baking, you will probably try to Google recipes from various online sources or food bloggers. This is good, but know your source. Some bakers are famous for their dairy free alternatives, while others try healthier baking or gluten free. Even bloggers in different geographical altitudes have different success with their recipes because baking is very much affected by air and has to cook longer. Go figure. Looking at peer reviews is generally a good idea, but I enjoy reading through the helpful comments full of baking tips and success stories.

Most importantly, know what is required out of you for this recipe before you begin. Make sure you have all the ingredients, and be aware of timing; some recipes (like sugar cookies) require you to make the dough and let it refrigerate for 1-3 hours before you can roll it out.

Rule #4 – Follow the rules

Yeah, yeah, I know the rebel in you hates to actually measure out a full cup and a half. But really, baking is like chemistry (or alternatively, potions class in Harry Potter); you need the science behind the recipes for the baking project to taste as advertised. Make sure you measure correctly and mix the proper ingredients when the recipe says so. This is a particularly important rule for those of you who enjoy improvisatory cooking.

Rule #5 – Have Fun

If this is going to be a stressful project for you and you’ll find zero enjoyment in it whatsoever, please reconsider. Baking is time consuming, difficult, and will likely not reap the rewards of Pinterest-perfection the first few go-arounds. But ultimately it should be fun and bring joy to you and those who enjoy your delicious baked goods!

Gingerbread man

Hacks and other Tips for Beginners

Sugar Cookies

  • If you are rolling out dough for sugar cookies, split your dough into smaller chunks.
  • Have some flour handy to put on the mat where you will roll your dough, and sprinkle flour into your dough and you knead it and roll it. This will make the batter less sticky.
  • Don’t roll the batter too much, having to roll and re-roll it a lot makes it very soft and sticky.
  • Don’t roll the batter too thin; most sugar cookies are thicker and they are easier to cut with cookie cutters this way without falling apart.
  • If you’re going to stamp them, put them on the cookie sheet first and firmly press down once.

General Tips

  • Make sure your oven is fully preheated before you put in the batch of goodies.
  • Don’t open the oven door to peek until the timer goes off or unless you smell smoke.
  • If you’re unsure of timing in a given range (i.e. 6-8  minutes), start with the low amount and check on the goods at that point. You should be able to poke a hole in the middle of the cookie with a toothpick without any gooey bits hanging off the toothpick. Bakers call this “coming out clean.”
  • Always make more cookies than you need. They will inevitably fall apart, especially stamped gingerbread cookies with little arms and legs. Create a “discard pile” of limbs and decapitated gingerbread men that you, your spouse, and your children can eat without feeling guilty.

The best advice I could give you is to try your recipe at least once before you intend to serve it to a large amount of people. Baking is not easy, and you will feel like you have a handle on things once you’ve completed it successfully at least once. Still, this isn’t always possible, which is why I have created this helpful guide!

Some of my favorite tried and true cookie recipes:

Veteran bakers, do you have more favorite tips or recipes for beginner bakers? Leave a comment and I’ll add it to the post!

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