How to Make Sugar Cookies That Don't Lose Their Shape

by Kristie Collado

Sugar cookies are easy to customize, making them a classic choice for many occasions. From birthday parties to baby showers to weddings, sugar cookies make the perfect dessert or party favor. To make festive sugar cookies, you need to prevent them from losing their identifiable shape during baking.

Bake cookies that stay in shape by using the right recipe, handling the dough carefully and controlling the temperature of the dough during the cookie-making process.

Use the Right Recipe

There are two basic types of sugar cookies:

  1. Those that are rolled into balls and allowed to spread as they bake
  2. Those that are cut to shape with a cookie-cutter. 

With cut-out sugar cookies, spreading is not desirable. Though the basic ingredients in the two recipes are generally the same, the proportion of the ingredients varies considerably.

Recipes for firm, cut-out sugar cookies generally have more flour and less sugar than softer varieties. High-flour dough is stiff and easy to shape, and the process of rolling and cutting the dough develops gluten, which makes the cookies firmer when baked. The amount of sugar in the dough also helps determine how much the cookies spread in the oven; dough with a high ratio of sugar spread when baked, because some of the sugar in the dough doesn't incorporate fully, causing it to melt when heated.

It is also worth noting that cut-out sugar cookies should be made from dough that calls for butter or shortening, not oil. Because oil is liquid at room temperature, cookie dough made with this type of fat is softer and spreads more easily in the oven. Chilled butter or shortening takes longer to melt in the oven, giving the proteins and starches in the dough more time to set.

Work With Chilled Dough

Once the cookie dough is mixed, it's important to chill it well, otherwise it is too difficult to roll and cut.

  • Shape the cookie dough into a disk.
  • Wrap it in plastic wrap.
  • Place it in the refrigerator for 1 hour or more

When the dough is firm enough to roll, place it on a lightly floured work surface and roll it out with a lightly floured rolling pin. Then gently fold the dough in half over the rolling pin; lift the rolling pin, and move the dough to a parchment-lined sheet pan. Press plastic wrap directly onto the dough’s surface, and then chill the dough for another 30 minutes.

After the dough has chilled, gently slide the piece of parchment paper onto the counter so you can use the sheet pan to bake the cookies.

Move Cut Shapes Carefully

It's easy to distort the shape of the raw cookies when lifting and moving them, even if the dough is well chilled. Avoid this by pressing the cookie cutter into the dough and leaving it there. Gently pull the excess cookie dough away from the outside edge of the cutter, and then slide a thin spatula under the cookie. Lift the spatula and dough without removing the cookie cutter. Gently slide the cookie and the cutter onto a parchment-lined sheet pan. Then, lift and remove the cutter to make the next cookie.

Chill the Cookies Before Baking

Butter and shortening melt as they’re heated, causing cookies to spread in the oven. Prevent spreading by chilling the cookies before baking; this gives the proteins and starches in the dough more time to set before the fat melts and the cookies start to spread. After cutting the sugar cookies and moving them to a baking sheet, place the baking sheet into the refrigerator for 30 minutes. Then bake the cookies directly from the refrigerator.

About the Author

Kristie Collado is a graduate of the International Culinary Center and holds a Master of Arts in food studies from NYU. She has worked at the 21 Club, interned at the Hearst Corporation, and was one of The Daily Meal's former Cook editors. She is currently working on writing her first cookbook.