Gingerbread cookies are a Christmas favourite with kids and adults alike. And they’re easier to make than you think.
But because they’re so popular, there are hundreds of recipes out there, each just a little different. So to help make sense of it all, I’ve gone through twenty recipes for gingerbread cookies. I’ve figured out what’s popular, and what’s not, to help you choose an approach, or a recipe, that suits you best.
Before we get started though, a little bit of history.
Where did gingerbread come from?
The history of this holiday treat is long, chequered and full of conjecture and presumption.
There seems to be some agreement that gingerbread arrived in Western Europe sometime around about the eleventh century – yep, about a thousand years ago! Exactly where it came from prior to there is a lot less clear though. Turkey? Egypt? Greece? No one knows. And as for cutting it into the shape of men, a few sources credit Queen Elizabeth I with that sometime in the sixteenth century.
We’ll never know for sure, and since then it’s spread far and wide, and become a festive favourite in many countries all over the world. Reader’s Digest have a nice summary of the history of gingerbread if you’re interested in a little more detail.
What’s in gingerbread cookies?
The ingredient list is remarkably similar across most of these recipes, although quantities vary from author to author.
There are several ingredients that vary a little depending on whether the recipe is for gingerbread men or for round gingerbread drop cookies. I’ll touch on each of the differences as we come to them.
Flour is the foundational ingredient in all of these recipes, giving the cookies structure and texture. Fiona from Just so Tasty points out that the amount of flour needs to be just right, otherwise you risk your cookies being too dry, or your dough too sticky.
All twenty authors use all-purpose/plain flour, and add baking soda/bicarb soda as a leavening agent. The amount of baking soda per cup of flour is pretty consistent, although the round cookie recipes have more than twice as much per cup. This is no surprise, given these authors want their dough to rise into plump cookies. A traditional gingerbread man is much flatter.
The amount of flour varies quite a bit from recipe to recipe. Like so many baked goods, most of the variation is hinged around that inflexible but incredibly important ingredient – eggs. You can halve a cup of flour, or quarter a cup of sugar, but it’s hard to accurately halve a raw egg, so most of the recipes are built around a preferred flour-to-egg ratio. The drop cookie recipes tend to have quite a bit less flour per egg. Eggs help provide structure, texture and height to baked goods, so it’s not surprising the drop cookie doughs are eggier.
Making smaller batches
Regardless of which type of cookie they’re for, most of the recipes are based on one egg, which can make it challenging to produce smaller batches. If you beat your egg well it’s fiddly but not impossible to halve it. Ashley from Baker by Nature and Meredith from Cleverly Simple both use two eggs, so their recipes would be easier to halve if you need a smaller batch of cookies.
Avoiding eggs or gluten
The only exception to this rule is Lauren’s egg-free gingerbread cookie recipe on Tastes Better from Scratch. If you need to avoid eggs this one’s your best bet.
And if you need to avoid gluten, you have a couple of options:
- Chrystal has a gluten-free gingerbread cookie recipe on Gluten-free Palate, based on gluten-free flour.
- Maya has an almond flour gingerbread cookie recipe on Wholesome Yum.
It’s not a cookie if it’s not sweet, so you won’t be surprised to hear that nineteen recipes include sugar. The twentieth, from Maya at Wholesome Yum, uses a sugar substitute.
Most authors prefer brown sugar for it’s richer, caramelly flavour. It’s also moister than white sugar, which helps achieve a chewy finish.
That said, some are fans of white sugar. Melissa from Bless this Mess prefers it for it’s ability to help the cookies hold their shape and provide a contrast to the spices.
Regardless of which type it is, the round cookie recipes have, on average, twice as much sugar per cup of flour. This is offset to some degree by them having less molasses as well, but the drop cookies are, on average, sweeter overall.
Butter provides a wonderfully rich flavour to baked goods (and so many other things!). Fats also help to slow down gluten formation from the flour, giving a more tender finished product.
As a result, eighteen recipes include some amount of butter, and the other two use either canola oil or vegetable shortening. The flavour won’t be as rich with these butter substitutes, but they’ll still help with the texture.
The amount of butter varies from recipe to recipe, but the amount per cup of flour is fairly consistent. The round cookie recipes are a little more buttery, but not by a lot.
Less or no butter
If you’re looking for a lighter option, Maya from Wholesome Yum’s recipe uses quite a bit less butter than most. And if you want to make your cookies without butter, your options are Meredith’s recipe on Cleverly Simple, which uses canola oil, and Kaylie’s on Family Cookie Recipes, which uses vegetable shortening.
Many of the authors highlight the importance of molasses for a traditional flavour in your gingerbread.
If you’re not familiar with molasses (also known as black treacle), it’s a thick syrup made by concentrating the juice extracted from sugar cane or sugar beets. It’s not as sweet as you’d expect, having bitter undertones, especially in the darker varieties.
For many of us, you’ll only be able to find one type of molasses. If you have a choice, you’ll find there are light, medium/dark and blackstrap varieties. The lighter varieties are sometimes marketed as “fancy” molasses. Blackstrap molasses has the strongest flavour and is actually quite bitter. The other variant is cooking molasses, which is a mix of light or medium and blackstrap molasses.
Sulfured or unsulfured?
Confused yet? Unfortunately there’s more to it! The other thing to look out for is whether the molasses is sulfured or unsulfured. Sulfur dioxide is added to molasses made from unripe sugar cane as a preservative. It slightly alters the taste, and not in a positive way. Molasses made from mature sugar cane doesn’t need added preservatives, and so is “unsulfured”. If you have a choice, many of the authors recommend you go for unsulfured. If you can only find one variety, don’t worry, because most commercially available molasses is unsulfured. This was my experience too.
What type should you buy?
Most of the authors recommendations are for unsulfured molasses, or they recommend avoiding blackstrap or cooking molasses. If blackstrap molasses is all you can find, Olivia from Liv for Cake suggests diluting it with golden syrup.
A couple obviously prefer the bitterness. Meredith from Cleverly Simple recommends you use blackstrap molasses, and Kaylie from Family Cookie Recipes recommends cooking molasses.
Knowing all of this may be for nothing though. It’s not a common product in grocery stores or supermarkets in some parts of the world, so if you can find it at all you may only have one option. The only molasses I could find has no mention of it’s variety (light, dark or blackstrap), but fortunately it is unsulfured, although it was only listed this way on the ingredient panel. I found the taste of this molasses quite bitter, so it’s quite possibly blackstrap.
If you don’t have, or can’t get molasses, there are substitutions you can make, but many of the authors recommend not substituting because of the distinctive flavour the molasses imparts. Lucy from Supergolden Bakes suggests replacing it with golden syrup, but notes your cookies will be lighter in colour and milder in taste. Honey is a popular substitution, but this will obviously give your cookies quite a different flavour and an even lighter colour. The fascinating thing about this – the earliest gingerbread would have been made with honey. The use of molasses didn’t come into being for several centuries. But since then, molasses has been a core ingredient, now for hundreds of years!
Spices and other flavours
A number of different flavours appear amongst the recipes, but there are several favourites.
Ginger and cinnamon
I’ve listed these together because they are both in all twenty recipes. No surprises here, as both are essential seasonal spices, both warming and delicious.
Many recipes use these two powdered spices in equal amounts, typically two to three teaspoons of each. There is a slight preference for ginger, with cinnamon used in lower quantities in a few recipes, and interestingly several of these are drop cookie recipes.
Olivia from Liv for Cake uses some crystallised ginger in her drop cookies (as well as ground ginger). And one reader shared their experience using fresh ginger. They found that the flavour was quite subtle, so if you’re going to give it a go you may need to experiment with the amount you use.
The next most popular spice was ground cloves, used by eighteen of the authors. Cloves are quite strong, so they’re used in smaller quantities than either ginger or cinnamon.
Other spices and flavours
A few other spices popped up in a smaller number of recipes:
- Half of the authors add some vanilla essence to their cookies.
- Although it’s also a traditional fall/autumn seasonal spice, nutmeg only appeared in eight of the recipes.
- Four authors use a small amount of allspice.
- Sue from The View from Great Island adds a couple of unexpected tastes to her round cookies – a quarter of a teaspoon of black pepper and a tablespoon of cocoa powder.
- In another interesting variation, Beth from Small Town Woman adds a couple of tablespoons of prepared coffee to her round cookies.
- Ali from Gimme Some Oven offers the option of a small amount of orange zest. Several readers made similar suggestions with the same or lemon zest.
Making your cookies
The recipes here are divided between those for gingerbread men and simpler round gingerbread cookies. I’ve listed the recipes separately at the bottom to help you find what you’re after. One recipe, from Beth on Small Town Woman, can be used either way, and she provides directions to help.
Either way, number of the authors and their readers remember gingerbread cookies from their childhood as being crispy and too hard. And so the goal of most of these authors is the opposite – soft, chewy cookies with a little crispiness around the edges. Still, you can modify these recipes to suit your preference. Melissa from Bless this Mess recommends rolling your dough thinner and cooking a minute or two longer for crispier cookies.
Dough handling tips
Every recipe has clear directions on how to mix your dough and make your cookies, so I won’t dig into the details too much. There were a couple of consistent tips though that are worth highlighting.
Most authors advise chilling your dough before working with it. This makes it more manageable, because at room temperature it is very sticky due to the molasses. The recommend chilling times vary quite considerably, from as little as thirty minutes to as much as three days. Two to three hours is a consistent minimum though, and many authors prefer leaving it in the fridge overnight if they have time.
For this review I made a batch of dough and chilled half of it. I worked with the other half immediately after making it. The chilled dough was a little harder to roll out, but significantly easier to cut and separate. I would definitely chill my dough next time.
Whether you chill your dough or not, most authors also recommend flouring the bench, your roller, your hands and even the dough itself to make sure it stays workable. This is a sticky dough, and the loose flour helps overcome the issues this creates with handling and working it.
Rolling out your dough
If you’re making gingerbread men or some other cut-out cookies, you’ll need to roll your dough out nice and evenly.
The overwhelming preference here is to roll it to a thickness of a quarter of an inch (6mm). A couple of authors go a bit thinner, and a couple of bit thicker, so that can work too if you prefer, although altering the thickness from that recommended in a particular recipe will impact the cooking time a little too.
Baking your cookies
There’s a strong preference for an oven temperature of 350°F/180°C, which is recommend in fifteen of the recipes.
There’s a bit more variation in cooking time, although on average for gingerbread men the authors recommend eight to twelve minutes, and for round drop cookies more like ten to twelve. Because the goal is soft, chewy cookies, timing is everything. A little too long and you’ll have hard cookies. Arguably they’d then be called ginger snaps, but let’s not open that can of worms here!
Ultimately the right amount of time is how long it takes for the cookies to reach the consistency you want. Most authors recommend a touch-test to confirm when your cookies are just done. Some even recommend testing one or two cookies on their own first to get the timing right for your specific oven. The most consistent recommendation is to bake them until they’re just turning a little brown on the edges.
And as some of the authors highlight, your cookies will be soft as they come out of the oven, but will firm up as they cool. For this reason, it’s best not to handle them until they’ve cooled at least a little.
Cookies spreading too much
A number of readers struggle with their cookies spreading out too much and therefore losing their iconic shape. The authors, and some of their readers, have a few suggestions to prevent this:
- Make sure you use baking soda, not baking powder. Baking powder contains baking soda, but also a weak acid and some corn starch or rice flour. And make sure your baking soda is in date. It does actually degrade with age.
- Chill your dough. When it’s cold, the fats in your dough will be firmer, preventing it from spreading out too much.
- Ensure your oven is at the right temperature before your cookies go in. They’re not in there for long, so it needs to be fully pre-heated.
In my experiment I didn’t see any difference in spreading between the chilled dough and the room temperature dough. To be fair it was 100°F/38°C the day I made them and the air conditioning was struggling to keep the kitchen below 79°F/26°C, so that may have influenced my results. It definitely influenced my desire to stay inside!
Decorating your cookies
Whether you’re making gingerbread men, Christmas trees, or just round cookies, gingerbread lends itself beautifully to being decorated.
The authors offer a number of different suggestions for decorating your cookies:
- Royal icing. This works best when you want to create detailed or intricate designs.
- Confectioners/buttercream frosting. This is more about a rich, creamy finish than detailed artwork.
- Cream cheese frosting
A number of the authors provide recipes for these toppings as well.
If you’re looking to try something a little different, Lucy from Supergolden Bakes has instructions for marbled royal icing, which looks really cool.
None of these recipes are specifically for gingerbread to make into a house. Chrystal from Gluten-free Palate recommends to a reader to bake the dough a little longer so it firms up a bit more, however Melissa from Bless this Mess advises against using her recipe for constructing a house as it’s too soft.
Making your gingerbread cookies in advance
A number of the authors offer similar advice with regards to preparing your cookie in advance. You can:
- make your dough and keep it, covered, in the fridge for a few days.
- make your dough and freeze it for a month or more.
- bake your cookies and they’ll keep in an airtight container for about three days if they’re kept in a cool place.
- bake your cookies and freeze them (undecorated).
The essence of gingerbread cookies
If you’re looking to make gingerbread cookies this season, you’re going to need:
- All-purpose/plain flour, baking soda and salt
- Sugar, preferably brown
- Molasses, preferably unsulfured, and not blackstrap
- Ground ginger, cinnamon, cloves and maybe some vanilla essence
- An egg
And if you’re planning to make gingerbread men, here are a few tried and tested guidelines to follow:
- Chill your dough in the fridge for at least two to three hours
- Flour everything before rolling your dough out – your work surface, your roller, your hands, the dog, etc
- Roll your dough out to a quarter-inch (6mm) thick
- Bake your gingerbread men in a 350°F/180°C oven for eight to twelve minutes, but only until they start to brown at the edges
So there you have it – the essence of gingerbread cookies. Hopefully this has highlighted some of the things to look out for, and helped you choose an approach, or a recipe, that suits you the best.
I’d love to hear what type of molasses is available out there, so if you can please leave a comment with your experience finding it.