The smell of Christmas is already in the air. And I’m not just talking about gingerbread, pine and the anxiety-induced sweat of holiday shopping. It’s sugar cookies I’m smelling, freshly baked and iced to perfection.
OK, so maybe I’m only smelling this in my own kitchen. And maybe these cookies aren’t really iced to perfection (they look more like a children’s coloring book gone awry), but I put five store-bought, refrigerated sugar cookie doughs to the ultimate taste test so that you know exactly what to buy going into December.
But before I purchased the extremely limited number of options (chocolate chip dough was no different, which I ranked earlier this year), I sought the advice of Reece Scelfo, owner of LA-based Brady’s Bakery, which has developed a bit of a cult following over the years.
“Several things make up a good sugar cookie,” he tells me. “But first and foremost, the No. 1 thing is, ironically, salt.”
“Salt is completely underrated and underused in baking, but when you achieve the right balance (between salty and sweet), it’s perfection.”
Of course, I was unable to manipulate a pre-made batch of dough, but this is an ingredient for every novice baker to keep in mind when looking at nutrition labels, topping slice-and-bakes with a finishing note, and/or whipping up your own recipe.
“Most store-bought cookie dough is made to last a while, so the ingredients will certainly reflect that,” adds Scelfo. So I tapped into the cookie connoisseur’s expertise for a few quick tips on baking with the pre-made product. (My ranking of dough follows.)
- Avoid dough that has decorations mixed in. “It never tastes that good and it takes the fun out of decorating on your own. I try to make sure the ingredients are as wholesome as possible by staying away from words like ‘hydrogenated.’”
- Play around with the baking temperature and cooking time. “Go a little higher temp and shorter time to get a fluffier center …or go a little lower temp and longer time to get a flatter, crispier cookie. If you want a doughier center, then shape the dough to where it’s more spherical versus a puck.”
- Work with cold (not frozen) dough and have fun with it. “Get a little crazy, even. One of our most popular cookies at Brady’s is a sugar cookie that has Nutella stuffed in the middle and topped with brown sugar crumble. Throw a bit of that Maldon sea salt on top of each dough ball before it bakes and you’ll balance out the sweetness of the cookie.”
5. Nestle Toll House Sugar Cookie Dough
The only thing more oily than this batch of sugar cookies is my forehead. I’m not sure if Nestle changed its recipe or is swapping butter (more expensive) for more oil, but I couldn’t get over the excessive grease that was on my fingers while eating and the cookies’ inability to crisp up. Unfortunately, this was a miss and a definite member of Santa’s "naughty" list.
4. Favorite Day Holiday Sugar Cookies Pre-Cut Cookie Dough
There was nothing wrong with the taste, texture and thickness of Target’s take on the timeless classic, but we didn’t love how we were confined to three pre-cut shapes. Like, there is so much more to Christmas than a snowman, star and tree — there are sloths, zombies and a groundhog (random, I know) that I plan to make and decorate with using my own cookie cutters. Having them start frozen is also quite limiting if you plan to zhuzh up the dough with a spice and/or the aforementioned salt.
3. Sweet Loren’s Sugar Cookie Dough
While these certainly tasted delicious, they’re ugly. In fact, they’re like a cardboard-colored khaki once baked and removed from the oven. That said, the dough is gluten-free, pre-portioned and chock-full of straightforward, sustainable ingredients, so there is absolutely nothing to complain about. Just douse them in your favorite frosting and candy to cover the color and voila — you’re good to go! Santa won’t notice a thing.
2. Cheryl’s Cut-Out Cookie Dough
You can only buy this brand in two two-pound tubs, but the investment is worth it because who only wants to decorate half a dozen at one time? Not me. My inner artist will need to mess up at least 10 cookies before I create a masterpiece. While these scrumptious cookies could have easily taken top honors (especially because they’re made with real butter), they’re slightly less sweet than our winner, which kind of makes “sugar” sound like false advertising. (But that just means you can add even more sweet toppings.)
1. Pillsbury Sugar Cookie Dough
The Dough Boy is “hoo-hoo”-ing his way to the bank because Pillsbury has, bar none, the best premade dough of the bunch. The cookies come out fluffy, golden brown, and with that aforementioned touch of salt that takes it from excellent to damn-near perfect. While I’d love the use of actual butter instead of oils in the recipe, I know that it would make these less shelf-stable (no bueno for something mass-produced). They still come out tasting buttery, though, so I’m not too concerned. And you shouldn’t be either. Enjoy!