A confession: I’ve never decorated sugar cookies. Like, really, legitimately, beautifully decorated them. As a child, I took canned frosting, slathered it on a cookie baked from store-bought cookie dough, and then threw some sprinkles on them and called it a day. But since I started reading food blogs and once I really got into baking, I knew cookie decorating was definitely on my baking bucket list.

So with Valentine’s Day coming up, I figured this would be the perfect occasion to kill two birds with one stone – finally tackle decorating sugar cookies and also try out that brush embroidery technique everyone’s been going nuts over on Pinterest.

I’m happy to report that 2 days later, logging a total of 12 hours, I have succeeded!

(Note to self: you are not Iron Man, you cannot run before you walk, and in fact should probably crawl first, or even just sit on your ass and think about the idea of movement before even attempting it, so the next time you try some newfangled baking thing, try to plan our your time a little better so you’re not up until 2 a.m. decorating cookies. Thank you for your cooperation. Sincerely, yourself.)

Sugar cookies

There’s nothing quite like standing over a cutting board for 6 hours straight, meticulously piping and decorating around 150 cookies.

Basic Sugar Cookies (Gluten-full)

From Sweet Sugar Belle
Makes about 2 to 4 dozen, depending on the size of cookies

  • 1 cup unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups confectioners sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 1/2 all-purpose flour, plus more for sprinkling
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • Royal icing for decorating
  1. Cream together the butter, margarine, and confectioner’s sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla and beat until mixture is uniform.
  2. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt and mix together. Gradually add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and beat until incorporated. Dough can be wrapped in parchment paper or plastic wrap and refrigerated before use.
  3. Flour your work surface and divide the dough in half, rolling it out to desired thickness – I rolled it to about 1/4″ thickness.
  4. Preheat oven to 350F. Cut with cookie cutters into desired shapes and bake for 7-8 minutes. Cookies should be slightly puffed with defined edges that are just beginning to turn golden-brown.
Sugar cookie with gluten

With gluten and 100% butter, you can see that the cookie has a nicely defined scalloped edge and didn’t spread much while baking.

This is the best sugar cookie recipe I’ve ever used. The cookies hold their shape beautifully and have the most delicious shortbread-like taste to them – buttery and melt-in-your-mouth.

The crucial thing about these cookies is that you absolutely must watch them like a hawk. Like a hawk that has just spotted a fish in the water and is swooping down to grab its dinner with its talons. Set a timer or two or five, because these cookies will go from just-golden to burnt in no time at all. Better yet, ignore that old rule about not opening the oven door while things are baking and take a peek every few minutes to make sure you don’t burn these. You’ll be well-rewarded once you pull out a tray of perfectly baked cookies.

For those of you who are gluten-free, here’s my favorite gluten-free sugar cookie recipe.

Basic Sugar Cookies (Gluten-Free)

Adapted from Saveur
Makes about 2 1/2 dozen

  • 1 1/4 cups white rice flour
  • 1/4 cup cornstarch
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp cream of tartar
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 cup butter, softened to room temperature
  • 1/4 cup margarine, softened to room temperature
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup confectioners sugar, plus more for rolling
  • 1 egg
  • Splash vanilla extract
  • Royal icing for decorating
  1. Whisk together flour, cornstarch, baking soda, baking powder, cream of tartar, and salt and set aside.
  2. Beat butter and margarine until combined, then add in the sugars and beat until light and fluffy. Add in egg and vanilla and beat until fully incorporated.
  3. Add flour mixture and stir until just until combined. Shape dough into two balls, flatten slightly into discs and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Chill dough at least 2 hours, preferably overnight.
  4. Preheat oven to 375F.
  5. Dust clean work surface lightly with confectioners sugar and roll half of dough 1/4″ thick. Cut out assorted shapes with cookie cutters and place cutouts 2″ apart on greased tray. Note: the dough gets soft and sticky very quickly, so only roll out small portions of the dough at a time and keep the rest in the fridge. When the dough gets too soft to handle, pop it in the freezer for about 15 to 30 minutes until it firms up again.
  6. Bake 6-8 minutes until cookies are lightly puffed and golden at the edges, cool 3-5 minutes on tray to allow cookies to set before removing. Decorate and store in airtight container.

These are a pretty worthy substitute for regular sugar cookies. They’ve got that same vanilla taste as their gluten-full counterpart, but are a bit softer from the addition of margarine in this recipe. I used rice flour from Bob’s Red Mill and it was a bit coarser and grittier than I was expecting, so the texture of these cookies was almost like eating a cornmeal cookie, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I actually think a grittier flour works well with the margarine in these cookies, because the margarine keeps these a bit on the softer side, so the slight grittiness of the flour is a nice textural contrast. I’d like to make these again with a more finely ground rice flour and 100% butter and see if they turn out more like regular version that has gluten.

Gluten-free sugar cookie

Without gluten and with equal parts butter and margarine, you can see that the cookie doesn’t have the same defined edge and has a crumblier texture from the rice flour

So now to the fun (and most time-consuming) part. The decorating. All you do is pipe the outline of the cookie with a firm royal icing, and then thin out your icing and flood the cookies once the outline has dried.

Sugar cookies

Outlined and ready to be filled

Sugar cookies

Flooded and ready for embroidery

And now comes the really really fun part: the brush embroidery! This is a great picture tutorial that I used, but the gist of it is that you take a firm royal icing, pipe on some squigglies, then take a small brush and brush in the icing. This technique is really forgiving if you have an unsteady hand or are new at it – this was my first time making them and they all turned out looking gorgeous.

Happy Valentine’s Day and happy baking!

Brush embroidery sugar cookies

Happy Valentine’s Day!