Baking: Sugar Cookie Recipe

Since 2010, I’ve had an annual Christmas tradition of making bird-shaped sugar cookies. Not only are they delicious, but I try to make them as biologically accurate as possible, making them a fun way to spread ornithology to others.

Many times people have asked me about my recipe, and many times I’ve confessed: it’s really quite simple.

Prep time: 25 min Chill time: 2 hrs Bake time: 7 to 8 min

Ingredients: Cookie Dough

  • 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flower
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon cream of tartar

Ingredients: Vanilla Buttercream Frosting

  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/3 cup butter, softened
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons milk

This recipe comes straight out of the Betty Crocker Cookbook. Since the time I was a wee lass perched on the kitchen counter in my child seat while my mother cooked,  this cookbook was always a staple. When I went off to college, my mother bought me my own copy. It is certainly not the fanciest cookbook you’ll ever own, but it’s a great starting point for a wide range of recipes.


Start by combining the powdered sugar, butter, vanilla, almond extract, and egg. I think what really sets this recipe apart is the powdered sugar, which gives the cookies a uniquely delicate sweetness and texture. Mix everything until it’s smooth; an electric mixer really helps here, but you can pull it off by hand as well.


In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, baking soda, and cream of tartar. If you’re not familiar with cream of tarter (I wasn’t for the longest time), it’s a leavening agent that, when combined with baking soda, gives the cookies their poof. Cream of tartar is a great addition to your kitchen if you don’t already have it around, but alternatively, 1 teaspoon baking powder is roughly equivalent to 1/4 teaspoon baking soda plus 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar.

Mix the dry ingredients together, then add them to the wet ingredients and mix everything until it’s a smooth ball of dough.

Cover and refrigerate. 2 hours is usually more than enough time.


Once the dough is cold, preheat your oven to 375°F. 

On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out (I usually work with half at a time) to a thickness of about 1/4 inch.


Now cut out your cookies. You can use store-bought cookie cutters, or make your own.


Put your cookies on a greased cookie sheet. Now, typically you remove the dough from the cookie cutter when you put it on the sheet, and this works fine. I, however, like my cookies to remain as true to shape as possible, so I cook them inside their cookie cutters. This method will take a bit longer (unless you have A LOT of cookie cutters), but your cookies won’t poof out of shape, and they’ll stay a bit thicker overall than a typical shaped cookie.


Bake for 7-8 minutes.

If you don’t plan to ice them, sprinkle on a little granulated sugar before baking.

For the icing, just combine all the ingredients, adjusting the amount of milk to get your desired consistency. A standard set of red/blue/yellow food coloring will let you mix up most of the colors you might want. Browns and black are a bit trickier to mix yourself, so I’d recommend buying either colored dye or pre-mixed frosting.

And of course, when I’m decorating my bird cookies, I always have my field guide handy!


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