But the process of rolling the dough, cutting out shapes, then decorating the baked cookies is a tradition I look forward to every year.
This year I got to wondering about the origin of gingerbread cookies. In case, like me, you’ve ever asked yourself, “Where does gingerbread come from”, according to Wikipedia, “Gingerbread dates from the 15th century, and figural biscuit-making was practiced in the 16th century. The first documented instance of figure-shaped gingerbread biscuits was at the court of Elizabeth I of England. She had the gingerbread figures made and presented in the likeness of some of her important guests.”
Now we all know Wikipedia isn’t always the most accurate, but I found this next part to be even more interesting, “According to the Guinness Book of Records, the world’s largest gingerbread man was made by the staff of the IKEA Furuset store in Oslo, Norway, on 9 November 2009. The gingerbread man weighed 1435.2 pounds (651 kg).”
Whatever size you make your gingerbread cookies, I hope you enjoy the process every step of the way.
How to Make Gingerbread Cookies
Should gingerbread men cookies be hard or soft? Is gingerbread supposed to be chewy?
The texture and consistency of gingerbread cookies is such a personal preference, and it also seems to be determined somewhat by where you live! Here in the US, we like our cookies soft with a little chewiness, but in the UK, people prefer their biscuits (and therefore gingerbread men) more crunchy or crisp. Personally, I like them soft and a little chewy, so that’s what you’ll find this recipe yields; but be cautious with the bake time, as overbaking these will still cause them to get hard! More on that below.
What is the main ingredient of gingerbread?
Gingerbread’s delicious flavors and intoxicating smells are thanks to two things: molasses, and spices (namely ginger and cinnamon). Molasses brings so much flavor to these cookies, and gives them their characteristic color, as well as bringing moisture to the cookies. More on molasses below. The spices are what really round out the flavor. I use ground ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg for an incredible flavor and a smell that will outmatch any candle for heavenly holiday scents. Some recipes use black pepper or cayenne, and you’re welcome to add a little of either if you like, but I personally don’t prefer it.
What are the ingredients for gingerbread man cookies?
- Flour: I used all-purpose flour for this recipe. Be sure to measure your flour correctly! If you add too much flour, you may end up with tough, hard cookies, and nobody wants that!
- Spices and salt: ground ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and a dash of salt give these cookies the best Christmas-y flavor.
- Leavening: baking powder & baking soda are both used here. Check out my Baking Soda vs. Baking Powder article to learn about the surprising differences between these two leaveners, and learn how to test that your leaveners are still fresh.
- Butter: Always use unsalted butter in baking. It’s important that your butter is at a cool room temperature. Your sticks of butter should give slightly when pressed with your finger but still hold its shape. To be precise, your butter should be 67°F.
- Light brown sugar: For the best flavor and additional moisture, we’re using brown sugar here. We haven’t tested using dark brown sugar, so I recommend sticking with light brown sugar here.
- Molasses: Be sure to use unsulphured molasses in this recipe, not blackstrap molasses. More on this below!
- An egg: At room temperature. Be sure to use a large egg, about 56 grams in shell. If your egg is too large or too small, that will impact the outcome of your baking greatly.
How to bake gingerbread cookies:
- Combine the dry ingredients: In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg to combine. Set aside.
- Beat the butter and sugar: Place butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar together on medium speed for about 3 minutes.
- Beat in remaining wet ingredients: Add the egg and molasses and mix until just incorporated.
- Add the dry ingredients: On low speed, slowly add the flour mixture and beat until incorporated.
- Refrigerate: Shape the dough into a thick disc and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate until chilled, about 2 hours or up to 2 days.
- Once chilled, roll out the dough: Remove the gingerbread cookie dough from refrigerator and let stand until just warm enough to roll with ease. Roll the dough to a 1/4-inch thickness.
- Cut into shapes: Use a gingerbread man cookie cutter to cut out shapes from the dough and place on prepared cookie sheets, spreading at least a 1/2-inch apart. Reroll remaining dough scraps into 1/4-inch thickness and cut out more shapes.
- Bake: Bake at 350°F for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the cookies are set and begin to brown slightly at the edges, rotating sheets halfway through. Let the cookies cool on the pans for 3 minutes then remove to a wire rack to cool completely.
What type of molasses is best for these cookies? Can I substitute the molasses?
Be sure to use unsulphured molasses in this recipe, not blackstrap which is very potent.
I’ve received a few comments from readers who live somewhere molasses isn’t available. Molasses is a critical component of this gingerbread cookie recipe. So unfortunately substituting it with something different will affect the final taste, texture, and color of these cookies.
If you live in the U.K., you can use treacle in place of the molasses. It’s basically the British equivalent.
If you can’t find molasses or treacle, use maple syrup, dark corn syrup, or honey in its place. You may want to increase the spices in the recipe if you’re using a substitute to make up for that lost molasses flavor.
How to roll out and shape cookie dough:
To make things quicker, easier, and cleaner, I like to roll the dough out between two sheets of parchment paper or layers of plastic wrap. This way, you don’t need to worry about a lightly floured surface or a floured rolling pin, and avoids incorporating excess flour.
Be sure to keep the dough moving in quarter turns and push the rolling pin from the center out so you roll it into an even thickness.
As you cut out the gingerbread men shapes, you may find the dough has become too warm and soft. If this happens, just take the entire sheet of dough and pop it in the freezer or fridge until it’s solid again. If the cookie dough is super warm when it enters the oven they may not keep their shape as well, so you can again pop the tray in the fridge for a few minutes to firm up the dough.
How to make SOFT gingerbread cookies:
This recipe should yield gingerbread cookies that keep their shape but stay soft after baking, and are slightly chewy. To ensure this, avoid overworking the dough. It’s not bread dough, so definitely don’t knead it. Use a gentle hand!
Also, be sure not to over bake these. You’ll need to adjust the baking time depending on the size of gingerbread men cookie cutters you use. The smaller the size, the less time they’ll need in the oven. Take the cookies out just before they look completely done, they’ll continue to cook on the pan from the residual heat of the oven.
How do you know if gingerbread cookies are done baking?
Gingerbread Cookies are done when they are set and begin to brown slightly at the edges. They will harden further as they cool, so avoid overbaking so you don’t end up with hard, crunchy gingerbread! Underbake slightly to achieve soft, slightly chewy gingerbread cookies. If you’re not sure, you can always bake one cookie off first, to gauge the timing your cookies will need to be baked to your preference.
How to decorate gingerbread cookies:
I’m not a fan of royal icing, so I just included a very simple cookie icing in this recipe. You can learn more about my cheat for easy cookie icing here.
I find the simplest way to decorate these cookies is by making borders with the icing. You can also add buttons or a face with the icing, or frost the entire cookie if you prefer! A squeeze bottle is the best way to make quick and easy work of icing all of the cookies. Plus even the kids can get involved with squeeze bottles!
How to make gingerbread cookies ahead of time:
You can make and refrigerate the dough for up to 2 days. Just make sure it’s in an airtight container so it won’t dry out. The spiced flavor will actually intensify in the fridge, kind of like marinating a steak.
How to freeze gingerbread cookies:
The baked but un-iced cookies can actually be stored in the freezer for a couple months. Simple pop a tray of cookies in the freezer until they’re solid, then remove them to an airtight container. To defrost, allow to thaw at room temperature for a couple hours. If you’d like, you can refresh them in a 325°F oven for a few minutes.