The science behind the perfect sugar cookie

In today's "Home with the Last Italian," Sarah Nasello shares her Grandma Flo's sugar cookie recipe. Grandma Flo's cookies are old-fashioned, drop-style sugar cookies that do not require any rolling or chilling of the dough.

Easy to make, universally appealing and delicious, Grandma Flo's Sugar Cookies are the perfect treat for Mother's Day and other celebrations. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
We are part of The Trust Project.

Mother’s Day is this Sunday and if your mom has a sweet tooth anything like mine, then my Grandma Flo’s sugar cookies are the perfect treat for your celebration.

Last year, my aunt Peg shared a recipe from my grandmother for soft and chewy sugar cookies. I love generational recipes, especially when they are easy to make, universally appealing and delicious.

When I was young, I remember enjoying chocolate chip cookies and a host of bars made by Grandma Flo, but I have no memory of ever having had her sugar cookies. I finally got around to making them for the first time last week when I was playing with new recipes for my spring SarahBakes menu, and I knew for certain that I had never had them before because they are unforgettably delicious.

These are old-fashioned, drop-style sugar cookies that do not require any rolling or chilling of the dough. Grandma Flo’s recipe calls for basic pantry items, but her version is different from others I have seen or tried. Based on what I know about the science of baking, I am confident that these differences are what make Grandma Flo’s sugar cookies exceptionally good.


The cookie dough can be dropped onto the baking sheet with a teaspoon, but rolling them into balls will ensure that each cookie is perfectly shaped and consistent in size. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

Most sugar cookie recipes use a whole egg or two to enrich the dough, but Grandma Flo’s recipe uses just two egg yolks. Why should this matter? Egg whites add water content to a cookie dough, which encourages steam and gluten to develop during the baking process. This results in a cookie that is thick and puffy, with a texture that is nearly cake-like.

But, by using just the yolks, you eliminate the excess water as well as the steam and gluten that go along with it. The fat from the yolks gives the cookies a wonderful combination of textures with a soft and chewy center surrounded by perfectly crisp edges.

A soft and chewy center is surrounded by perfectly crisp edges and topped with a billowy cloud of lush buttercream frosting. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

The other difference I noticed is the inclusion of one tablespoon of heavy cream. The fat from the cream helps the egg yolks prevent that pesky steam and gluten from developing while also adding to the flavor.

Like most old-fashioned recipes, Grandma Flo’s has scant detail on how to actually make the cookies, and I have fleshed out the recipe so that even a novice baker (like kids making cookies for their mom) can bake them. The only step I have added is to rest the dough before dropping the cookies, which hydrates the flour and enhances a cookie’s texture.

The cookies are great on their own but even better when topped with my favorite buttercream frosting. My teenage son, Giovanni, fell in love with these cookies upon first bite, and said (after wolfing down six cookies in less than five minutes), “It is ridiculous how good these are.”


Pink buttercream frosting and colorful sprinkles make the sugar cookies even more festive and delicious for Mother's Day. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

Whether you bake them yourself or order a batch at SarahBakes, Grandma Flo’s cookies are the perfect treat for Mother’s Day and other celebrations. I miss my Grandma Flo every day and am grateful for her love and recipes. To moms and grandmas everywhere, I hope you have a happy, relaxing and delicious Mother’s Day.


Grandma Flo’s Sugar Cookies

Makes: 24 cookies (2 ½ inch)

1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon baking powder
½ cup unsalted butter (1 stick)
¾ cup granulated sugar
2 large or extra-large egg yolks
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon heavy cream

Preheat oven to 375 degrees and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt and baking powder; set aside.


In a separate, large bowl, use a stand (paddle attachment) or handheld mixer to beat the butter on medium speed for one minute until smooth and creamy. Add the sugar and mix on medium speed for 2 minutes.

Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides and bottom of the mixing bowl. Add the egg yolks, vanilla and cream and beat hard on medium speed for 1 minute to combine.

Add the dry ingredients and mix on low speed just until the flour is no longer visible. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl and mix again just to combine. Place a tea towel over the bowl and let the dough rest at room temperature for 30 minutes before dropping.

To shape the cookies, roll the dough into balls or use a teaspoon to drop the dough onto the prepared baking sheets. The cookies will puff and spread as they bake, so space the cookies about 2 inches apart.

Bake in the center of the oven until the tops of the cookies begin to lightly crack and the edges are a pale golden brown, about 8 to 12 minutes, depending on your oven. Remove from oven and let cookies cool on baking sheet for 10 minutes, then transfer to a wire cooling rack to cool completely before frosting.

To decorate, use a piping tip for a decorative and decadent flourish, or an offset spatula or table knife to spread a smooth layer of frosting on each cookie. If using sprinkles, add them immediately after frosting each cookie as the buttercream will develop a crust within a minute or so after being applied.

Sarah's Favorite Buttercream is the perfect topping for Grandma Flo's sugar cookies and may also be used for cakes and cupcakes. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

Sarah’s Favorite Buttercream Frosting

1 cup butter (2 sticks), salted or unsalted, room temperature
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt, omit is using salted butter
4 cups powdered sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3 to 4 tablespoons heavy cream

In a large bowl, use a stand (paddle attachment) or handheld mixer to beat the butter and salt on medium speed for one minute until smooth and creamy. Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl.

Add half of the powdered sugar and beat on the lowest speed until mostly incorporated, then increase to medium speed and beat for two minutes. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl and repeat with the remaining powdered sugar.

Add the vanilla extract and 3 tablespoons of heavy cream. Mix on medium speed for 30 seconds. Taste and add more heavy cream, one teaspoon at a time, until desired consistency is achieved. The frosting should be stiff enough to hold a peak, but also thick and fluffy.

Add food coloring, if using, and beat on medium-low speed until fully incorporated and desired color is achieved.

The buttercream frosting may be used immediately or placed in an airtight container for up to one week in the refrigerator, or up to 3 months in the freezer.

Frozen buttercream should be thawed in the refrigerator and beaten again on medium speed for about 15 to 20 seconds until creamy again. If the frosting appears too thick after being frozen, beat in a teaspoon or two of heavy cream to thin it out.

Bake the sugar cookies until the tops are lightly cracked and the edges are a pale, golden brown. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

Recipe Time Capsule:

This Week In...

2020 - Springtime Grilled Pork Tenderloin

2019 - Coconut Lime Macaroons

2018 - Mother's Day Raspberry Almond Scones

2017 - Luscious Lemon Curd Parfait

2016 - Syttende Mai Salmon with Lingonberries

2015 - Chicken Poblano Soup

2014 - Sarello's Wild Mushroom Soup

2013 - Walleye Cakes

What to read next
"Fielding Questions" columnist Don Kinzler also advises readers on a pesky beetle that is prevalent in gardens again this year and how to prevent deer damage to yards and gardens.
"Coming Home" columnist Jessie Veeder says summer is magic, and it’s easy to forget that in the reality of living in this adult-sized world.
Columnist Tammy Swift recommends using plain, old Persian limes to create an egg-free Key lime pie that's every bit as tart and tasty as one made the traditional way.
"Growing Together" columnist Don Kinzler says “hardy” is a relative term, and what’s hardy for Kentucky might not survive in the North country. If a rose tag says “winter-hardy,” it doesn’t necessarily apply to winters in North Dakota and Minnesota.