I happen to be making a lot of sugar cookies at the moment, and although I didn't have the time to try more than two recipes, I was able to make two and do a side-by-side taste test. It proved to be an interesting exercise, and I think I may have saved myself some more random sugar cookie baking down the road.
1. Taste and texture were for all sense and purposes imperceptible. What does make difference: how thick you roll the dough and how long you bake your cookie. Thinner cookie = crunchier cookie, thicker cookie yields a softer cookie (at least for these two recipes).
2. For a sugar cookie, frosting is probably the more important factor. In my limited experience, (cookies really aren't my forte) there are two primary frostings: royal icing and buttercream frosting. Royal icing is used for more intricate decorating and hardens nicely providing the consumer a wonderful ability to transport them stacked without ruining the beautiful design or to put them in bags without losing all of the goodness to the top of the bag. All but the bottom two heart cookies in the above pictures use royal icing. Buttercream frosting is most delish...but if made with butter, at room temperature, this frosting will not harden quickly and has the potential to get messed up. Buttercream using shortening instead of real butter will form a crust a little quicker allowing for layers of frosting decoration (think eyes on the snowman, writing, etc.). Buttercream will remain softer than royal icing so it can still be a bit precarious when stacking or bagging cookies, but is a thicker, tastier, and richer option to a thinner layer of royal icing, especially if you are doing an afternoon of fun cookie decorating with the kids and not trying to make a specific design for favors, gifts, etc.
3. I don't bake or eat cookies with the idea that anything about it is going to be healthy; they are for an occasional and yummy treat. But, since I can't eat just one cookie and the recipes didn't have a clear taste winner, I looked at nutrition to see if that would make one recipe the decisive victor. Interestingly, one recipe had butter, sugar, flour, etc. while the other had butter, sugar, flour, etc. + heavy cream. I thought hands down I knew which recipe was going to win. My calculations were not an exact science because I made the first batch a couple of weeks ago and don't remember the exact cookie count it yielded. Further, the size of each cookie differed a small amount since they were shapes. However, looking at the ingredient measurements, the proportions are similar, and I forged ahead with my best yield estimates. The results were a bit surprising.
a) The total calories and fat grams in a batch of sugar cookies, even though it is basically just flour, sugar, and dairy, are higher than I expected, and I was sure happy I got to divide by a couple dozen!
b) Sugar has a lot of calories (completely empty ones to make it that much worse), even though it doesn't have fat. I fell off the sugar-cutting bandwagon when the holidays hit, and I need to crawl back on!
c) Just a slight variation in a key ingredient...butter...makes a significant impact. The first recipe called for 1 cup butter. The second recipe called for 3/4 cup butter and 1/2 cup cream. Cutting just 1/4 cup butter allowed the addition of the 1/2 cup cream without a significant impact on calories and no impact on fat. At the end of the day, there was a difference of about 20 calories and 1.25 grams of fat per cookie.
Overall, the winner of the sugar cookie war, in my humble opinion, is recipe #1. All of the ingredients are cupboard/refrigerator staples, so it doesn't require any special trip to the store, and the nutrition label reads just a little bit better. If you can limit yourself to one cookie, it doesn't matter much, but if you sit down with a big glass of milk or tea and eat 4 cookies, recipe #1 saves you 80 calories.
Conclusions: I didn't know I could ever write so much about a sugar cookie!
I'll make my husband's family sugar cookie on Christmas because that is the family tradition (completely different recipe not part of this test). The rest of the time I will make the sugar cookie dough recipe below...until I come across one that looks different enough that I feel the need to try my experiment again....
No Fail Sugar Cookies (courtesy of Food.com)
3 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
Cream butter and sugar
Add eggs and vanilla
Mix dry ingredients and add to butter mixture.
Chill for 1 to 2 hours (I prefer at least overnight)
Roll to desired thickness and cut into desired shapes
Bake on an ungreased baking sheet at 350 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes or until just beginning to turn brown around the edges
Bake on parchment paper to avoid any possible sticking and to make clean up easier.
Set your timer for 7 minutes and check your cookies to make sure you don't get too crispy. How thick you roll your dough will determine how long or short they actually need to stay in the oven.
Now that I have said all of that...two years ago I made cookie lollipops. They were soft and thick. I am pretty sure I used a completely different recipe than the two I recently tried. The question that is going to bother me now is, were they that way because I rolled them to be thick or did I choose the recipe especially for a cookie that would rise a bit more and stay soft. Hmmmmm....time to go dig through my recipe folder I guess!