For a long time, I thought sugar cookies were sort of pointless. Where were the chocolate chunks? The toasted pecans? The sprinkles? I’d even take some dried fruit, if all else failed. But a plain sugar cookie with nothing in it? That just seemed…boring.
But sometimes the simplest foods are the best foods. Think about a crispy-skinned roast chicken, or a rustic apple tart, or a bowl of fresh tomato-basil soup. They are not particularly innovative, but they are classic, and undeniably delicious.
A good sugar cookie is the same. It should be crispy around the edges and tender and slightly chewy at the center. It should taste predominantly of butter and vanilla, and it should be dusted with a thin layer of sugar that shakes off as you bite into it, so you have to brush off your shirt.
The best sugar cookie I ever had was one I baked myself, last year, using a recipe from the absolutely fantastic cookbook One Bowl Baking by Yvonne Ruperti. Yvonne is a former editor at America’s Test Kitchen, so she really knows her stuff. I’ve made a bunch of the recipes (the chocolate-hazelnut brownie cupcakes, the tiny lemon sorbet cake, the chocolate cashew cookies) and they have all worked beautifully, and they really are one-bowl. It sounds like I’m being paid to write this, but I swear I’m not! I just honestly love the book and use it all the time.
I made those sugar cookies again last week, but this time I couldn’t resist putting my own spin on them. First, I browned the butter to add toasty, nutty flavors. Then I threw in a few big pinches of orange zest to brighten things up with a little hint of citrus. Did I stray too far from “simple and unadorned”? I don’t think so. It’s not like I added M&Ms or crumbled bacon. These are still humble orange and brown butter sugar cookies. But trust me, on a crisp fall afternoon, with a mug of tea–or better yet, hot cider–you won’t want anything else.
Orange and Brown Butter Sugar Cookies
These deceptively simple sugar cookies are enriched with toasted, nutty brown butter and a healthy dose of orange zest. You can use two vanilla beans and omit the extract, or 1 tablespoon of extract and omit the beans.
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar plus more for dusting
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 cup canola oil
- 1 large egg
- 1 vanilla bean split and seeds scraped
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
- 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 tablespoon freshly grated orange zest
In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. It will foam and then begin to darken. Watch carefully and stir frequently until it is deep golden-brown and smells toasted and nutty. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool slightly.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, salt, and cooled brown butter and beat to combine (you can also do this in a large bowl with a hand-held mixer). Beat in the oil, egg, and vanilla seeds and extract. Gradually add the flour, cream of tartar, baking powder, baking soda, and orange zest and beat just until combined. Transfer the dough to the refrigerator and chill for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 375°F and line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Pour about 1/2 cup granulated sugar into a small bowl. Scoop the chilled dough into 16 balls and roll them in the sugar. Place them on the baking sheets and press down slightly to about 1-inch thickness.
Bake the cookies until they are puffed and slightly cracked and just beginning to brown around the edges, 12 to 15 minutes. As you remove the baking sheets from the oven, give them a sharp tap on the counter to deflate the cookies. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheets for 5 minutes, then transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely.