A wise philosopher once said, “Happiness is a warm cookie.”

Another countered: “A day without a cookie is a day wasted.”

While these astute individuals could have been talking about chocolate chip cookies or oatmeal raisin cookies, we’re guessing the cookie they really had in mind was the almighty sugar cookie — a mixture of simple ingredients that epitomizes everything we love about cookies, and that might just be the most delicious and satisfying old-school treat around.

A classic for the ages

Few foods are as basic and fundamental as the sugar cookie. These wondrous sweets are typically made from just a handful of ingredients: flour, sugar, butter, eggs, baking powder, and a hint of vanilla or spice.

history of sugar cookies sugar cookies

But the simplicity of the sugar cookie is also what ultimately makes it so delectable. Sugar cookies are rich and buttery, with just the right amount of vanilla-kissed sweetness. They’re soft and chewy, with crisp edges and a center that melts in your mouth as you bite into them. Moist and supple, with the slightest bit of crumble, a good sugar cookie is also as pleasing to the eye as it is to the taste buds: elegant yet unassuming, with an inviting classic golden hue, plus a bit of sparkle, thanks to that delicate sprinkle of crystalized sugar on the surface. It truly is the perfect snack or dessert for almost any occasion.

Cookies started out in the 17th century as a byproduct of baking. In the Victorian era of the 1800s, when industrialization in the kitchen (and everywhere) was king, bakers were obsessed with large, fancy cakes that were made to impress. But people also needed quick and easy things they could cook to feed their families, and cookies fit the bill. Extra butter and sugar were added to the recipe to make the cookies tastier, and bakers started to mix other ingredients into the batter to make the cookies more nutritious as well. The term “sugar cookie” was coined as a way to help differentiate plain, sugar-based cookies from the peanut butter and oatmeal-flavored cookies, which had also begun to spring up at the time.

The “sugar cookie” recipe continued to evolve over the subsequent years. By the 1920s, society’s attitude toward eating was changing, with a greater emphasis placed on enjoying food versus simply eating for sustenance. Because of this, sugar cookies became more moist and chewy, and as their recipe evolved, their popularity grew as well.

In the 1950s, shortening overtook butter as the fat of choice in baking. As a result, sugar cookies became even softer and more delicate, but were less rich and crumbly. But with the comeback of butter in the early 1980s, everything clicked, and we finally ended up with a sugar cookie that most closely resembles the delicate, satisfying snack and dessert we know today.

A world of options

With their recipe finally perfected, sugar cookies have continued to grow and expand in countless ways over the past 20 to 30 years. We got new shapes and varieties, as well as permutations that blur the line, making it harder to tell one type of cookie from another. There are the classic round, puffy, “old-fashioned” sugar cookies made by rolling a ball of dough in sugar and then pressing it down on a baking sheet. There are also cut-out, shaped sugar cookies, perfect for celebrating any occasion.

history of sugar cookies ad for box of flavor cookies

One of the most appealing traits of sugar cookies is that they are a perfect blank canvas for decorating. Some sugar cookies can be topped with buttercream frosting; others can be pressed into beautiful sandwiches, filled with frosting and sweetness. Spritz cookies are sugar cookies shaped with a cookie press. Add a bit of lemon or lime, and you get citrus-flavored sugar cookies. Snickerdoodles are essentially just a fancy sugar cookie, too — although they are rolled in a mixture of sugar plus cinnamon and also typically contain some added spices, plus a bit of cream of tartar in their dough for added tanginess.

Shortbread and butter cookies are also distant relatives of the sugar cookie but with a slightly different ratio of ingredients. Shortbread cookies contain more butter and little to no egg, whereas butter cookies have more butter and tend to be piped onto a baking sheet instead of being rolled out.

Yes, sugar cookies in all their forms have definitely come a long way. There’s even a national day to celebrate them every summer!


Brian Good is a writer, editor, and project manager with more than 20 years experience in publishing. He's written for some of the country’s biggest magazine brands including Men’s Journal, Men’s Fitness, Shape, Men's Health, Muscle & Fitness, US Weekly, AARP: The Magazine, and websites including Mashed, Health Digest, DiversityInc, and others. Good specializes in topics including lifestyle, travel, pop culture, health, food and nutrition, spirits, products, politics, and activism.

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