There are many different recipes and methods for sugar cookies. Some recipes will give you a soft cookie, others a crispier cookie. Some claim to be spread free straight out of the bowl and others need chilling.
I know you want me to give you a recipe here but I feel that would be doing you a dis-service. I’ve tried recipes that claim to be fail-proof - guess what? They didn’t work for me. Everyone bakes a little different. Others I didn’t like the taste or texture of. Try a couple of different recipes and see what works for you. Don’t despair though, I’ll tell you what I do to counteract some of those common pitfalls - you can apply this to almost any recipe. Keep in mind this is my way, it is not the only way. It is what I find works for me based on lots of trial and error.
Keep in mind that the end result of a decorated cookie will be slightly different than what the cookie is like straight out of the oven. Royal icing or fondant will add different texture and flavours.
I use a Peggy Porschen recipe from one of her books (so for copyright reasons I can't give it to you) but I don’t make it exactly as suggested. In fact it's been so long since I looked at the recipe I can’t remember what it says….
Real butter. Cheaper is not better here. I find the cheaper butters have higher water content and alter the spreading and end result of the cookie. Soft enough to mix, not so soft that it is mushie (yes that is a very technical term)
Vanilla bean paste although vanilla extract works just as well
There is no baking powder or baking soda (bicarb) in my cookies.
For the method I
Mix the butter and sugar until just combined (or even not quite combined). Creaming or beating until well combined incorporates too much air and contributes to spreading.
Add vanilla paste and egg. Mix a bit. Yes this is a precise measurement. What it means is you don’t need to (or want to) mix until the egg is combined into the mixture
Add flour and mix until combined. The dough will come away from the bowl when its done.
I stop the mixer between EVERY step to prevent over mixing.
I roll the dough straight out of the mixer. That’s right, no resting. Once rolled, I pop it in the fridge for 20 minutes (or 2 hours it really doesn’t matter) to firm up before cutting. This helps the cookies keep their shape and not warp when moved before baking. I then freeze them for a couple of hours before baking. Again the exact time doesn’t matter - more time or less time is ok - as long as they are very firm before baking.
Bake at 175 Celsius for as long as it takes for the top of the cookie to look dry. For me that is about 10 minutes for small-medium size and 15 for larger. Yours may be more or less depending on your oven. Let them rest on the tray for 5-10 minutes. Pick one up and look at the bottom - if it has a “damp” spot in the middle pop them back in for 3-5 more minutes.
I do bake for a little longer than normal if I am covering in fondant rather than royal icing as I don’t like a soggy cookie.
Other reasons for spreading include
Too much sugar. Try a recipe with a lower sugar ratio. I find at least twice as much flour to sugar is best
Baking temp too low. A cookie needs to “set” on the outside to help prevent spread. If the temp is too low the middle will heat and expand before the outside is set.
Hot trays. For the same reason as low oven temp above - the cookies heats before it is set.
My #1 tip - Smoothing
One thing that makes a huge difference to the overall process is smoothing the cookies when they are still hot out of the oven. I use a fondant smoother and give each cookies a gentle rub while they are still on the baking tray. This evens out any air bubbles or bumps you may get during baking.
My other #1 tip - keep trying
Just because you can’t make the no fail recipe work, doesn’t mean you have failed. Keep trying, try a different recipe, don’t be afraid to alter it a bit, alter the method if it doesn’t make sense. What works for one person doesn’t always work for everyone.
I do recommend making a recipe exactly as it is described the first time around, before playing with or altering it. This gives you an idea of what it is supposed to be like and will give more reliable (and repeatable) experiment results.
If you have any questions, need clarification or help please let me know xx