Gramma’s Heirloom Sugar Cookies

December 12, 2019 Updated: December 12, 2019

Taken from a yellowed strip of newsprint tucked into a recipe box full of Gramma’s Greatest Hits, this is the crispest of sugar cookies, sandy-textured but tender with a gorgeous pale golden color begging for a smattering of sparkling colored sugars and sprinkles, no icing required. It’s the first cookie I make every holiday season; when sheets of these start emerging from the oven, Christmas is finally on the way.

Like being a fan of a little-known indie rock band, I grew up thinking this most beloved recipe was special to my family, and in turn that we were geniuses because no one else knew about it, with its unique additions of vegetable oil, confectioners’ sugar, and cream of tartar. Imagine my bewilderment when I found this exact recipe in a vintage Illinois state cookbook, titled Mary Todd Lincoln’s Sugar Cookies. Yeah, I guess she probably got to this recipe first, then.

Makes about 6 dozen cookies

For the dough:

  • 5 cups (640 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour, spooned and leveled
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 cup (200 grams) vegetable oil
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup (225 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar 
  • 1 cup (120 grams) confectioners’ sugar

For finishing the cookies: 

  • 1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar
  • Colored coarse sanding sugar or sprinkles for decorating

Position oven racks to the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, cream of tartar, and salt. In a medium bowl, whisk together the oil, eggs, and vanilla until smooth.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together the butter, 1 cup (200 grams) of the granulated sugar, and the confectioners’ sugar on medium speed until fluffy and pale in color, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl often. Reduce the mixer speed and gradually pour in the egg mixture, beating until the resulting mixture is smooth and somewhat uniform in texture, like a thin cake batter. Reduce the mixer speed to low and gradually add the flour mixture. Mix on low speed until all the dry ingredients are incorporated. The dough will be very soft.

Using a 1-tablespoon scoop, portion out the dough onto the prepared baking sheets, evenly spaced, 12 to a sheet. 

To finish the cookies, pour the granulated sugar onto a plate. With your fingertips, ever so slightly dampen the bottom of a drinking glass with water. Dip the glass into the sugar to coat the bottom, and flatten each cookie to about a 1/4-inch thickness, coating the glass with more sugar in between each cookie. Sprinkle the flattened cookies with the decorative sugar or sprinkles.

Bake for about 13 minutes, rotating the sheets from top to bottom and front to back about halfway through, or until pale golden and just beginning to turn golden brown at the edges. Let cool on the baking sheets for 2 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack and cool completely. Store the cookies in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week.


Both the dough and the finished cookies stash away in the freezer like a dream, giving you another reason to make them the first baking project on your list—they wait in delicious patience while you get the other elements of your cookie tins together.

Reprinted with permission from “Midwest Made,” copyright 2019 by Shauna Sever, Running Press.