Whether you’re digging out a recipe card from the family archives or turning to Google for a quick and easy sugar cookie recipe, there’s something so satisfying about mixing together dough, cutting it into festive shapes and dancing along to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” all the while.
If you’re planning on making gingerbread this season ― either decorating gingerbread cookies or constructing a gingerbread house ― there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure it looks and tastes as amazing as it should. To that end, we’ve tapped the expertise of some professional chefs, who have graciously shared their secrets to making perfect gingerbread.
First things first, what makes the perfect gingerbread? For Jürgen David, director of pastry research and development at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, gingerbread that you’re planning on eating should have risen in the oven and have rounded edges. “It shouldn’t look flat or dry,” he said. “There are some gingerbread recipes that are hard right after baking and need to sit for a few days to soften. Molasses and honey hardens gingerbread, but as the sugar absorbs moisture, it will get softer.”
Cookbook author and ”Great American Baking Show” winner Vallery Lomas likes a gingerbread cookie that’s packed with flavor. “I want to taste a lot of the spices ― especially ginger,” she said. “The texture can run the gamut from cake-like to crispy.”
Mistake #1: Underseasoning your dough
When you bite into a gingerbread cookie, it should taste like Christmas. Something has definitely gone wrong if your gingerbread is bland and doesn’t have a distinct ginger flavor. To prevent this from happening, Lomas recommends using several different types of ginger: dried ground ginger, fresh ginger and candied ginger. “A variety of types of ginger makes for a tastier, more complex cookie,” she said.
A caveat: If you’re making a gingerbread house, Lomas says to skip the candied ginger since it’s chunky and can get in the way of having smooth walls.
Mistake #2: Not resting your dough
Resting your gingerbread dough does two key things: develops flavor and keeps the cookies from spreading too much in the oven.
“The flavors need time to mature, preferably overnight,” said Axel Jörgensen, general manager of Göteborgs Pepparkaksbageri, a Swedish bakery in Gothenburg that’s been open since 1924 and specializes in gingerbread biscuits. At the bakery, the dough is stored in plastic containers with lids and rests in a cool room for several hours before it’s cut into shapes.
After the gingerbread is cut out, Lomas recommends putting it into the fridge for at least 30 minutes and up to three days. Chilling the dough before it goes into a hot oven gives the butter a chance to firm up and reduces how much it spreads when baking. “You should chill the dough both before rolling and cutting and after,” she said.
Mistake #3: Rolling out your dough unevenly
Precision is important when making gingerbread for construction purposes, and that includes uniform thickness. “When rolling out the dough, place two rulers of even thickness (or another item) on either side of your rolling space,” David said. “Because the gingerbread dough will be rolling between the two rulers, and the rolling pin on top of them, the dough will be the same thickness all the way through.” There are rolling pin guides you can buy that help you achieve even thickness, but David’s method allows you to get a similar effect using items you already have at home.
Mistake #4: Taking the gingerbread out of the oven and letting it cool
If you’re making a gingerbread house, having flat pieces with precise lines is essential to achieving a solid structure. Since cookies often spread when they’re baked, David recommends trimming your gingerbread right after you take it out of the oven to ensure your pieces are the correct sizes for construction. “The gingerbread will be easiest to cut while still warm,” he said.
Once you’re finished cutting the pieces to size, David recommends topping your gingerbread with a piece of parchment paper, then placing something heavy on top of it (like a sheet pan with a pot) until the gingerbread has completely cooled. “Gingerbread can curl as it cools, so putting something on top ensures it stays flat,” he said.
If you find that your pieces still need a little trimming after they have cooled, Lomas recommends using a rasp or microplane to file down the sides and corners for a perfect fit.
Mistake #5: Using soft gingerbread to make a gingerbread house
Soft gingerbread is great for eating and making decorated gingerbread people. But for building gingerbread houses? Not so much. To achieve crispy, sturdy gingerbread, Lomas recommends letting the baked gingerbread pieces dry out for a day or two. Don’t put the pieces in the refrigerator or keep them in a closed container, as this keeps the moisture in. “The longer it dries out, the easier it is to work with for construction purposes,” she said.
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