11 Ways To Upgrade Your Holiday Cookies

The holiday season is upon us, and that means it's time to dust off those cookie sheets, preheat the oven, and indulge in the tradition of baking festive treats. While the classic sugar cookie might hold a special place in your heart, why not elevate your cookie game this year? We've gathered some simple yet effective ways to upgrade your holiday cookies, turning them into irresistible bites that will leave your friends and family asking for the recipe.

The tantalizing aroma of browned butter wafting through your kitchen, the crunch of crushed candy canes, and the subtle caramel notes of toasted sugar. These are the nuances that can turn a batch of cookies into a culinary masterpiece. There are many ways to upgrade holiday cookies that don't take much work but can transform a perfectly fine cookie into something that will be remembered for years to come.

So, this holiday season, let's reimagine the cookie jar. It's not just about what you bake; it's about how you elevate it. With these creative upgrades, your holiday cookies will become the talk of the season. And, there's no question about winning that cookie swap — you'll be a shoo-in. I've baked cookies professionally and developed cookie recipes, so I know a little about cookie upgrades. I've also gathered tips from food bloggers, recipe writers, and professional chefs to bring you the best holiday cookie upgrades that will make a difference for real.

1. Toast sugar for your holiday cookies

When it comes to Christmas cookies, even a subtle tweak can make all the difference. This season, consider upgrading your cookies with toasted sugar in a simple switch that can hugely elevate the flavor. Toasting sugar means gently caramelizing it in the oven. The result is a sugar that goes beyond mere sweetness, offering a complex, caramel-like flavor that adds a sophisticated twist to your favorite cookie. Use it in any cookie recipe in place of standard granulated sugar. The toasty undertones of this upgraded sugar make all the difference.

But why choose toasted sugar over the more commonly used brown sugar? While brown sugar adds a hint of molasses flavor, it can also alter the texture and bake of your cookies. Brown sugar makes cookies more dense and moist. Sometimes this is welcome, but if you like your cookie recipe the way it is, you won't want to mess around with it. On the other hand, toasted sugar behaves practically the same way as granulated sugar does, so it's a like-for-like substitution.

Now, let's demystify the process of toasting sugar. It's a straightforward technique that requires nothing more than your oven and a bit of patience. Simply cook granulated sugar in a pan in the oven at around 300 degrees Fahrenheit for one to three hours, stirring occasionally. That's it. It takes a while but you can cook a large batch for multiple treats.

2. Try brown butter

Few techniques wield as much transformative power as the art of browning butter. Brown butter, also known as beurre noisette in French, is the result of gently cooking butter until its milk solids caramelize, creating a rich, nutty aroma and a golden-brown hue. This simple process turns a familiar kitchen staple into a secret weapon for enhancing the taste and texture of your baked goods.

When incorporated into cookie recipes, brown butter introduces a complexity of flavor that regular butter alone cannot achieve. The nutty undertones give you a cookie that tastes special and elevated — like you put the effort in. It's a subtle yet impactful upgrade that can make a significant difference, especially during the holiday season when the quest for exceptional treats is at its peak.

While the allure of an all-brown butter cookie might seem tempting, it's essential to strike the right balance. Using only brown butter can result in a grittier texture due to the intensified nutty particles of milk solids. Moreover, brown butter has less water, which can affect the loft and spread of your cookies.

To achieve the perfect harmony of flavor and texture, consider replacing only half of the butter in your recipe with browned butter. This allows you to savor the rich flavor without compromising on texture. The remaining portion of regular butter helps ensure an ideal moisture content, contributing to a cookie that strikes the perfect balance between chewy and crisp.

3. Add extra spices

Holiday baking calls for warm, fragrant spices like cinnamon. Its comforting aroma and distinct taste are synonymous with festive treats. However, the magic truly unfolds when you invite other spices to join the party. A pinch of nutmeg, with its slightly sweet and nutty tones, adds a complexity that complements warm, nostalgic cinnamon beautifully.

Ginger, whether it's in ground, crystalized, or freshly grated form, brings a subtle heat that adds depth to your cookies. Its lively kick harmonizes with the sweetness of many cookie doughs, offering a well-rounded and festive experience. Now, it's time to consider the often underappreciated allspice. Despite its name, allspice is not a blend, but a single spice with a flavor reminiscent of a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Adding allspice to your cookie recipes introduces a unique, almost mysterious note that sets your treats apart.

If a recipe calls for just cinnamon, experiment by adding a pinch of nutmeg, a hint of ginger, and a touch of allspice. While these classics are fundamental, don't be afraid to explore other spices like cardamom, cloves, and even a dash of black pepper for a subtle, surprising twist.

4. Use high-quality butter

One key secret to elevating your holiday cookies lies in your choice of butter, a decision that can make a remarkable difference in both flavor and texture. Unlike its lower-quality counterparts, premium butter boasts a higher butterfat content, offering a luscious mouthfeel and a depth of flavor that can transform your cookies into gourmet delights. There's nothing like the flavor of high-quality butter. So, if you're looking to make cookies that stand out in a sea of holiday baking, splurge on the good stuff.

Beyond flavor, the choice of butter influences the texture of your cookies, too. Low-quality butter, with its higher water content, can lead to greasier cookies. Because high-quality butter contains less water, your cookies maintain loft and a perfect balance between chewiness and crispness. When embarking on your holiday baking adventures, look for butter with a higher percentage of butterfat and minimal water content. 

While it might be tempting to cut corners, the choice of butter is not an area to compromise. Your cookies deserve the best, and this simple upgrade can elevate your creations from standard to special. Whether it's a classic sugar cookie, a decadent shortbread, or a spiced gingerbread masterpiece, high-quality butter lays the foundation for baking success.

5. Use better quality chocolate

When it comes to infusing your holiday cookies with chocolatey goodness, the key lies not just in the presence of chocolate but in the quality of this ingredient. If you're baking something that calls for chocolate chips, replacing them with chopped bar chocolate can turn your cookies into a luxurious indulgence. Chocolate chips are designed to hold their shape when cooked, giving you uniform, even cookies. But chopped bar chocolate melts. This creates oozy pools of chocolate that add an extra level of decadence to your Christmas cookies.

Of course, you might not always be adding chunks of chocolate to your cookies. Sometimes you might use melted chocolate to add to the dough or for decoration. Here, it's not so much about texture, but flavor. Know that a bar of baking chocolate or a bag of chocolate chips doesn't compare in flavor to a high-quality bar.

There are plenty of options when it comes to quality chocolate. Consider bars with at least 60% cocoa for a more intense flavor profile. You can also experiment with milk chocolate, white chocolate, or even a combination of all three to take things to the next level.

6. Turn sugar cookie dough into thumbprint cookies

Sugar cookies are a festive classic but you have to admit that they can get boring. Luckily, it's extremely simple to upgrade your favorite sugar cookie dough into thumbprint cookies. This simple modification not only makes your cookies look extra special but also introduces an array of creative filling possibilities so they stand out on a festive platter. 

Start with your favorite sugar cookie recipe. Once the dough is mixed and ready, portion it into uniform balls. With your thumb or the back of a teaspoon, create an indentation in the center of each cookie. This well, or "thumbprint," is the canvas for a world of flavor possibilities.

Now we get to the fillings. You can add all kinds of fillings to the thumbprint. Consider adding a burst of fruity goodness by filling the thumbprints with your favorite fruit preserves or jams. Raspberry, apricot, and strawberry complement the buttery sweetness of the dough. But there's no reason to stop at jam. Opt for a rich and indulgent twist and fill the thumbprints with nut butter, chocolate ganache, or homemade caramel sauce. You can also tweak the sugar cookie dough. Add a hint of citrus zest, a splash of almond extract, or a dusting of cinnamon and nutmeg to boost its flavors.

7. Add crushed candy canes

If you want to infuse your festive treats with a burst of peppermint cheer, look no further than crushed candy canes. This simple yet impactful upgrade can turn your classic cookies into merry masterpieces, adding a touch of sweetness, a hint of crunch, and a dash of holiday magic. The sweet, refreshing essence of peppermint marries beautifully with the buttery, sugary canvas of your favorite treats. The result is a delightful contrast and a potentially perfect balance of sweetness and cool mint.

Wondering which cookies are ideal candidates for this festive upgrade? The possibilities are as vast as your holiday spirit. Elevate the classic chocolate chip cookie with a sprinkle of crushed candy canes, where the combination of rich chocolate and refreshing peppermint is hard to resist. Make the cookie dough chocolate-flavored for a double-chocolate peppermint experience.

Sugar cookies are also ripe for some candy cane action. Give rounds of dough a festive transformation by rolling the edges in crushed candy canes before baking. The resulting cookies not only sparkle with a festive aesthetic but also offer a nice crunch. Another great option for a candy cane upgrade is the thumbprint cookie. Press a thumbprint into your favorite cookie dough and fill the center with a dollop of chocolate or fruit jam. Sprinkle crushed candy canes on top before baking.

8. Use real vanilla beans

While vanilla extract or essence is a kitchen staple, if you're looking to take your baking up a notch, you should go a step further and use real vanilla beans. They offer a depth of flavor and aromatic complexity that is simply unparalleled.

Real vanilla beans are the undisputed royalty of the vanilla world. Their slender pods house thousands of tiny seeds, each bursting with rich flavor and aroma. Using real vanilla beans in your cookie recipes introduces fruity and floral flavors that extract or essence can't quite replicate. The seeds, when scraped from the pod, can also create a visually captivating speckled effect in your dough, signaling to your brain that something truly special is on the way.

For those who seek the richness of real vanilla beans but prefer a more convenient option, vanilla bean paste emerges as a close second. This paste combines a thick vanilla extract with whole vanilla beans. It retains the distinctive vanilla bean speckles, ensuring your cookies not only taste great but look like the real deal.

When using real vanilla beans, split the pod lengthwise, scrape the seeds out with the back of a knife, and incorporate the result into your cookie dough. If you are instead opting for vanilla bean paste, use it as a one-to-one substitute for vanilla extract in your recipes. This holiday season, invite the essence of true vanilla into your cookie creations — you won't regret it.

9. Boost flavor with malted milk powder

Malted milk powder is a secret ingredient that can effortlessly elevate your cookie recipes. Derived from malted barley, wheat flour, and evaporated whole milk, this powder brings a unique combination of sweetness, richness, and subtle maltiness to your baked goods.

Malted milk powder includes malted barley, which undergoes a malting process that converts starches in the grain into sugars. This natural sweetness, combined with the richness of evaporated whole milk, creates a flavor profile that goes beyond mere sweetness. The malt flavor adds intrigue to the familiar. It also contributes to a subtle umami undertone in your cookies.

Experimenting with malted milk powder in your cookie recipes is a delightful journey. Start by adding it to your dry ingredients, adjusting the quantity based on your taste preferences. While malted milk powder can be a game-changer, it's crucial to strike the right balance. Start with a conservative amount, as its flavors can be potent. If you've got the time, try baking a few small batches, and adjusting your use of malted milk powder until you achieve the perfect ratio.

10. Try crushed pretzels as a mix-in

Consider introducing crushed pretzels to your holiday cookies. This unconventional mix-in brings salty, umami notes that complement the sweetness of the dough. Take classic chocolate chip cookies to new heights by folding a generous amount of crushed pretzels into the dough. The combination of sweet chocolate and salty pretzels creates a perfect balance of flavors, offering a satisfying crunch in every bite. 

Use this ingredient to infuse a versatile thumbprint cookie with a delightful trio of sweet, salty, and buttery goodness. Roll the cookie dough in crushed pretzels before creating the thumbprint well, then fill it with luscious salted caramel. The result is a visually stunning and flavor-packed treat that's pure indulgence.

Give the classic snickerdoodle cookie a textural makeover by coating the cookie dough in crushed pretzels before baking. The juxtaposition of the soft, cinnamon-spiced interior with the crunchy texture of pretzels creates a cookie that's not only visually appealing but also a delightful sensory experience. But, of course, these are just a few ideas to get you started. The truth is that you could add pretzels to almost any holiday cookie with crowd-pleasing results.

11. Dip shortbread into melted chocolate

Shortbread cookies, with their crumbly texture and rich, buttery taste, is no less than a timeless holiday classic. While the simplicity of traditional shortbread is lovely, if you want to get fancy, there's an easy way to upgrade this treat. The secret: dip it in melted chocolate.

Start by making your favorite shortbread recipe in the usual way. Once it's been baked and cooled, here comes the transformative moment: dipping your perfectly baked shortbread into melted chocolate. Choose high-quality chocolate, whether it's a dark, milk, or white chocolate variety, and melt it gently using a double boiler or in short bursts in the microwave. Dip each shortbread cookie halfway into the melted chocolate, ensuring an even coating.

While your chocolate-dipped shortbread is still wet, consider adding festive touches. Sprinkle crushed nuts, bright sprinkles, toasted coconut, or even a dusting of edible gold to enhance the look and flavor. Place the chocolate-dipped shortbread on parchment paper to allow the chocolate to set. Once The chocolate has fully cooled and has set, the cookies are ready to serve or package up to give as gifts.

These chocolate-dipped shortbread cookies are sure to become a standout on your holiday dessert table. If you're hoping to create delicious shortbread that people will be talking about for a while, all it takes is some melted chocolate and a bit of patience and creativity.