The best 3-ingredient sugar cookie recipe

When you're in the mood to bake but don't want to follow complicated recipes and mixing procedures, cookies are the way to go. In general, they're quick and easy to make, and there are several three-ingredient cookie recipes out there that use pantry-staples you probably already have on hand. But if you're looking for the simplest of cookie recipes, look no further than sugar cookies. These deliciously soft, buttery cookies are ready to eat in less than 20 minutes.

Some sugar cookie recipes contain eggs and baking powder, but we tried a recipe that only called for three ingredients, and it totally worked. All you need is a stick of room temperature butter, white sugar, and all-purpose flour to make these three-ingredient sugar cookies a reality. The best part: They stay good for several weeks when stored in an airtight container on the counter (although, if you're like us, you'll probably gobble them as soon as they come out of the oven!).

Gather the ingredients for your 3-ingredient sugar cookies

There are three major ingredients in all cookie recipes: fat, sweetener, and flour. The fat (usually butter, but sometimes shortening or lard) adds moisture to the dough and helps the cookie brown as it bakes. The sugar not only sweetens the cookie, but it also tenderizes and helps the cookie maintain its soft, sugary bite. Finally, the flour provides structure, binding the fat and sugar together.

Many cookie recipes also contain eggs and leaveners like baking powder and baking soda, but we weren't sure those ingredients were strictly necessary to create a good cookie. So we put that theory to the test and made these cookies with only three ingredients: unsalted butter, white sugar, and all-purpose flour. Our test batch turned out great, prompting us to expand the ingredients list to include a few optional additions if you want to take the cookies to the next level.

You'll find the full list of ingredients and step-by-step instructions in the directions portion at the end of this article.

How to fancy-up these 3-ingredient sugar cookies

If you want to take these simple sugar cookies to the next level, you can add a few ingredients to make them extra-special. Adding a tablespoon of vanilla or almond extract to the batter is an easy way to infuse the cookies with added flavor. In fact, you could use any extract you like — lemon or orange extracts would give them a fresh finish, while peppermint or lavender extracts would give them a bold, unique flavor.

You could also top these cookies with sprinkles, or get fancier with frosting or an iced glaze. Glazes are super easy to make by mixing together powdered sugar and a liquid (like milk or lemon juice). Give our copycat Starbucks lemon loaf icing a try, if you're looking for some inspiration. Making frosting is a bit more complicated, but it's usually a combination of softened butter and sugar, along with other flavorings. Our cream cheese frosting recipe (inspired by Nothing Bundt Cakes) would be a good choice here. Feel free to color your frosting or icing by adding a few drops of food coloring, too.

What is the texture like on these 3-ingredient sugar cookies?

These 3-ingredient sugar cookies don't contain any leavening agents or eggs, so they're definitely reminiscent of a shortbread cookie. They contain a high amount of butter, which gives them a soft and crumbly texture instead of a chewy finish. If you don't like how crumbly they are, try replacing one tablespoon of the white sugar with brown sugar. Brown sugar contains molasses, and that extra moisture will make the cookie denser and chewier.

You could also add an egg and baking powder to the cookies, but those additions take us pretty far away from the 3-ingredient rule. Eggs add fat and structure to the cookie, and they'll help trap the gasses produced by the baking powder to make your cookies much firmer with a softer chew. If you want to go this route, you'll probably want to double the flour and butter to accommodate the extra liquid from the egg.

Another way to firm up the texture without changing the recipe is to chill the dough balls for 30 minutes to an hour before baking them. This extra step allows the butter to harden, firming up the dough.

Why it's really important to use softened butter for 3-ingredient sugar cookies

Our first step in creating these three-ingredient sugar cookies (after preheating the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit) is to cream the butter and sugar. This process combines the fat and sugar into one homogeneous mixture while incorporating air into the butter. The result is a cookie that's light with a finer crumb. It's pretty challenging to cream cold butter, and melted butter is too soft, so you'll have to plan ahead with this one. Pull the butter out of the refrigerator at least an hour before you want to bake (or as far ahead as the night before), so it's soft enough to bend when you pick it up.

Then, place the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. Use the whisk attachment to cream the butter for three full minutes at medium speed. If you don't have a hand mixer, an electric hand mixer works just fine. You could also whisk it by hand, although it will be quite the workout.

Form and bake these 3-ingredient sugar cookies

Before you add the flour to the creamed butter mixture, we definitely recommend sifting it first. You can use a dedicated tool called a flour sifter, or you can use any fine-mesh strainer. Epicurious explains that sifting flour breaks up the clumps that can form as the flour sits on the shelf. These clumps can turn into dry pockets in your baked goods, which will taste dry and bland as they're not incorporated into the rest of the ingredients. For this cookie recipe, you could skip the sifting step as the electric mixer will probably break up any clumps as it mixes. But, we don't like to leave these things to chance, so we sifted our flour into a separate bowl before proceeding.

From there, add the flour in two additions — half at first, then the second half when the first addition is fully mixed in. If you're adding vanilla or almond extract and citrus zest to the cookies, go ahead and add it now. Then, form the cookies into one-inch balls and place them on an ungreased baking sheet about two inches apart. For an extra sugary sugar cookie, roll each ball in sugar, and flatten it out if you're adding sprinkles during this step.

After about 15 minutes in the oven, the cookies should be lightly golden brown on the edges. They will still be very soft, but they will firm up as they cool.

Let the 3-ingredient sugar cookies rest before moving them to a cooling rack

These three-ingredient sugar cookies have a high fat content, thanks to all that delicious butter. That makes them soft and crumbly, but it also means they'll be very delicate — especially when they're hot out of the oven. It's best to let them rest on the baking sheet for about five minutes before carefully removing them to a wire rack. Take care when you're moving them so they don't fall apart before you have a chance to enjoy them. After they've cooled on the rack for another five minutes, they'll be firm enough to eat while still warm.

If you're planning to glaze or frost the cookies, let them cool completely before proceeding. The frosting will melt and fall off the cookie if they're still warm, so have some patience here. If you end up with leftover cookies, wait until they're cooled before storing them. Arrange them in a single layer in an airtight container, adding a piece of waxed paper between the layers to keep them from sticking together or falling apart. They should be good for two weeks at room temperature, or up to six months in the freezer.

How did our 3-ingredient sugar cookies taste?

Oh man, these cookies turned out so good! When we let them rest on the baking sheet for a few minutes before transferring them to the cooling rack, they kept their form and didn't fall apart at all. Texturally, we didn't mind their crumbly nature at all and we actually fell a little in love with these cookies; they were perfectly crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside.

Flavor-wise, we had equally few complaints. The sugar and butter came together to create a subtle cookie that was neither too rich nor too sweet. We loved the extra sugar used to roll the cookies, which added a really pleasant caramelization on the edges. The plain cookies were good on their own, but they got even better when we added some of the optional additions. A little vanilla extract went a long way to boosting the cookie's sweet flavor, and the citrus zest really burst with flavor. Sure enough, there were no leftovers, so we might have to double this recipe next time we make it.

3-ingredient sugar cookie directions

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 15 to 20 minutes

Servings: 12 cookies

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/3 cup white sugar, plus additional sugar for rolling (optional)
  • 1 cups all-purpose flour

Optional ingredients

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon citrus zest, such as lemon, lime, or orange
  • Sprinkles

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Place the softened butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the whisk attachment, cream the mixture until it's light and fluffy, about 3 minutes at medium speed. If you don't have a stand mixer, you can use a hand mixer or whisk by hand.
  3. In a separate bowl, sift the flour using a fine-mesh strainer or a flour sifter. Add half the flour to the butter mixture and mix it in before adding the second addition of flour. If you're adding vanilla or almond extract and citrus zest, add it now.
  4. Form the cookies into 1-inch balls and place them on an ungreased baking sheet, spacing them about 2 inches apart. You can roll each ball in sugar before placing them on the tray for extra caramelization. If you're using sprinkles, gently flatten the cookies with your palm before adding the sprinkles, lightly pushing them into the dough so they stick.
  5. Bake the cookies for 15 to 20 minutes, until the edges are lightly golden.
  6. Let the cookies rest on the baking sheet for 5 minutes before carefully removing them to a wire rack. They will be very crumbly when they're warm, so be careful when moving them.
  7. If you're planning to ice the sugar cookies, wait until they're cooled before decorating them. Otherwise, you can enjoy the cookies warm.
  8. Let the cookies cool completely before storing them in an airtight container. Store them in a single layer with a piece of wax paper in between the layers. When properly stored, these cookies are good on the counter for up to two weeks, or in the freezer for up to six months.