The Best Holiday Cookie Baking Equipment and Gear

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We spent 200 hours researching and tested 20 types of essential cookie-related items to find the best gear to make holiday baking fun and stress-free.

Last Updated: November 17, 2016
We’ve read through this guide to check that all our picks are current and available, and we’re confident what follows are the best tools for holiday cookie baking.

In compiling this guide, we sought advice from renowned bakers such as Alice Medrich, author of books like Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-In-Your-Mouth Cookies and, most recently, Flavor Flours; Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of Rose’s Christmas Cookies and The Baking Bible, among others; Matt Lewis, cookbook author and co-owner of New York’s popular Baked; and Gail Dosik, cookie-decorating expert and owner of New York’s One Tough Cookie. And I myself am a former professional baker, which means I’ve spent many hours scooping cookies, and many more hours piping decorations. I know what’s practical, I know what’s essential, and I know what just won’t work. —Marguerite Preston

Table of contents

Stand mixer

A good stand mixer will make your baking (and cooking) life a lot easier. If you bake a lot and have been struggling with a low-grade mixer or a hand mixer, you might want to upgrade. A well-made stand mixer can produce loaves of rustic bread or moist cake layers, it can make quick work of whipping egg whites into meringue, and it can churn out dozens upon dozens of holiday cookies.

holiday cookies, baking, kitchen, gear

If you make a lot of cookies every year, investing in a classic KitchenAid stand mixer is worthwhile.

KitchenAid Artisan
This 5-quart stand mixer tackles nearly any recipe without knocking around on the counter, and it’s one of the quietest models in the KitchenAid line.

We believe that the KitchenAid Artisan is the best mixer for the home baker who’s looking for an equipment upgrade. After spending more than 16 hours on research, consulting experts Anne Gordon of The Good Batch and Sarah Carey of Everyday Food, performing 30 hours of side-by-side testing on six stand mixers and two hand mixers, and conducting long-term testing for a year, we can definitively say that the brand that rolled out the first tabletop mixer in 1919 is still the best. Sometimes you really can’t beat a classic. The Artisan isn’t cheap, but since refurbished units are often available, we think this can be an affordable machine, and for the money, the KitchenAid Artisan can’t be beat in performance and versatility.

That said, stand mixers weigh quite a bit, they have a large footprint on your countertop, and a quality machine costs hundreds of dollars. If you need a mixer for making only a few batches of cookies a year, or whipping egg whites for souffles, you can probably get by with a hand mixer. In that case, we recommend the Cuisinart Power Advantage Plus 9-Speed Handheld Mixer. Strong enough to handle bread dough, this super-powerful mixer can make Seven-Minute Frosting twice as fluffy (in terms of final volume) as its competitor, and it’s certainly capable of turning out a big batch of cookies. —Lesley Stockton

Mixing bowls

Most cookie recipes are simple enough that you’ll mostly be able to rely on the bowl of your stand mixer, but you’ll usually need at least one extra bowl to mix your dry ingredients. Plus, if you’re mixing a bunch of different colors of icing, a good set of mixing bowls can come in handy.

Vollrath Economy Stainless Steel Mixing Bowls
These stainless-steel bowls are extremely lightweight, so they’re easy to pick up or to steady with one hand. They’re also pretty indestructible.

You can find a lot of fancy bowls out there with handles and pour spouts and rubberized bottoms, but we didn’t test these because after years of baking experience and time spent consulting with the experts, we think you still can’t beat the basics. Plastic bowls are out of the question because they stain easily and can’t handle microwaves or high heat. So you have two ways to go with bowls: stainless steel or glass. Each has its advantages. For metal bowls, your best bet are the thin, inexpensive bowls found in most professional kitchens and restaurant-supply stores—Cook’s Illustrated recommends Vollrath Economy Stainless Steel Mixing Bowls. For glass bowls, you can’t beat a classic: The Pyrex Prepware Mixing Bowl Set is simple and inexpensive, and though these bowls are not unbreakable, they are quite sturdy for glass. Cook’s Illustrated also names Pyrex as its top choice for glass bowls, and they’ve held up well for years in our kitchen.

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These Pyrex bowls are heavier than stainless steel, so they won’t go sliding all over the counter.

When you’re choosing between stainless steel and Pyrex, you have a few things to consider: Stainless-steel bowls are extremely lightweight, so they’re easy to pick up or to steady with one hand. They’re also pretty indestructible, and you can throw them around or drop them without risk of much beyond a dent. On Serious Eats, J. Kenji López-Alt points out that such bowls are thin enough and shallow enough to nest closely, so even a big stack doesn’t take up much space in your kitchen. He also says they’re microwave safe, though in general if you plan on microwaving often (to melt butter or chocolate, or just heat up leftovers), you may feel more comfortable using Pyrex.

There’s even a Pyrex set that comes with lids.

The ability to go into the microwave is one of the main advantages of Pyrex bowls, but their weight can also be an advantage if you want to be able to mix something with one hand without having the bowl slide all over the place. There’s even a Pyrex set that comes with lids, which can help to keep frosting from drying out, to chill a batch of cookie dough in the fridge, or just to store leftovers. —MP

Scale

Escali Primo Digital Scale
The affordably priced Escali scale is best for most home cooks who want consistent results when baking and cooking. Incredibly accurate, it reads weights quickly in increments of 1 gram and has a long auto-off function of about four minutes.

Most professional bakers swear by the kitchen scale. The delicate alchemy of baking relies on precision, and cups—which measure only by volume—can be wildly inaccurate. According to Alton Brown, 1 cup of flour can equal anywhere from 4 to 6 ounces, depending on who measures it and on factors like relative humidity. A scale can mean the difference between light, buttery cookies and dense, floury ones—plus, you can measure all your ingredients right into the bowl, which means fewer dishes to clean. Converting recipes from cups to grams is an extra step, but if you keep a chart with the standard weights of your baking ingredients on hand, it shouldn’t take long. Alice Medrich (who recently made the case for baking with a scale in The Washington Post) noted that a scale also comes in handy if you don’t have a cookie scoop but want to make your drop cookies exactly the same size (which ensures that they bake evenly).

Baking Tip #1
Refrigerate or freeze your rolled-out cookie dough for at least an hour before cutting and baking it.
You can most easily do this if you roll it out between two sheets of parchment paper, so you can just pick the whole thing up and put it on a tray. But if you roll out with flour, you can also use a bench scraper or a spatula to help transfer it to a tray. Either way, cold dough makes cutting and removing clean shapes much easier, and the dough also keeps its shape better when baking. If you still have trouble with dough sticking, keep a little bowl of flour on hand and dip your cutter in it between cuts. —MP

After nearly 45 hours of research, three years of testing, and interviews with experts, we think the Escali Primo Digital Scale is the best scale for most people. The Escali scale is impressively accurate and reads weights quickly in 1-gram increments. It’s also affordably priced and easy to use and store, and it has a long battery life. Of the models we tested, this scale had the longest auto-off function, so you can take your time measuring. We think this 11-pound-capacity kitchen scale is ideal for all your basic home baking and cooking needs. Plus, it comes with a limited lifetime warranty.

For larger batches, we recommend the My Weigh KD8000. It’s bulky, and it measures only in full grams, but it easily accommodates high-quantity baking with a whopping capacity of 17.56 pounds. —Christine Cyr Clisset

Measuring cups

KitchenMade Stainless Steel Measuring Cups
These are sturdier than most dry cups we’ve found, standing up to repeated abuse without bending. They won't fall over while you're measuring, unlike other cups we tried, and they give accurate measurements.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $7.

Pyrex 2-Cup Measuring Cup
This classic design is one of the most durable glass cups we’ve found. Its fade-resistant markings are more legible than those of other glass cups we tested, and it cleans up better than plastic versions.

Die-hard bakers know that using a scale is a far more accurate measuring method for dry ingredients. Measuring with cups—which rely on volume and don’t take density into account—is an approximation at best. But until American recipe writers abandon the imprecise convention of the cup, most home bakers will want measuring cups in their toolbox. If you currently don’t own a glass liquid measuring cup and a set of metal dry cups, you should invest in both. Liquids level themselves, so measuring against a fixed line on a clear container works best. Flour and other dry ingredients mound, and generally you measure them using a dip-and-sweep method, so cups with flat rims work best for scooping and leveling.

After putting in more than 30 hours of research and testing, speaking with four expert bakers, and trying 33 measuring cup models over the past two years, we confidently recommend KitchenMade’s Stainless Steel Measuring Cups for dry ingredients and Pyrex’s 2-Cup Measuring Cup for liquids. Both are more durable than other cups, easier to clean, and the most compact to store of those we tried. And they’re also quite accurate (as far as cups go). —Ray Aguilera, Ganda Suthivarakom

Whisks

Whisks come in all shapes and sizes: big balloon whisks for whipping cream, long narrow ones for cooking custards, teeny tiny ones for frothing the milk in your coffee. All the experts we interviewed keep at least a few different ones on hand, and Alice Medrich declared that “for anyone who bakes, it’s important to have different-sized whisks.” For making cookies, however, you won’t be using such a tool for much more than whisking dry ingredients or making icing, so a narrow, medium-size whisk will do. All of our experts emphasized that, as Matt Lewis put it, “simpler is better.” Models with a silicone coating or with metal balls rattling around inside the wires don’t perform any better than the simple, sturdy stainless-steel models.

We didn’t test whisks, but we did get good recommendations from our experts and a few other sources. Some of the most thorough critics out there, namely the editors of Cook’s Illustrated and J. Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats, agree that the OXO Good Grips 11-Inch Balloon Whisk is the best all-purpose whisk available. Both reviews praise its comfortable silicone handle (which, as an added benefit, won’t get hot if you’re melting chocolate or cooking custard) and its large number of wire loops (which whisk more efficiently than designs with fewer loops). Another important feature: wires that are flexible without being flimsy. Flexibility, as López-Alt explains, allows the wires to “build up potential like a spring when pressed against the side of the bowl while whisking” so that they vibrate, stirring at a rate much faster than you could manage by hand. Strong wires can handle stirring thicker custards as well as whipped cream and flour, so they’re preferable if you’re going to buy only one whisk. The OXO is a narrow balloon whisk, so it can handle just about any task, and it also comes in a 9-inch size. Currently it’s well reviewed on Amazon, too, with a 4.8-star rating (out of five) and 478 reviews.

If you’re looking for an alternative, Rose Levy Beranbaum told us she likes the J.A. Henckels International Whisk for its sturdiness, but right now it comes in only one size: 11 inches. If you want a set, Real Simple says the BergHOFF 3-Piece Stainless Steel Whisk Set is “tough” and long-lasting, but these 8-, 10-, and 12-inch whisks may not provide much more range than the two OXO whisks would. —MP

Silicone spatula

GIR Spatula
It’s small enough to fit in a peanut butter jar, yet strong enough to press down doughs and flexible enough to clean the edges of a batter bowl.

For baking cookies, a good, sturdy silicone spatula is essential. It should be stiff and thick enough to press dough together but flexible enough to scrape down the sides of a bowl with ease. Silicone is the material of choice over old-fashioned rubber spatulas because it’s food-safe, heat-proof, and nonstick, so you can use it for melting butter or chocolate as well as for mixing, and sticky doughs slide right off (plus, you can throw it into the dishwasher).

In our full review of all varieties of spatula, we found the Kickstarter-born GIR Spatula to be the best of the silicone bunch. It’s a single piece of silicone, a design that we preferred to competitors with a wooden handle and a detachable head; as a result, it goes into the dishwasher easily, and grime has no chance to get lodged in nooks and crannies. The small head is slim enough to fit into a peanut butter jar but comfortable and quick to use in a curved pot, with parallel edges that can scrape down the straight sides of a sauté pan. Though the tip is thick enough to give the spatula heft for pressing down doughs, it’s also flexible enough to glide smoothly and cleanly around the edges of a batter bowl.

The grippy, rounded handle feels better in the hand than competitors’ flat, thin sticks, and because both flat sides are symmetrical, both left- and right-handed cooks can use the tool. And when we used it in high heat, even when we pressed the head down onto the hot pan for 15 seconds, it showed no signs of degradation.

Amazon users love this thing (at the moment it has a 4.7-star rating, out of five, across 360 reviews), and so does The Kitchn. Yes, it’s pricier than other options available, but the GIR Spatula comes with a lifetime guarantee and remains a pleasure to use, and the bright, popping colors would look great hanging on a wall. —GS

Fine-mesh strainer

All-Clad 3-Piece Stainless-Steel Strainer Set
Heavy-duty and stainless-steel, this set of durable fine-mesh strainers will stand the test of time.

A simple, fine-mesh strainer is a great multiuse tool to have on hand when you’re baking. You can use it to sift flour, which (if you’re using measuring cups) helps you avoid overloading your cookies with densely packed scoops of flour. Even if you weigh your ingredients, sifting them still aerates the flour, keeping your pastries from becoming dense, and the step is crucial for getting clumps out of ingredients like cocoa powder. Plus, if you sift together all your dry ingredients at once, it can do the job of a whisk to combine them. A small strainer can also come in handy when you’re decorating, if you want to dust your cookies with powdered sugar or cocoa powder (with or without a stencil). And of course, a good strainer can also help you drain pasta, rinse rice, wash fruit, and strain custard or broth or any other sort of liquid.

We didn’t test strainers, but we did get a few good recommendations from other sources. Several of our experts recommended getting a set with several sizes; Gail Dosik, for one, uses a larger size for jobs like sifting clumps out of cocoa powder, where a whisk won’t do, and turns to the smallest size for when she “wants to get fancy with dessert” and give her cookies or cakes a dusting of sugar. You can find plenty of sets like that, but many of the inexpensive ones won’t last long: The steel can rust, the mesh can warp or pop out of its binding, and as Cook’s Illustrated points out in its review, the handles are particularly vulnerable to bending or breaking.

Cuisinart Set of 3 Mesh Strainers
These are not as heavy-duty as the All-Clad models, but they cost much less. This is a great set for the occasional baker.

The sturdiest set on the market could be the All-Clad 3-Piece Stainless-Steel Strainer Set, which Baked owner Matt Lewis told us has “stood the test of time,” even in the kitchens of his high-volume bakery. But at $100 currently, that set is also a real investment. If you aren’t planning to run your strainers through the ringer, you may want to consider the Cuisinart Set of 3 Mesh Strainers. Of the five strainer models we considered based on recommendations from our four experts plus reviews on Cook’s Illustrated, Real Simple, and Amazon, the Cuisinart offering was the most affordable option to come in a set, which three of our experts thought was a must. It’s a much better deal than the All-Clad set, and though none of our experts specifically mentioned it, this set is currently well reviewed on Amazon, with a rating of 4.6 stars out of five across 764 reviews. The mesh is not as fine as on the All-Clad set, and some reviews note that the basket can bend or warp, but the Cuisinart strainers are dishwasher safe and seem to have held up well for most reviewers under regular use. If you plan to use your strainers only occasionally, or just for baking, the Cuisinart set should serve you just fine.

If you’d rather invest in just one high-quality strainer, Cook’s Illustrated likes the CIA Masters Collection Very Fine Mesh Strainer. According to Cook’s Illustrated, it “produced the smoothest sauce and silkiest pudding,” and its handle was strong enough to withstand being banged against the counter a few times.

One thing that multiple experts told us to avoid at all costs: old-fashioned, crank-operated flour sifters. Such tools don’t hold as much as a large strainer does, can’t strain anything besides dry ingredients like flour, and become difficult to clean, with the moving parts easily getting gummed up. As Matt Lewis put it, “They’re messy, they’re silly, and it’s a device you really don’t need in your kitchen.” —MP

Bench scraper

OXO Good Grips Stainless Steel Multi-Purpose Scraper & Chopper
This bench scraper has a comfortable, grippy handle, and it has measurements engraved into the blade that won’t fade with time.

You’ll find a bench scraper in every professional kitchen. They’re good for everything from trimming rolled-out dough to scooping up chopped nuts to cutting butter into flour for pie crust, or even just for scraping a surface clean. For home baking and cooking in general, a bench scraper might turn out to be the everyday tool you never knew you needed. When you’re baking cookies, a bench scraper can come in handy for all of the above tasks, plus it’s perfect for picking up cut-out cookies and transferring them to a baking sheet. Rose Levy Beranbaum also points out that you can use it to push icing down to the tip of your piping bag, by laying the bag down and gently scraping down from the outside (being careful not to tear the bag).

When you’re not cooking, you’ll find all sorts of other uses for a bench scraper; it’s great for quickly cleaning off counters, as it can easily scrape up crumbs or sticky cookie dough. Rhoda Boone, the food editor of Epicurious, recommends using a bench scraper for smashing garlic cloves or boiled potatoes, and notes that it can cut pasta dough just as well as it cuts pastry dough. The Kitchn likes to use this tool for slicing lasagna and casseroles.

Baking Tip #2
Take your cookies out of the oven before they look totally done.
Their own heat, as well as the heat of the sheet pan, will continue to bake them even after they come out of the oven. It depends on how you like your cookies, but they should be just turning golden around the edges and still soft in the middle—or, in the case of chewy drop cookies, almost uncooked—because they’ll firm up as they cool. For this reason you should also avoid picking them up right away, or they’re likely to fall apart. Instead, leave them on the pan for five or 10 minutes, or gently slide the entire piece of parchment paper, cookies still in place, right onto a cooling rack. —MP

We asked our experts what to look for in a bench scraper, and we found some good recommendations from Cook’s Illustrated, as well as from Epicurious and The Kitchn. For most uses, a bench scraper with a metal blade is preferable. You’ll also find flexible plastic varieties, which are designed with a flat end and a curved end, and are great for scooping dough out of bowls (Beranbaum told us she keeps one on hand for this task), but such models are too small and flimsy for many of the other uses described above.

You won’t see a huge variety of bench scrapers out there, but you should look for one with a blade that’s thick enough to resist buckling and sharp enough to actually cut things. Inch measurements engraved on the blade aren’t essential but can be extremely useful, not just for cutting evenly sized pieces of dough but also, as Epicurious points out, for dicing meat and vegetables to the proper size. A comfortable, grippy handle is also a bonus, since, as the Kitchn notes, your hands “are often sticky or greasy” when you’re cooking.

We recommend the OXO Good Grips Stainless Steel Multi-Purpose Scraper & Chopper, which is The Kitchn’s top choice. Cook’s Illustrated complains that this model is too dull, but as of this writing it has a stellar Amazon rating–4.8 stars out of five, with 1,157 reviews. The OXO has measurements engraved into the blade, so in contrast to Cook’s Illustrated’s second choice, the Norpro Grip-EZ Chopper/Scraper, which has printed measurements, the markings can’t fade. Cook’s Illustrated recommends the Dexter-Russell Sani-Safe Dough Cutter/Scraper as the top choice because it’s sharper than most models and its flatter handle makes it easier to wedge under rolled-out dough. But the Dexter-Russell doesn’t come with inches marked on it. The OXO is also several dollars cheaper than the Dexter-Russell at this writing, and a bench scraper, useful as it is, is not a tool you should have to spend a lot of money on. —MP

Rolling pin

Whetstone Woodenware French Rolling Pin
This tapered pin rolls dough more efficiently than handled pins, works well for rolling both pies and cookies, and remains one of the easiest to clean. Plus, it’s good-looking and sturdy enough to last a lifetime.

You can’t make cut-out cookies without a rolling pin. In a pinch, you could use a wine bottle instead, but achieving an even thickness would be harder, and things could quickly get frustrating if you’re trying to roll out lots of dough. If you already own a rolling pin that you like, you needn’t fret over getting a better one: The best rolling pin is the one that you are comfortable with. However, it may be time to upgrade if you find yourself struggling with sticking or cracking dough, working with a pin that’s difficult to maneuver, or dealing with a handled pin that spins in place instead of rolling smoothly across the surface.

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The Whetstone Woodenware French Rolling Pin is the perfect weight for rolling even dough. Even a 10-year-old can use it.

After nearly 20 hours of research and a dozen conversations with bakers and cooks—both professional and amateur—we tested (along with a novice baker and a 10-year-old) 12 carefully selected rolling pins on three types of dough. The timeless maple Whetstone Woodenware French Rolling Pin proved to be a superior tool and a great value.

The hand-turned Whetstone, a tapered French-style pin, not only worked better than handled versions but also proved superior to similarly shaped mass-produced pins (while costing a fraction of what other hand-turned pins sell for). Its long, tapered shape pivots easily, which makes it ideal for rolling perfect rounds of crust for pie and more-oblong shapes for cookies. The hard maple surface has a smoother finish than that of a basic mass-produced rolling pin, which keeps dough from sticking and makes the pin easy to clean. It’s also the heaviest of the tapered pins we tried, so it flattened dough with less effort than narrower and lighter models, but it wasn’t so heavy that it cracked or dented the dough.

If the Whetstone is sold out, or if you’re an occasional baker looking for something less expensive (though we think the Whetstone is a steal compared with other similar hand-turned models), consider the JK Adams 19-inch Wooden Rolling Dowel, which also performed well in our tests. Perfectionists may appreciate this pin for rolling to a precise thickness, as you can fit it with spacers (essentially color-coded rubber bands of various thickness). Our 10-year-old tester found this pin easier to use, too. Without tapered ends, however, it isn’t as agile as the Whetstone, so it’s slightly awkward for rolling out round shapes. And because the surface of the pin was not as smooth as that of our main pick, in our tests it required more dustings of flour and more effort to clean. —Hannah Kirshner

Pastry brushes

While a pastry brush is not necessary for cookie baking, it can be useful for at least a couple of tasks. For instance, when you roll out cookies, a brush is handy for sweeping off excess flour so you don’t end up with a mouthful of it after you bake the cookies. Brushing cookies with an egg wash before baking will help sprinkles stick, and a brush can also help you coat baked cookies in a thin sugar glaze, like the one on these maple-pecan cookies.

Old-fashioned boar-bristle brushes usually do a better job of holding liquid, and they’re better at delicate tasks like brushing away crumbs or flour. On the other hand, silicone pastry brushes are easier to clean, heat-proof, and designed not to shed bristles on your cookies. We looked at recommendations for both types from our experts and other sources.

A good, inexpensive brush that many pastry pros use (and Real Simple prefers) is the Ateco Flat Pastry Brush. Cook’s Illustrated says this model isn’t great for heat or for heavy sauces, but that’s to be expected, and it does have a sturdy construction. If you want a brush just for pastry tasks, it’s certainly a great inexpensive option. If you want a silicone brush, Cook’s Illustrated suggests the OXO Good Grips Silicone Pastry Brush, noting that it offers a gentle touch and does a good job of holding liquids. —MP

Cookie cutters

It can be easy to get overwhelmed by all the cookie cutter options out there (you’ll even find multiple websites selling nothing but cookie cutters). But whether you’re trying to kick-start a collection or you want to have just a few on hand for the holidays, buying a set of cookie cutters is easier than sorting through a dizzying variety of individual ones. For holiday baking, we like Ateco’s range of stainless-steel cookie cutters, either the Ateco Stainless Steel Christmas Cookie Cutters or the 5-Piece Stainless Steel Snowflake Cutter Set. The shapes are clear and elegant; of all the cutters we tested, the Ateco pieces offered the sturdiest construction and cut the cleanest cookies.

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The Ateco Stainless Steel Christmas Cookie Cutters had the heaviest-gauge metal among the seven sets we tested.

To put the cutters through their paces, we tested them on soft, sticky rolled-out sugar cookie dough (we like this recipe from The Kitchn) as well as on dough that we had rolled out and then froze solid. We squeezed the cutters to see how easily they would bend, and we washed them a few times (by hand) while keeping an eye out for rust. We also tested them with a 4½-year-old child to see which cookie cutters were the easiest for kids to handle.

We tested both plastic and metal cutters. All of the experts we spoke to preferred metal cookie cutters over plastic because they feel sturdier and their sharper edges cut a cleaner line. Plastic has its advantages, too: It doesn’t rust or bend, and duller edges can be a plus when you’re baking with kids. But plastic also feels insubstantial, and it can snap. Ultimately, for most bakers, we think metal is the way to go, and if you take care of your cutters, a high-quality set can last a long time.

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For holiday baking, we like Ateco Stainless Steel Christmas Cookie Cutters, which include six different shapes.

The Ateco cookie cutters had the heaviest-gauge metal of any we tested.

The Ateco cookie cutters had the heaviest-gauge metal of any we tested, and the difference was immediately noticeable. Many metal cookie cutters are made of tin or tin-plated steel, which is often flimsy. The two tin-plated steel cutter sets we tested—the Wilton Holiday 18-Pc. Metal Cookie Cutter Set and the R & M Holiday Classics 12-Piece Cookie Cutter Tub—were easy to bend out of shape. The Ateco cutters, while not completely impossible to bend, were thicker and more resilient; they required significant force to bend even a little. The seam where the loop of the cutter was closed was also welded in more places than on the other metal cutters, making the Ateco designs less likely to break.

Tin-plated cutters are also more vulnerable to rust, and at least one of the R & M cutters showed signs of rust around the folded seam of its top edge after we hand-washed it just once and allowed it to air dry. The Ateco cutters, on the other hand, are still gleaming.

Copper cookie cutters are strong, unbendable, resistant to rust, and undeniably beautiful. Gail Dosik of New York’s One Tough Cookie told us she prefers copper over any other material for cutters because it’ll “last a lifetime,” and Matt Lewis of Baked also said he prefers them for their sturdiness. But solid-copper cutters (beware of copper-plated cutters, which are no sturdier than their tin-plated counterparts) are expensive—a single cutter can cost $10 to $15, which is about how much you’ll pay for a set of five or six Ateco cutters.

It’s also hard to find sets of copper cutters. One set we found, the relatively affordable Old River Road Holiday Cookie Cutter Set, was difficult to use. Getting the cookie dough out of the tiny details, like the reindeer antlers, was nearly impossible, and the cutters did not lie nearly as flat as any of the others we tested, so they didn’t cut all the way through in certain spots. If, as Dosik put it, there’s a cookie shape you “know you’re going to make religiously,” you may want to invest in a high-quality copper cutter. But for cookies you’ll make only once a year, the Ateco cutters are a better buy, and they can last you just as long.

The Ateco Christmas cutters are the smallest of all we tried, on average 2½ inches from end to end, as opposed to 3½ or 4 inches, but this shouldn’t be a dealbreaker unless you have your heart set on cookies the size of your hand. If that’s the case, go for the snowflakes or for the Ateco 10-Piece Stainless Steel Star Cutter set, which have cutters ranging from 1½ inches to 5 or 7½ inches, respectively.

holiday cookies, baking, kitchen, gear, cookie cutters, wilton

The Wilton 101-Piece Cookie Cutter Set has kid-friendly shapes for every occasion.

It can handle just about any cookie-cutting project your child wants to do.

For baking with children, where simpler is better and plastic cutters are a little safer and easier to handle, we recommend the Wilton 101-Piece Cookie Cutter Set. It’s a great deal, and the huge variety—ranging from letters to animals to several holiday images—means it can handle just about any cookie-cutting project your child wants to do. (They’re also great for tracing and for using with Play-Doh, as long as you give them a good wash afterward.) If the dough gets stuck inside the cutter, the big, simple shapes let a kid push out the cookie without damaging it. The cutters are also color-coded, so pulling out, say, all the holiday shapes or all the animals is not as difficult as you might think. They’re not as sharp as metal cutters, so pushing into frozen dough is a little tougher, but they have a wide upper lip, which makes them more comfortable to push down hard on (our young tester gave them a few hard smacks, which was probably excessive, but fun for her). Just be aware that they’re not as deep as any of the other cutters we tested, so they’re not the best for cutting through thicker things, like sandwiches.

If you’re short on space, or if 101 cutters seems like overkill, for kids we also like the Wilton Grippy Cookie Cutters. This set of four plastic cutters felt sturdy, and we liked the silicone grip, which made them more comfortable to use. The holiday shapes are nearly identical to some of those in the 101-piece set, and they would be great for kids, but they just don’t come in enough variety to make them our top choice. Aside from this Christmas-themed set, Wilton offers only a Halloween set and an “everyday” set of four cutters in the Comfort Grip model.

We thought the Stately Kitchen Soft Grip large 3-inch cookie cutter set might be a good option for children and adults alike because the big, bold shapes come with a silicone edge to make them comfortable on the hands, but they still have a metal blade. The fact that the silicone is removable is not the benefit it’s advertised to be; instead, it just means that the silicone pulls off when you try to pick the cutter up from the dough, leaving the metal portion behind. And the cutters come in only those four shapes.

One problem we encountered with nearly all the cutters was storage. Cookie cutters are like 3D puzzle pieces, and you’ll be surprised how difficult it is to fit them back into a tub. Only the Ateco snowflakes were easy to return to their box. For the rest, you’re better off keeping them in a plastic storage box with plenty of room. A Ziploc bag can work too, but then you run the risk of your cutters getting bent out of shape if you shove them in a drawer somewhere. —MP

Cookie scoops

A cookie scoop can be a game-changer if you’re used to portioning out drop cookies like chocolate chip or oatmeal by hand. Also called a “disher” or a portion scoop, a cookie scoop is essentially a very small ice cream scoop, specifically the kind that sweeps the contents out with a squeeze of the handle (though we don’t actually recommend using that kind of scoop for ice cream). The best ones turn out perfectly rounded domes of cookie dough with ease, and they help to ensure that all your cookies are exactly the same size. Besides making cookies, they’re also great for portioning out batter for muffins or cupcakes.

Cookie scoops vary a lot in quality. It’s important to invest in a good, sturdy one, or else you’ll quickly run into more frustration and mess than you would by shaping cookies by hand. Of the five scoops we tested, the Norpro Grip-EZ 2-Tablespoon Stainless Scoop was the strongest and the most comfortable to hold, and it released the dough more cleanly than any other.

You’ll find two types of cookie scoops out there: You operate the first kind by squeezing a spring-loaded, V-shaped handle, and you operate the other kind by pressing a spring-loaded lever with your thumb. After reading a Cook’s Illustrated review, we chose to test only the V-shaped scoops, because the other variety is designed for use only in the right hand. It’s also easier to squeeze the dough out if you can use the strength of your whole hand, rather than having to rely on just your thumb. Portion scoops come in a number of sizes, and the range can vary by brand, but a 1½- or 2-inch scoop makes good, medium-size cookies (the size most recipe yields are based on). Some industrial brands size their scoops by number; a #40 scoop is about right.

To test scoops, we tried scooping chocolate chip cookie dough—we used this recipe from The New York Times—both when the dough was hard (straight out of the fridge) and at room temperature (when the dough was soft and sticky). The Norpro performed best under all conditions. Unlike with some other scoops we tested, the handle was easy to squeeze, so it didn’t require much force. The Norpro and the OXO Good Grips Medium Cookie Scoop were the only two models we tried with silicone grips on the handles, which made them easier to hold onto while we were working with buttery cookie dough, and more comfortable to use for a long scooping session. The curved inner band intended to push out the dough was nearly flush with the bowl of the scoop, so chunks of chocolate didn’t get stuck, and less dough stayed behind than in any other scoop. The mechanism felt sturdy, too, and our tests of scooping and releasing firm dough didn’t push the band out of alignment.

Judging from experience in professional kitchens, such misalignment is a common problem with cookie scoops, and the worst one we tried (the Fat Daddios Scoop #40, which Rose Levy Beranbaum recommended) got out of line after just three scoops of firm dough. And we hardly needed to test the Baker’s Secret Cookie Dough Scoop: The spring was stiff, and the handle was hard to squeeze, which was uncomfortable enough for a few scoops but would be nearly impossible to bear when scooping a full batch of cookie dough.

The OXO scoop is very high quality and has great reviews on Amazon (currently 4½ stars out of five, with 1,275 reviews). The squeeze action is smooth and easy, the handles are comfortable, and the tool is sturdy and reliable. But when scooping soft, sticky dough, the Norpro model released just a little more cleanly. With the OXO, more dough remained behind, and a few balls of dough didn’t come out entirely on their own. Still, the OXO is almost the same price as the Norpro, and it’s a good option if the Norpro isn’t available. Both brands come in multiple sizes, too, so you can make giant cookies or tiny cookies if you prefer. —MP

Cookie sheet

Nordic Ware Baker’s Half Sheet
This modestly priced sheet bakes delicate and hearty cookies as effectively as sheets twice the price and is less likely to buckle at high heat than cheaper models.

If you cook or bake at all, you should own a solid baking sheet. A good baking sheet can actually improve the quality of your cookies. If you find yourself constantly burning or undercooking cookies—and if you know that your oven temperature is accurate because you use a thermometer—a cheap pan may be to blame. Too many kitchen cupboards house a hodgepodge of clunker cookie sheets that are warped, dented, or so thin they’re apt to char the undersides of cookies before browning the tops. This is unfortunate, because a high-quality baking sheet costs little and (if it has rims) can serve as a great all-purpose pan for many culinary tasks, like roasting vegetables, baking bread, and browning granola.

holiday cookies, baking, kitchen, gear, cookie sheet, nordic ware

The Nordic Ware Baker’s Half Sheet bakes both delicate and hearty cookies as effectively as sheets twice the price.

For our full review, we spoke to Alice Medrich, who wrote Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies, and to Jennifer Aaronson, the head food editor at Martha Stewart Living and the lead food editor on Martha Stewart’s Cookies. We also read reviews on America’s Test Kitchen (subscription required) and Serious Eats. We looked for heavy-gauge aluminum pans that wouldn’t warp, and we avoided dark or nonstick pans, because as Medrich explained, “A lot of the nonstick pans are dark, and I find that dark pans get cookies too dark on the bottom before the top of the cookie is done.” We prefer rimmed sheets for their versatility, but a cookie sheet without rims can make it easier to slide cookies baked on parchment directly onto a rack, and the better air circulation might promote quicker, more even baking, so we tested both kinds. Ultimately we tried out one 13-gauge and five 18-gauge rimmed sheets, plus three rimless cookie sheets that had high ratings either in editorial reviews or on Amazon.

Baking Tip #3
Quart-size round deli containers will help you keep things clean and organized when you’re piping icing.
Before you fill your piping bags, twist each bag just above the tip—this will keep icing from squirting out before you’re ready—and put it tip-down in a quart container lined with a paper towel. Fold the top of the pastry bag down like a cuff around the outside of the container, so it’s holding the bag open for you. Now you have two hands free, and scooping up icing and filling the bag will be much easier. When you switch between colors and piping bags, you can keep the ones not in use in the quart containers, tip down, to prevent the icing from pouring out everywhere. —MP

After spending hours baking several kinds of cookies, pissaladière, and sweet potato fries, we think the Nordic Ware Baker’s Half Sheet is the best choice for baking all kinds of cookies. It’s made of heavy-gauge aluminum, so in our tests it didn’t warp, even at high heat. It baked on a par with or more evenly than the other sheets we tested, and it uniformly browned the bottoms of slice-and-bake cookies while also evenly browning the tops. The soft metal did scratch easily, but that was true of all the pans we tested, and after six months of heavy use, it still performs really well.

If you want something cheaper that’s just for baking, the 18-gauge Bakers and Chefs Half Size Aluminum Sheet Pan, available in-store at Sam’s Club, browned our cookies and our pissaladière crust as effectively as the Nordic Ware sheet. It’s a great budget pick, but it warped after 35 minutes in a 425-degree oven, so it isn’t great for roasting at high temperatures.

If you’re a fan of rimless sheets for baking cookies, we recommend going with the Vollrath Wear-Ever Cookie Sheet. This heavy-gauge sheet has two raised handles on the short ends, which make it easy to rotate in the oven. It baked all of our cookies nicely, if a little slower than the other sheets. It also has a small hole on one end if you want to hang it on a pegboard or on a hook inside a cupboard. We still think the Nordic Ware half sheet is a better overall value, but if you don’t mind storing a single-use pan and don’t want rims, the Vollrath won’t disappoint. —CCC

Parchment paper

By far the best and easiest way to keep your cookies from sticking to the pan is to line it with a simple sheet of parchment paper, especially during a big baking project. Nonstick Silpat baking mats get a lot of hype, and they’re excellent for certain projects, especially sticky ones like toffee. But they’re expensive, and chances are, you wouldn’t want to buy more than one or two, which means that baking multiple sheets of cookies would take a long time, as you’d have to wait for each batch to cool enough so you can lift the cookies off the Silpat and put new cookies on. With parchment, however, you can just slide the whole sheet off, cookies and all, right onto a cooling rack.

Baking on Silpats produces flatter cookies.

Alice Medrich mentioned that Silpats tend to leave the bottoms of cookies unbrowned and undercooked. The company notes on its website that baking on Silpats produces flatter cookies because the dough slides effortlessly across the surface. Depending on how you like your cookies, this result might be a good thing or a bad thing.

Silpats are also difficult to clean, and we’ve found that getting all the grease off after use can be hard. On the other hand, you can just throw parchment away, and often you won’t even have to wash your sheet pans. Yes, you will produce more waste, but if you’re going through big batches of cookies, the time and effort saved are probably worth it.

We haven’t found any significant differences between parchment paper brands, so just get whatever is readily available at your local grocery store. If you worry about environmental impact, Beyond Gourmet makes a good-quality unbleached parchment paper. You’re probably better off buying parchment that comes on a roll rather than in sheets (and the former is more common in grocery stores anyway), because parchment can work well for all kinds of things, like lining cake pans or baking en papillote, that might not require a full-sheet-pan-sized piece of paper. —MP

Offset spatula

Ateco (#1385) Natural Wood Small-Sized Spatula
An offset spatula is a good multitasker, for everything from cookie and cake decorating to simply getting things off a cookie sheet.

For decorating cookies, a small offset spatula can come in handy, and it won’t cost you much. Such a tool is designed for bakers who want to add polish to their frosted cakes or to spread thick batters into the corners of pans. Its shape makes it much more adept than a butter knife at spreading frosting or chocolate evenly over a cookie. But it’s also a good multitasker, and it does a great job of getting things off a cookie sheet.

holiday cookies, baking, kitchen, offset spatula

A mini offset spatula is a great multitasker for icing cookies, lifting cookie edges, and spreading thick batters.

As The Kitchn’s Emma Christensen explains, “Whenever we need to handle hot foods gently, this spatula become[s] an extension of our hands and fingers.” When you’re not baking cookies, you can use it to slather your sandwiches with mustard and mayonnaise. And Real Simple praises the Ateco Small Offset Spatula, writing, “Try it once and you’ll call it indispensable.” —MP

Piping bags

Ateco 18-Inch Soft Disposable Pastry Bag
The Ateco pastry bags feature a high-quality plastic that’s slightly tacky, which helps keep the bag from slipping in your hands.
For professional-quality cookie decorations, piping bags and a set of tips are good to have on hand.

For professional-quality cookie decorations, piping bags and a set of tips are good to have on hand. They’ll help you draw smooth, precise lines with royal frosting or chocolate, and using them is the only way to achieve the level of detail (with some practice) that bakers like Gail Dosik of One Tough Cookie do on their sugar cookies.

Sure, you can snip the corner off a Ziploc bag, or, if you have the patience and the know-how, fold a bag out of a piece of parchment (this is what Alice Medrich does), but Ziploc bags aren’t strong enough to withstand a lot of pressure, and neither of these DIY bags can handle pastry tips.

You might also buy reusable pastry bags made out of plastic or plastic-coated canvas, but experts like Gail Dosik and Matt Lewis, who put their decorating bags to a lot of use with a lot of different materials, prefer the disposable plastic kind because they make for quicker cleanup. For holiday cookie decorating, we also think disposable is the way to go, because you’ll probably want to use more than one color of frosting. Rather than wash a reusable bag five times (or buy five reusable bags), why not just have—for about the same price as one reusable bag—a whole stack of disposable bags ready to fill and use?

holiday cookies, baking, kitchen, piping bags

Experts prefer disposable plastic piping bags like these Ateco pastry bags.

You won’t find all that many types of disposable pastry bag out there, but they do vary in quality, and for the home baker we think the Ateco 18-Inch Soft Disposable Pastry Bag 10-Pack is the best option. Of the brands we looked at, only Ateco and Wilton sell bags in small quantities of 10 or 12, as well as in boxes of 50 or 100. Other brands, clearly aimed at professional kitchens, come only in boxes of 100—enough to last most home cooks a lifetime. The only in-between option we found, a 50-count box of Cake Boss Decorating Tools Disposable Plastic Icing Bags, is quite inexpensive for that quantity but of mediocre quality.

Baking Tip #4
Tweezers aren’t just for Michelin-starred chefs.
They’re a really useful decorating tool for easily and precisely placing nonpareils, sprinkles, and other decorative tidbits. As long as you get a pair with a tip that’s wide enough and flat enough to grip a tiny ball of sugar, it doesn’t really matter what type you use, although designs with a bent tip may make getting just the right angle easier. —MP

We preferred the Ateco bags over Wilton’s Disposable 16-Inch Decorating Bags because the plastic felt higher quality. We agreed with Dosik, who told us the Ateco bags are her favorite because they’re “very pliable” as opposed to the more crinkly Wilton or Cake Boss bags. Also notable: The outside of the Ateco bags is slightly tacky—not sticky, but grippy, similar to Press ’n Seal plastic wrap. This feature offers an advantage, especially when you’re working with greasy buttercream, because it helps keep the bag from slipping in your hands, which can turn decorating into a frustrating and messy struggle. The Wilton bags and the Cake Boss bags, in contrast, are as slick and shiny on the outside as on the inside.

All of the bags we tested were strong enough to hold up under forceful stretching, and none showed signs of bursting at the seams. Pastry bags can vary in length, but one between 12 inches and 18 inches should do everything you want. A 12-inch bag will probably hold enough frosting to tackle a cookie decorating project, but if you plan to do other things, such as decorating a cake or filling doughnuts, you may want to go for a larger size. Just keep in mind that you need enough empty space in the top to twist the bag closed. Twisting forces the frosting down into the tip and ensures that you can squeeze it out evenly with only gentle pressure.

DayMark Piping Pal Disposable Pastry Bag with Dispenser
The DayMark bags conveniently come on a roll in a dispenser box, and they’re especially sturdy, with a tacky outer surface.

Should you decide to take the plunge, 100-packs of pastry bags are definitely a better deal. Our favorite, the DayMark Piping Pal Disposable Pastry Bag with Dispenser, currently costs about $15 for the 18-inch or 12-inch size, only three times as much as the 10-pack of 18-inch Ateco bags. Although Ateco also sells bags in quantities of 100, finding them for as good of a price is difficult, and they don’t come on a roll in a dispenser box like the DayMark bags do. Pastry bags can be a pain to store, and if you don’t have them on a nice roll, you’ll have to find a bag or box to stuff them into, otherwise they’re liable to end up crumpled in a drawer. The DayMark bags are especially sturdy, too, and their outer surface is even tackier than that of the Ateco bags.

We also considered Thermohauser Disposable Plastic Pastry Bags, which Cook’s Illustrated listed as a favorite. They come in a box of 100, but they’re not as widely available as the DayMark bags, and when we looked on Amazon, they cost an absurd $26 plus shipping. They felt nearly identical to the less expensive, readily available DayMark brand.

Piping bags are not only useful for decorating cakes and cookies with frosting.

One hundred bags is a lot, and anyone not working in a professional kitchen would take a long time to get through them, but you may find more uses for them than you think. Piping bags are not only useful for decorating cakes and cookies with frosting. You can use one to pipe out the choux dough for eclairs or cream puffs, and then use another to fill the pastry with cream (they also work for filling doughnuts with cream). Use them to pipe a prettier filling into deviled eggs, or to make an elegant mashed potato topping for shepherd’s pie. Pipe soft cheese onto crackers for hors d’oeuvres. We can’t recommend the enormous box for everyone, but if you’re creative and fond of spending time in the kitchen, you might just find a lot of uses for your lifetime supply of pastry bags. —MP

Piping tips

Ateco 14-Piece Cake Decorating Set
This set features durable tips with no visible seams. It has all the variety you need for most basic (and some advanced) decorating tasks.
The best sets come with a plastic coupler that, once inserted into the bag, allows you to screw on piping tips from the outside.

You can simply cut the tip off a pastry bag (if it’s disposable) to pipe a line of whatever width you desire, but if you want to pipe anything besides a straight line—or even if you just want to pipe a rounder, cleaner line—you should get a basic set of piping tips. These pieces allow you to make stars, rosettes, leaves, and basket weaves (though more successfully with a thick frosting like buttercream than with thin, runny royal icing). You can insert tips directly into a piping bag with the tip cut off, but the best sets come with a plastic coupler that, once inserted into the bag, allows you to screw on piping tips from the outside so that you can swap them easily without needing to dump out the icing.

holiday cookies, baking, kitchen, piping tips

A plastic coupler allows you to change piping tips quickly.

You won’t encounter many brands of piping tips, or many sets to choose from. After speaking to our experts and trying three sets, we found a clear winner: the Ateco 14-Piece Cake Decorating Set. It actually comes with only 12 tips, because the pieces include a plastic coupler and a 12-inch reusable plastic piping bag, but this set offers all the variety you need for most basic (and some advanced) decorating tasks.

The main reason the Ateco tips came out on top is that they were the only ones without a visible seam inside. Both Rose Levy Beranbaum and Gail Dosik emphasized the importance of a seamless tip because, as Dosik explained, “when there’s a seam, it shows.” A seam can disrupt the smooth shape of the frosting emerging from the tube, and the result can only get worse if the seam catches any debris from the frosting. A seam is also where a metal tip is liable to start rusting.

Baking Tip #5
Toothpicks are another super-useful decorating tool.
When you’re filling in a large area with royal icing, you should first outline the area (#2 round piping tips are great for this task) and then flood the center with icing. A toothpick will help pull the icing out all the way to the border and fill in any gaps without the risk of your overdoing it on the icing to the point that it overflows its bounds. You can also draw a toothpick through dots or stripes of different colors of wet icing to create a marbled look. —MP

The Ateco tips also felt sturdy and difficult to bend, and we liked that the set came in a hard plastic box for storage, because without somewhere safe to keep them, piping tips are likely to roll away or get lost very quickly. Ateco’s simple box wasn’t as great as the one that came with the Wilton Deluxe Decorating Tip Set, which holds each tip upright on its own cone for easy organization and identification. But because the Wilton tips have an inner seam (albeit a slight one), we can recommend that set over the Ateco version only if organization is your main concern.

While Ateco and Wilton are the two biggest names in cake decorating, we also wanted to see how Norpro’s tips would hold up. Unfortunately, the tips in the Norpro 8 Piece Cake Decorating Set had not only a visible seam but also visible indentations inside from the large sizing numbers stamped into each tip. And the smallest set, which is all a beginner should need, doesn’t come with any sort of storage box.

If you’re planning to decorate cookies with royal icing, you should use only a simple round tip, because royal icing is too liquid to keep any other shape. For drawing fine lines, you should choose a #1 or #2 round tip (the Ateco set comes with a #2), and if you want to decorate using a lot of colors without changing and cleaning the tip every time, stocking up on extras might be worthwhile. The #2 round tip (like all of them) is available individually, and should cost about a dollar. —MP

Food coloring

AmeriColor Student Soft Gel Paste Food Color
More concentrated than liquid coloring, this gel coloring lasts longer and produces truer, more vibrant hues.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $21.

Food coloring can make cookie decorating more fun (especially for kids) and more elaborate, but you can find much better options than the watery liquid McCormick sets available in most grocery stores. The best, AmeriColor Student Soft Gel Paste Food Color, not only offers way more color options than the basic red, yellow, green, and blue but also comes in a much more concentrated formula than liquid coloring. As a result, it lasts longer and produces more vibrant hues. In our tests its colors were the truest of all we tried, and it comes in a squeeze bottle that makes for minimal mess.

Among professional bakers, concentrated food colorings are the standard.

Among professional bakers, concentrated food colorings are the standard. All of the experts we spoke to said they avoid liquid food coloring like McCormick because achieving rich, non-pastel colors takes a lot of it; baking is all about precision, and adding that much extra liquid can throw off a recipe. Concentrated food colorings are available in three forms: liquid gels (sold in a squeeze bottle), concentrated gels (also sometimes called gel paste, or icing color, and sold in little jars), and powders. Concentrated gels are, needless to say, more concentrated than liquid gels, but they’re more difficult to work with because you have to use the tip of a toothpick to grab a blob of coloring and mix it into whatever you’re coloring. Powdered colorings are the least common, and they’re necessary only for making things like French macarons, which you can throw off with the addition of even a few drops of moisture.

AmeriColor, though sold on Amazon as a “soft gel paste,” is truly a liquid gel, and it comes in squeeze bottles. Both Gail Dosik of One Tough Cookie and Matt Lewis of Baked, who each use food coloring every day for their cookies and cakes, told us that it’s their brand of choice. Dosik said she finds the colors to be “true and beautiful” and likes that they “mix well and store well.” Lewis noted that AmeriColor is the only brand that never separates from his buttercream.

holiday cookies, baking, kitchen, icing, AmeriColor

AmeriColor gels come in squeeze bottles and produce vibrant, true colors.

After testing the AmeriColor gels against the similar Wilton Gel Food Colors set as well as the Wilton Icing Colors concentrated gels, we agreed. We tried coloring equal amounts, about 45 grams, of royal icing (a simple mixture of egg white and confectioners’ sugar) with a few of the same colors from each set (purple, orange, and red), comparing the effects of adding just one drop of each and also counting how many drops we needed to make each bowl of icing a deep, vibrant color.

The concentrated gel was more difficult and messy to use. Using a toothpick to add it to the icing took more trial and error to get the color right, and required cleaning off the toothpick before dipping it back into the coloring. The squeeze bottles, on the other hand, made adding one drop of liquid gel at a time easy. Plus, as it turned out, the Wilton gel paste wasn’t even that much more concentrated than either liquid gel: It took about seven toothpick dabs of the Wilton paste to create a purple as rich as the one we achieved with two drops of AmeriColor, and four toothpick dabs of orange to equal one drop of AmeriColor orange. Ultimately, it just wasn’t worth the effort or mess.

AmeriColor also proved to be the winner in our red test. Red is one of the most difficult colorings to get right, because there’s no such thing as “light red.” A little red added to white icing or light batter makes pink, and getting the concentration high enough to make true red can be hard. Even the simple “primary” set of Wilton liquid gel colors comes with a color labeled as pink, not red. When we tested the only Wilton red we had, from the concentrated gel set, in increasing doses, it made the color go from hot pink to darker hot pink. AmeriColor, on the other hand, started to look like real red after just a couple of drops.

If you have concerns about using artificial colorings due to allergies or other reasons, one good set of all-natural food colorings, India Tree Natural Decorating Colors, is widely available. The set includes only three colors—red, blue, and yellow, produced from beet, red cabbage, and turmeric, respectively—but they’re surprisingly true and vibrant. The set has issues: It’s expensive, for one thing, and in the package we received from Amazon, the yellow bottle had leaked a little. The colors tend to settle to the bottom and need shaking before use. And they don’t contain preservatives, so as many Amazon reviewers point out, they tend to become less effective over time. Because they’re concentrated but not overly so, if you’re coloring a big batch of something, you should plan on pastels. In our tests, though, achieving rich colors in 45 grams of royal icing took only a few drops, and the colors were accurate. The red has a slight purplish tinge, like beets, but it’s definitely red. And India Tree seems to have changed its formula (or so says a label on the box) to make the blue really blue, rather than the greenish blue some Amazon reviewers complain of. You may not get wild, electric colors out of this set, but if you’re devoted to keeping things natural, this is a great way to go. —MP

Cooling racks

CIA Masters Collection Cooling Rack
Oven-safe and designed to fit well in a half-sheet baking pan, it’s sturdier than other cooling racks we’ve looked at. Its tight grid pattern won’t let cookies bend or fall through.

A cooling rack will help your cookies cool quickly and efficiently, so you can start decorating sooner. It’s also great if you’re drizzling your cookies with glaze or dipping them in chocolate, because the excess can drip off without pooling around the base of the cookie. Cheap, flimsy racks are common, but if you don’t have a rack already, you’ll find that a sturdy, oven-safe one has many uses beyond cooling baked goods, including cooking bacon in the oven or even making whole roasts.

holiday cookies, baking, kitchen, cooling rack, CIA Masters Collection

The CIA Masters Collection Cooling Rack fits inside a half-sheet baking pan and has a third set of feet to brace the center of the rack.

After testing several cooking racks, we concluded that the 12-by-17-inch CIA Masters Collection Cooling Rack has just about everything we look for. It’s one of the few we’ve found that’s oven-safe and designed to fit well in a half-sheet baking pan. It’s sturdier than other racks we’ve looked at, and its tight grid pattern (as opposed to parallel wires) won’t let cookies bend or fall through. We also like that it has a third set of feet that run down the middle, bracing the center of the rack. Should you ever want to use the rack for something heavier, like a roast, or even some cakes, the third set of feet will prevent the rack from buckling in the middle.

Cook’s Illustrated names the CIA rack as the most highly recommended model, and those who have purchased it on Amazon currently give it an overall rating of 4.4 stars (out of five) across 497 reviews. One thing to be wary of is that it’s made of chrome-plated steel, and some reviewers have complained of rusting. Rust is a common problem with cooling racks, which easily trap water in their corners—Matt Lewis told us he’s never had a rack that didn’t rust—and you can best avoid it by hand-washing and drying the rack every time.

But if you’re really concerned about rust, you may want to opt for a stainless-steel rack like the Sur La Table Stainless Steel Baking and Cooling Rack. It doesn’t have a ton of reviews on Amazon or on Sur La Table’s website, but not one of them has any complaints, and many owners specifically praise its rust resistance. Lewis told us that another Sur La Table rack, the Classic Nonstick Cooling Grid, lasted him 10 years before it started to rust, but we can’t recommend that one unless you don’t ever plan on using it in the oven. —MP

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(Photos by Michael Sullivan.)

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Originally published: December 7, 2015

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