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Taste Test: Holiday Sugar Cookie Baking Mixes

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[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

The Winners!

#1: Trader Joe's
#2: Betty Crocker
#3: Krusteaz

Rolled out and cut into Christmas trees, snowflakes, and stars, sugar cookies can be a festive and delicious holiday treat. (Not to mention Santa's favorite midnight snack.) But with so much shopping to do, so many parties to attend, and a million gifts to wrap, there are times when you understandably don't want to make your cookies from scratch.

There are a number of quick and simple sugar cookie baking mixes on the market. But which one is best? Are any even worth using? We conducted a blind taste test to find out which mix yielded cookies worthy of Jolly Old Saint Nick.

The Contenders

We included five sugar cookie mixes that are available in most supermarkets nationwide. We didn't include any gourmet or specialty mixes, such as those from Crate & Barrel or Williams-Sonoma.

1. Krusteaz (website)
2. Pillsbury (website)
3. Trader Joe's
4. Canterbury Naturals (website)
5. Betty Crocker (website)

The Criteria

A good sugar cookie should taste first and foremost of butter and sugar, with an additional hint of vanilla. Texture-wise, it should have crisp edges and a slightly chewy, moist interior. Sugar cookies shouldn't be completely crunchy and crumbly, like shortbread, but they also shouldn't be totally soft. They shouldn't have any off flavors, like too much vanilla or an artificial "cake mix" taste.

The Results

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A sugar cookie is often a blank canvas, waiting to be slicked with frosting, dusted with sprinkles, or dunked in a mug of hot chocolate. On its own, a naked sugar cookie (even the world's best) probably isn't going to bowl you over with flavor. Our tasters were more concerned with artificial flavors, weird aftertastes, and textural issues than with finding a cookie that would totally knock their socks off. Cookies were marked down for tasting like fake vanilla, for tasting like crackers, and for being tough or too hard even in the middle. While some tasters preferred softer cookies, most liked ones that had more of a toothsome crunch at the edges. Several noted that these crunchier cookies reminded them of ones they'd had in childhood.

With the exception of the Trader Joe's mix, all of the mixes offered primary instructions for making drop cookies and alternate instructions for making cut out cookies. These instructions called for adding additional flour—anywhere from one to four tablespoons. While necessary for making a firm, easy-to-roll dough, this added flour was also no doubt the reason some of the cookies were marked down for tasting bland or for being dry, tough, or "leathery."*

None of the five mixes we tested scored exceptionally well, but none were truly awful either. Four of the mixes scored very close together (with one lagging a full point behind). Depending on whether you prefer soft cookies, crunchy cookies, an assertive butter taste, or a milder flavor, you would do well with any of the top four.

* Two of the mixes, Trader Joe's and Canterbury Naturals, included packets of icing. Since the other mixes did not have icing, we left it off and evaluated all the cookies plain.

The Winner: Trader Joe's (5.71/10)

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Tasters liked the light texture, and toasty butter and vanilla flavor of the Trader Joe's cookies. Several noted that the cookies tasted like biscuits, animal crackers, or graham crackers. We appreciated that these weren't overly sweet.

2. Betty Crocker (5.57/10)

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"These have the best balance of crisp to chewy," noted one taster. Betty Crocker's cookies had a familiar, nostalgic taste that was sweet with lots of butter flavor and hints of almond. This is the best choice for those who prefer sugar cookies with a softer, chewier texture.

3. Krusteaz (5.42/10)

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Tasters found these cookies crisp and crumbly, with a decent (if a little bland) buttery flavor. While one taster found these cookies "delicious," others thought they were just a bit too crunchy and hard when baked according to package directions.

4. Canterbury Naturals (5.28/10)

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These cookies tasted a little bit like cornbread—in a good way. We liked their light vanilla flavor, and the fact that they seemed to have more butter than sugar. More than one taster noted that these cookies were very crumbly and a little tough.

5. Pillsbury (4.28/10)

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Almost every taster in the group criticized these cookies for a faux-vanilla flavor. While some tasters liked the soft, chewy texture of these cookies, the general consensus was that the flavor was too artificial.

Make Them From Scratch!

Sugar Cookies with Royal Icing »

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