The Secret Ingredients Grandma Puts in Her Sugar Cookies

Amp up your baking game and make cookies that rival Grandma's! These added ingredients go way beyond an extra dash of vanilla: They'll have everyone asking for your secret recipe.

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Freshly baked sugar cookies on cooling rack. Closeup with extremely shallow dof. ; Shutterstock ID 153370979; Job (TFH, TOH, RD, BNB, CWM, CM): Taste of Home
Shutterstock/Marie C Fields

There’s nothing better than a batch of sugar cookies. They always invoke childhood memories of the holidays or remind me of spending time in the kitchen with Grandma. She always had a few special ingredients up her sleeve that really made those cookies something special! Start with our classic sugar cookie recipe and add from there.

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Orange Zest

For a boost of flavor (and beautifully colorful addition), add a couple teaspoons of orange zest to your sugar cookies. They won’t taste overwhelmingly orange-like but the zest adds some subtle pops of flavor as you eat the cookies. Just enough for people to wonder what your secret is!

Orange zest transforms this holiday favorite, too.

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A dash of cinnamon adds a nice warming quality to sugar cookies, especially those made around the holidays. Go one step further and add some finely chopped pecans for a real flavorful punch.

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Adding a few teaspoons of dried lavender flowers is an elegant way to celebrate the simplicity of a sugar cookie. These cookies and other lavender desserts are perfect for the summer when all the flowers are in bloom!

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Lemon Extract

A teaspoon of lemon extract adds the perfect amount of zesty lemon flavor to your sugar cookie. Extract is much more powerful than lemon zest, so you’ll only need half as much extract as zest for the same citrus flavor.

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Star anise has a mildly licorice-like flavor, but don’t worry—adding a pinch to your sugar cookies won’t make it taste like black licorice! It will be subtle: a hint of heat along with some subtly sweet after tones.

What is star anise, anyway? Find out here.

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Homemade yogurt or sour cream in a rustic bowl; Shutterstock ID 369768824

Sour Cream

Skip the cream of tartar and use tangy sour cream instead, like they do in this vintage sugar cookie recipe. If you’ve never used sour cream in baking before, you’ll be blown away at the soft, smooth texture of these cookies!

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Almond Extract

Add some depth and a nutty flavor to your sugar cookies by including a teaspoon of almond extract in the batter. After you frost the cookies, you can garnish them with sliced almonds to really punch that flavor home!

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Give your sugar cookies a bit of a savory spin by adding fresh herbs. A teaspoon of finely chopped rosemary will add strong herbal aromas and a slightly piney flavor—perfect for a mid afternoon snack!

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Pumpkin Pie Spice

These pumpkin-latte inspired sugar cookies are perfect for the fall (but really, I could eat them all year round!). A teaspoon of your favorite pumpkin pie spice will do the trick. Don’t think you have to pick up a store-bought spice—make your own at home!

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Butterscotch Flavor

Make your sugar cookies reminiscent of everyone’s favorite snickerdoodles without adding too much extra work. A drop or two of butterscotch flavor should do the trick! If you want to mimic this chai snickerdoodles recipe, add a pinch each of cinnamon, cardamom, and ginger, too.

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Describing cardamom’s flavor is a bit tricky—it’s slightly spicy, slightly herbal, and a little bit sweet. It’s strong and aromatic and a little bit goes a long way—so you’ll need less than a teaspoon to make this fun sugar cookie recipe.

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During the winter holidays, crush up some candy canes and add them to your sugar cookie batter. If you’re still craving that minty-fresh flavor later in the year, you can substitute peppermint extract instead. But, that means you won’t get that crunchy texture.

Lindsay D. Mattison
Lindsay is a professional chef, recipe developer, writer and developmental editor. After years of working in restaurant kitchens, she turned to writing to share her skills and experience with home cooks and food enthusiasts. She's passionate about using local, organic ingredients and teaching others how to incorporate seasonal food into their diet. Lindsay still cooks professionally for pop-up events, writes for several publications and is the co-author of two books about Ayurveda.