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Classic Gingerbread Cut-Out Cookies (and a lesson in molasses)

Classic Gingerbread Cutouts

Gingerbread is a holiday tradition around here. Every year I pull out my grandma Bettie’s recipe and whip up a big batch to ship to family. And every year I try to figure out a different way to decorate them, seeing as my past attempts at flooded iced cookies were, um, less than perfect.

Last year I got so frustrated that I went all jackson pollock on the suckers, furiously splattering them with three different kinds of chocolate. So this year I kept it simple, with two colors of royal icing and some edible glitter.

Holiday Decorated Gingerbread Cookies

Well, mostly simple. I didn’t realize quite how intricate my ornate design plan was until I was a few cookies in to it. The results were very pretty, I’ll admit, but my hands sure paid for it. I tell you, professional cookie decorators must have incredibly buff right hands.

Comparing Types of Molasses for Gingerbread

Now let’s pause for a moment and talk about what happens before the cookies even go into the oven. Namely, the molasses. I always knew there were different kinds of molasses, but I never really paid much attention to it. Unsulphured is a word that comes up often, but have you ever seen a sulphured molasses in the store? I haven’t.

(And FYI – the plural of molasses is, in fact, molasses. I wish it was something with a bit more flourish, like molassi for example, but whatever).

After I made that delicious Sweet Pototo Cake with Molasses Buttercream, I got to thinking. Especially after someone commented that their buttercream had an odd aftertaste. I thought, maybe it had to do with the type of molasses used? And what is the difference anyway?

Time for some good old fashioned experimentation.

Molasses, you see, is a sweet syrup that comes from the sugar cane, and is a byproduct of the sugar making process. The juice extracted from the sugar cane is boiled until some of the sugars crystallize out, and the juice will often be boiled up to 3 times to extract as much sugar as possible. What’s left is a thick, sweet syrup called, you guessed it, molasses.

The main types of molasses are:

Light: The syrup left after the first boil. It’s typically the lightest in color, with a mild flavor. Most commercial molasses available in U.S. grocery stores is light molasses. And if it’s not labeled otherwise, you can assume this is what it is.

Dark: After a second boil, the molasses gets darker, more robust, and there are less sugars remaining the syrup. Molasses labeled Dark or Robust will have a stronger flavor and darker color.

Blackstrap: The final byproduct left after the third boil. Blackstrap molasses is very concentrated, making it pungent, almost spicy with notes of licorice. It is also the darkest and most viscous of all varieties of molasses. Apparently it is very good for you, high in iron, so it is often sold at health food stores.

Sulphured: Made from young sugarcane, it has a much lighter and milder flavor than even your typical light molasses. The sulpher it is referring to is sulpher dioxide, a preservative. In my searching I was unable to find a true sulphured molasses; I would have loved to test out the differences in flavor!

Unsulphered: Most commercial molasses available in the U.S. is unsulphered, and it is usually labeled as such. Unsulphered molasses is made from more mature sugar cane plants, and thus the preservative is not needed. You can find unsulphured molasses in all three grades (light, dark, and black).

Sorghum: Trick question! Sorghum isn’t molasses at all, but rather a similar product made from the sorghum plant. It’s much milder in flavor, and probably a bit tough to track down unless you live in the South. I already had way more cookies than I could even think of decorating, but maybe next year I’ll test out a batch using sorghum.

Classic Gingerbread Cut Outs

But what does this all mean in terms of how they taste? Well, I put it to the test, baking up a batch of my grandma’s classic gingerbread using both light and blackstrap varieties. I purchased two bottles of molasses, a classic, light molasses (Brer Rabbit brand, but Grandma’s is the most commonly available), and a bottle of Plantation brand Blackstrap molasses.

The color is probably the most distinguishable difference; the blackstrap cookies looking almost like a chocolate gingerbread. They make for a beautiful dark canvas for icing decorations.

In terms of flavor, it’s really hard to tell, even considering the sheer amount of molasses that goes into these (you’ll need two bottles if you plan to make a full batch!) Blindfolded, I don’t think Taylor or I could tell the difference. Maybe if you knew you were eating a blackstrap cookie you could say it was slightly less sweet or slightly more pungeant, but honestly? It’s not very discernible. My advice would be to follow your recipe, but if it comes down to it, substituting one for another is not the end of the world.

Another fun fact? Grandma Bettie’s gingerbread recipe (before frosting) is totally vegan. Who’da thunk?

Bettie's Classic Gingerbread Cut Outs

Yield: about 40 large cookies

Ingredients:

1/2 cup shortening
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
2 1/4 cups molasses
7-10 cups all-purpose flour*
1 1/2 teaspoons allspice
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
3/4 + 1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon baking soda

*Use more flour for a stiffer cookie (say, for gingerbread houses), and less flour for softer cookies. The dough is very forgiving. I've found that about 8/8.5 cups is just about perfect for me.

Directions:

Cream shortening and brown sugar. Add molasses and mix well.

Mix spices with 1 cup of the flour and add. Add the rest of flour about 1/2 cup at a time, alternating adding water and flour. Combine baking soda and final 1/4 cup water and add last.

Cover and chill dough for at least an hour before rolling out. (At this point you can also freeze the dough for up to a month. Thaw completely before rolling out.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

On a well-floured surface, roll out dough to desired thickness (I found about 1/4 inch thick makes nice soft yet sturdy cookies) and cut out shapes. Arrange cookies on a parchment or silicone lined baking sheet.

Bake cookies for approximately 10-14 minutes or more (longer cooking times will yield stiffer cookies). Allow to cool a few minutes on cookie sheets, then transfer to cooling racks and cool completely before frosting.

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45 CommentsLeave a Comment →

  1. 1
    Posted On December 7, 2012 at 9:57 am

    I just had a debate about molasses. Thanks for this post!

    Reply

  2. 2
    Posted On December 7, 2012 at 10:04 am

    A good gingerbread cookie is a perfect winter treat (especially when it is as pretty as yours are) and the lesson in molasses is very useful and timely considering my cookie baking plans :)

    Reply

    • Posted On December 7, 2012 at 8:32 pm

      Kathryn, do you have a good London molasses supplier? I have been reduced to black treacle.

  3. 3
    Posted On December 7, 2012 at 10:14 am

    Fun experiment and I’m dying over the first image. Please tell me you purposely created snow angels in the flour? lol Hilarious.

    Reply

  4. 4
    Posted On December 7, 2012 at 10:34 am

    I love the effect you gave with the gingerbread men making snow angels in the powdered sugar: soooooo cute!

    Reply

  5. 5
    Anne
    Posted On December 7, 2012 at 10:50 am

    Hahahahaha

    Gingerbread men snow angels

    Hahahahaha

    Reply

  6. 6
    Posted On December 7, 2012 at 10:54 am

    interesting about the molasses- I rarely use them and so only have the dark ones at home. And SERIOUSLY- those decorations are pretty incredible (knowing how hard they are to decorate, I’m impressed)

    And vegan? you got me there for the recipe.

    Reply

  7. 7
    Posted On December 7, 2012 at 11:05 am

    Love the molasses info! I write about it too because making something with blackstrap is going to give wildly different results than mild unsulphered. I take nothing for granted always specify which to use because there is so much confusion out there about it – and yes, it’s definitely a confusing ingredient! Great looking gingerbread, too!

    Reply

  8. 8
    Posted On December 7, 2012 at 11:05 am

    I always have used Grandma’s Unsulphured and swear by it in my baking. I like it has no additives and it’s the one my dad would pour over his pancakes! Great post, XOXO

    Reply

  9. 9
    Posted On December 7, 2012 at 11:28 am

    beautifully simple!

    Reply

  10. 10
    Posted On December 7, 2012 at 11:46 am

    A gorgeous version of this cookie!

    Reply

  11. 11
    Posted On December 7, 2012 at 11:53 am

    I did something similar last year with Chewy Ginger Molasses cookies! In case you are interested, here is my post about it!
    http://bexbakesandcakes.wordpress.com/2011/12/11/chewy-ginger-molasses-cookies/

    Reply

  12. 12
    Posted On December 7, 2012 at 1:41 pm

    I love your molasses comments!

    I actually forbid blackstrap molasses in baking. It gives things a ‘ham-y’ taste. I know it’s healthier, though, so I feel guilty sometimes!

    Reply

  13. 13
    Posted On December 7, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    This looks so awesome!

    Reply

  14. 14
    Posted On December 7, 2012 at 1:59 pm

    Wow they look sooo pretty! I never have the patience to reallu beautify my cookies :(

    Reply

  15. 15
    Posted On December 7, 2012 at 2:48 pm

    Blackstrap Molasses – now that’s old school down south home cookin – love it!

    Reply

  16. 16
    Posted On December 7, 2012 at 5:01 pm

    I just opened a jar of date molasses tonight – am trying them in my gingerbread. If they work I will report back!

    Reply

  17. 17
    Posted On December 7, 2012 at 6:30 pm

    Interesting post. I had no idea. I absolutely love the “angel” pose. Too cute!

    Reply

  18. 18
    Posted On December 7, 2012 at 8:18 pm

    I love your gingerbread men snow angels, so cute!

    Reply

  19. 19
    Posted On December 7, 2012 at 9:08 pm

    i love how I just found your blog as I was thinking about how it would be nice to have gingerbread cookies tomorrow morning !

    Thanks for sharing

    Reply

  20. 20
    Posted On December 7, 2012 at 9:23 pm

    Perfectly cut out cookies! They almost look “live” :).

    Reply

  21. 21
    Posted On December 7, 2012 at 9:24 pm

    I was fascinated reading about molasses. Wow that makes me sound pretty exciting, huh? :)

    Reply

  22. 22
    Posted On December 8, 2012 at 3:41 am

    That top photo made me laugh, such a great shot and a really cute idea. The molasses info is interesting, how funny that you couldn’t tell the difference.

    Reply

  23. 23
    Posted On December 8, 2012 at 11:48 am

    I like gingerbread cookies and all, but I’m already gingerbread(ed?) out. Every single box of cookies I got for the cookie swap were gingerbread cookies!!! :( Anyway, one of the cookies tasted…how should I say this…off? It almost had a metallic flavor or something. Maybe it was all about the molasses? *BEAUTIFUL* pipe work on your cookies, BTW! Absolutely gorgeous!

    Reply

  24. 24
    Posted On December 9, 2012 at 10:49 am

    I am enamoured with those gingerbread men name cookies!! Your piping skills are lovely. They would make such great placecards at a dinner party or even in the boardroom at a business meeting!

    Reply

  25. 25
    Posted On December 9, 2012 at 10:44 pm

    i love it when someone (other than martha stewart) takes the time to do this – tell us the difference between products! i’m not very familiar with molasses – i don’t think it’s widly used here in australia (though someone may prove me wrong). we tend to use treacle for when the really rich dark stuff is required (as in a rich gingerbread) but mostly we use golden syrup, which is divine in golden syrup dumplings!
    yum, now i’m hungry!

    Reply

    • Posted On December 9, 2012 at 11:11 pm

      You know I believe treacle and molasses are essentially the same thing. Golden syrup might be more akin to our corn syrup (although made from sugar cane vs corn). I’ve been meaning to pick up some golden syrup (recently saw it in a store here!), I’d love to try baking with it sometime!

  26. 26
    Posted On December 10, 2012 at 9:47 am

    i love this – so southern, and it makes me happy :) we always have molasses and sorghum in the house. it’s a requirement, along with butter and bacon grease.

    Reply

  27. 27
    Posted On December 10, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    I love the cookies, Lindsay…so cute!!!

    Reply

  28. 28
    Posted On December 10, 2012 at 5:38 pm

    These cookies are beautiful! I also never thought about the difference the type of molasses would make in baked goods. Thanks for experimenting and sharing :)

    Reply

  29. 29
    Posted On December 10, 2012 at 10:20 pm

    I never knew there was so many differences and nuances between molassessessess. :) Great tutorial, Lindsay. Happy Holidays.

    Reply

  30. 30
    Posted On December 11, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    They look gorgeous! Love your art on gingerbread.

    Reply

  31. 31
    Ashley - Embracing Beauty
    Posted On December 16, 2012 at 9:35 pm

    These look absolutely amazing!!! It makes me wish that I participated in the Great Cookie Exchange again this year because I might have had a chance to taste them. Thanks for the tutorial, I appreciate it!

    Reply

  32. 32
    Grace
    Posted On December 17, 2012 at 11:03 am

    Thanks so much for posting this recipe! Is there a link for the icing recipe?

    Reply

  33. 33
    Auntie Sally
    Posted On December 19, 2012 at 12:20 pm

    Bettie always made a big deal out of using the Brer Rabbit with the orange label.

    Reply

    • Posted On December 19, 2012 at 12:37 pm

      That’s what I thought (and why I went to 4 different stores to find it!) although the recipe you gave me does say “dark molasses,” but the orange label says mild flavor.

  34. 34
    Posted On November 29, 2013 at 12:17 pm

    Is there a substitute to the molasses?

    Also how many does this make?

    Reply

    • Posted On November 29, 2013 at 12:49 pm

      Molasses is what makes gingerbread gingerbread, so there really is no substitution. Outside the US you might look for something called treacle which I believe is a similar product.

      As far as quantity, it depends on what size cookie cutter you use, but it makes plenty! I think I got about 40 large-ish cookies out of one batch, which is quite a lot. Halve it if you don’t want to be decorating for days. :)

  35. 35
    Sarah Durnford
    Posted On December 7, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    The grossest cookies I have EVER made in my life! It’s a shame that I wasted the amount of flour that I did on these. They taste like eating flour and water mixed and that is it. I read and re-read the recipe, and followed it exactly..has anyone else made these? All the comments seem to be about the cute pictures and the molasses blog…

    Reply

    • Erin
      Posted On December 15, 2014 at 10:44 pm

      I just used this recipe as well.  (Well, the dough is cooling right now). I think it will turn out alright, but I had to tweak the ingredient ratios- most notably the flour.  I think if only 3 cups of flour were used, shortening was increased, then it’d be more of what you’d expect :).  (I subbed shortening for butter, fwiw).

      I was already 6 cups deep into the recipe, so when I realized that it wasn’t moist enough, I adjusted the ratio of the rest of the ingredients accordingly, and used milk (about a half a cup for 6 c. flour) instead of water.   I also increased the amount of spices used (I like ‘em with a kick!) 

      That said- with the ratio adjustments, the dough tastes AWESOME, and is the proper consistency :)  And most importantly- it passed the taste test of a VERY picky 4 year old (prior to egg being added, of course.)

      So, we’ll see how it ends up! I’d imagine that if there ARE any problems after this point, it’s probably because I over-mixed in my determination ;).  

      Also, like everyone else on here- SUPER appreciate the explanation of molasses! 

    • Erin
      Posted On December 15, 2014 at 10:47 pm

      Also, I left the molasses exactly as written- but increased brown sugar.  Mostly because I was out of molasses. But the dough I ended up with  seemed to have the proper pungency of molasses- you wouldn’t want any more, or less. 

  36. 36
    Posted On January 5, 2014 at 12:22 pm

    This is great info!  Can I share it on my blog?  Crediting you of course!

    Reply

  37. 37
    Bettie Sue Walters
    Posted On December 12, 2014 at 9:44 am

    Hi Lindsay, FYI, my memory of your grandmother Bettie’s kitchen is that she used Brer Rabbit molasses. Maybe Aunt Sal can confirm this. It would be the brand sold at California Safeways in the 1950’s. Watch that obsessive decorating. We don’t want you to get carpal tunnel syndrome. Bettie would have rounded up some kids or neighbors and had them help with the decorating (and guess what, you can decorate the kids with the left over icing).

    Reply

  38. 38
    Ana
    Posted On December 21, 2014 at 8:19 am

    Loving this recipe – I’ve never worked with molasses before and I have to say I was pretty nervous (also because I find it harder to make cookies compared to other desserts). Although I halved the recipe and as a result messed up some measurements, it seems okay for now. Would’ve appreciated some tips on working with this kind of dough and maybe some pictures of how the texture is supposed to turn out ^^  

    Reply

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