With their warm spices and delightful aroma, gingerbread cookies bring comfort and joy all year round.
For that reason, you may be tempted to whip up a batch of these delightful treats. But what do you need to make gingerbread cookies?
In this article, I’ll walk you through the essential ingredients that make gingerbread cookies. I’ll also provide substitutes, ensuring nothing stops you from enjoying these classic treats!
Before discussing the ingredients of gingerbread cookies, let’s explore their long history. The first recipe dates back to the ancient Egyptians and Greeks.
It wasn’t until the 11th century that gingerbread appeared in Europe when the Crusaders brought ginger from the Middle East.
Soon, this delicacy became a popular treat at medieval European festivals. Some countries even have dedicated gingerbread-themed celebrations.
Of course, the recipe then differs from modern-day ginger cookies. Although each country had its own version, early European gingerbread ingredients included ground almonds, bread crumbs, rosewater, and ginger.
A similar recipe to today’s gingerbread originated in England in the 16th century. The English substituted breadcrumbs for flour. Additionally, they added eggs and sweeteners to make a lighter product.
Although you can find many tweaked recipes, generally, gingerbread has four key ingredients. These are flour, butter, and sugar. Of course, ginger is also essential for adding its characteristic flavor and aroma.
While these ingredients are the foundation for the flavorful cookies, other components like eggs, molasses, and other spices are added to improve texture and flavor.
To make gingerbread cookies, you need a mix of dry and wet ingredients. The former includes flour, salt, sugar, and leavening agents. As for the latter, eggs, butter, and molasses are the primary components.
Let’s discuss gingerbread components in further detail!
Flour is a primary ingredient in gingerbread cookies since it forms the base of the cookie dough. For that reason, you need to choose the right type to ace this dessert.
Most recipes require all-purpose flour, which yields excellent results. However, pastry flour is your go-to option for a heavenly, light texture!
You see, wheat contains proteins. However, this nutrient percentage differs according to the flour’s type. All-purpose flour has 8-11% protein, while the one used for pastries contains 8-9%. Why is that important?
That’s because the higher the protein content, the more water the flour absorbs to form gluten.
As a result, you end up with a dense, bread-like cookie, which isn’t the desired texture. Using pastry flour can help you achieve a crispy outside and a soft inside.
While most recipes only use one egg per 3 cups of flour, this ingredient takes gingerbread cookies to a new level!
That’s because eggs act as binding agents thanks to their high protein content. Once heated, these proteins unfold and clump together, binding the dough.
Additionally, beating eggs traps air into the mixture, which expands during baking, resulting in a puffy texture. Plus, they’re packed with fats and other nutrients, contributing to a richer flavor and many health benefits!
Just make sure to use fresh eggs and steer clear of the omega-3-enriched ones to prevent any fishy odors. Although the latter are highly nutritious, they come from canola meal-fed chickens.
Such eggs have a high content of trimethylamine (TMA), an unmetabolized chemical with an unpleasant odor.
No cookie recipe is complete without butter. Only 170g of this dairy product can do wonders for gingerbread cookies.
Thanks to milk protein, butter amino acids react with sugar, producing unstable organic compounds.
Such compounds react further to stabilize, resulting in caramelization, a process known as the Maillard reaction.
Aside from flavor, butter also contributes to structure. You see, once you blend the butter with the flour, fat molecules coat the protein.
That prevents gluten formation once you add liquids to the flour. So, you don’t have to worry about chewy cookies.
Additionally, the blended butter melts in the oven, creating air pockets. That causes the dough to rise, producing flaky cookies.
Sure, sugar is essential to adding sweetness to your dough, but its role extends beyond just the taste.
As mentioned earlier, during the Millard reaction, sugar interacts with milk protein, giving the cookies a distinct brown color and caramelized taste.
Aside from that, creaming softened butter with sugar traps air, improving the cookie’s texture.
What’s more, sugar can prevent the dough from becoming stale! The sweet ingredient is a humectant; it helps hold moisture from the surrounding environment, preventing your gingerbread cookies from drying.
Add around 150 g of brown sugar per 3 cups of flour. You can also use white sugar or a mix of both.
For an authentic taste, I recommend using half a cup of molasses. That’s the ingredient behind gingerbread’s distinct chewy texture and caramelized flavor.
As the name implies, leavening agents, such as baking powder or soda, help the dough rise. But how do these chemicals work?
Generally, both compounds contain sodium bicarbonate salt. When it reacts with the acid in the presence of water, the salt releases carbon dioxide, creating all the fizzing stuff.
Such bubbles take up a lot of space, making the cookie lighter when baked. To avoid having a cakey texture, only use baking soda in this recipe—around one teaspoon would suffice.
Just make sure to test the leavening agents before using them. Simply combine half a teaspoon of baking soda with two tablespoons of vinegar. If bubbles form immediately, the chemicals are still fresh.
Now, for the star of the show—ground ginger. It adds a pleasant, spicy taste and aroma to the cookies.
This spice comes from the rhizomes of the flowering plant, Zingiber officinale. These roots have a tangy flavor and scent.
Since ginger is pungent, you don’t need to add much. About 2 teaspoons are enough. You can also add other winter spices, like nutmeg and cinnamon. Don’t forget to throw in a pinch of salt to balance the flavors.
Although gingerbread ingredients are a staple in most pantries, you might not always have all of them on hand. Don’t fret about it, though. I’ve gathered a list of alternatives so that nothing stops you from baking these delicious treats!
It’s worth mentioning that you’ll need to adjust the wet ingredients when using these alternatives. Additionally, the final flavor and texture may differ slightly from the traditional version.
Here are some of the best substitutes for each component of gingerbread cookies:
As mentioned earlier, you can use pastry flour instead of all-purpose flour for a better texture. However, any other flour type would work. So, you can use cake, bread, or self-rising flour.
For a gluten-free alternative, you can use almond, coconut, or oat flour. The options, however, can produce denser cookies since they’re high in protein.
Start with a 1:1 ratio and add the wet ingredients. Adjust the recipe until you reach the desired dough texture.
Replacing eggs can be tricky; you need to look for ingredients that not only act as binding agents but also add richness to the dough.
Luckily, several commercial egg substitutes are available. Typically, such products contain a mix of starch and leavening agents. All you have to do is follow the label instructions to replace one egg.
If you’re not a fan of store-bought products, use a quarter cup of applesauce. The thick consistency will help bind the ingredients. Plus, it’ll add a sweet, tart flavor!
Butter is probably the easiest component to substitute in gingerbread cookies. You can use shortening at a 1:1 ratio.
This 100%-fat product produces more tender cookies. However, shortening lacks flavor since it’s made of vegetable oil.
You can use margarine instead if you want a rich taste. This butter alternative isn’t 100% fat; it contains water, emulsifiers, and flavor additives.
You can combine 1 cup of white sugar with 1 tablespoon of molasses as an alternative to brown sugar. Mix them thoroughly until the color is uniform and no lumps are present.
For a healthier alternative, use sugar substitutes like stevia, monk fruit sweetener, maple syrup, or fruit purees.
If you don’t have baking soda, simply use baking powder at a 3:1 ratio—three parts baking powder for one part baking soda.
Alternatively, you can use potassium bicarbonate and salt or baker’s ammonia at a 1:1 ratio.
That said, it’s best to experiment first with a small batch before baking large quantities of gingerbread cookies.
Since flour is a primary ingredient in gingerbread cookies, these treats aren’t gluten-free.
However, you can alter the recipe to suit your dietary needs. Some gluten-free flour alternatives include almond, coconut, and rice flour.
No, a traditional gingerbread cookie recipe isn’t vegan since it contains butter and eggs. Some recipes even add milk. Still, you can use plant-based butter and egg alternatives to make the recipe vegan.
Yes, you can use fresh ginger in gingerbread cookies. However, you may need to use a larger quantity since ground ginger is more intense.
Generally, use one tablespoon of grated ginger for every quarter teaspoon of ground spice.
As you can see, gingerbread cookies have a rich history that stretches back to ancient civilizations. Although the recipe has evolved over time, flour, butter, sugar, eggs, molasses, and ginger remain essential for an authentic texture and flavor.
However, you can use the substitutes mentioned if you have dietary restrictions or can’t find the ingredients on hand.
So, whether you stick to the classic recipe or explore alternative ingredients, one thing is for sure: you’ll relish every bite of these delicious treats!
Sarah is the founder of Baking Kneads, LLC, a blog sharing guides, tips, and recipes for those learning how to bake. Growing up as the daughter of a baker, she spent much of her childhood learning the basics in a local bakery.