How to Build a Gingerbread House (Even If You’re Not Crafty)
Learn the basic steps to make this iconic edible holiday centerpiece, with plenty of recipes and inspiration thrown in for good measure.
I’ll be honest — my gingerbread house-making skills are more or less stuck in kindergarten, which is to say, I’m a graham cracker + school milk carton + store-bought icing + boxed movie candy kind of gal. But I have deep, abiding appreciation for those who walk right by the gingerbread house kits at Trader Joe’s and spend days (days!!) creating something from scratch.
As Julia Moskin of The New York Times puts it, making your own gingerbread house is “a rewarding, hands-on way to connect to holiday traditions of the past.” So, buck up, ye novice bakers. Let’s tackle this holiday project one step at a time.
Step 1: Pre-planning.
Any shape that can be created with cardboard can be created with gingerbread. If this is your first foray into constructing a gingerbread house from scratch, use cardboard or poster board to start. As you cut out and assemble your walls and roof, you are effectively creating your own template. This is your best opportunity to figure out if your design actually stands up. A word to the wise: if this is your first house, start with a simple design to help give you an early success!
Step 2: Prepare the gingerbread.
There's no shortage of gingerbread recipes out there, but you'll want to pick one that is meant for building houses. Although you can eat a gingerbread house, that's not its primary function. Unlike a gingerbread cookie recipe, for example, flavor isn’t your guiding light when choosing your recipe. Sturdiness is.
You typically don’t see much (if any) leavening agent (i.e. baking soda or baking powder). You don’t want the dough to rise or get puffy, as you want your shapes to stay the same size as your original templates to make sure the pieces all come together as planned during construction.
When in doubt, make more dough than needed — it’s no fun running out before all your shapes have been cut out. Extra dough not used for house pieces won't go to waste (think: trees, fences, a snowman for the front lawn...) — so keep your cookie cutters on hand to make some cute decorations with any leftover dough.
With your dough made, use a rolling pin to make a rectangle that's nice, thick (between 1/4- and 1/2-inch), and even. Once you've rolled out the dough, use your gingerbread house templates from Step 1 to cut out all your shapes with a sharp knife before baking. Finally, line your cookie sheet with parchment paper before baking to help your gingerbread house pieces bake evenly (and clean up easily).
Gingerbread Dough for Houses
This Food52 recipe from baker Erin McDowell calls for shortening over butter — again, because this is meant for building, not dessert. The molasses, cinnamon, and ginger make it smell just right, though.
Step 3: Bake.
This is one situation where overbaking is not necessarily a bad thing. Once baked, be sure to let the gingerbread cool completely at room temperature. It’s best to tackle this part a day or two in advance: Sometimes letting the gingerbread get a little stale helps it stay sturdy. You want to get as much moisture out as possible, so just leave it out on the counter (not in a container) for up to two days.
Step 4: Make your glue.
Gingerbread doesn’t stick to itself — you need some kind of "glue." Most gingerbread house DIYs rely on royal icing to keep it all together. But, as you might guess, not all royal icing recipes are equal. It's all about texture here — you want your icing to be somewhat sticky (leaving it out at room temperature for a bit before using can help). Icing that's too thin won't hold together properly; you can always add more confectioners' sugar to help thicken it up a little.
Sturdy Royal Icing for Gingerbread Houses
Serious Eats recommends a low-moisture royal icing made from egg whites and confectioners' sugar since you’ll want it to dry fairly quickly.
Martha Stewart — a veritable goddess of gingerbread houses — prefers caramel syrup as her edible adhesive.
Step 5: Assemble the house.
Using a piping bag filled with your "glue" of choice, pipe the gingerbread house pieces together at the edges and hold them together gently until the royal icing or caramel syrup dries. You can also add in internal structural supports if your house is particularly large (or unstable).
To avoid a collapse, start by assembling the sides of your house first, and let the icing or caramel dry completely before adding on the roof.
Note: If you're planning to pipe intricate designs on your house, you may find it easier to do this on the flat pieces before you assemble the house! If you're planning on decorating using gumdrops or other candies (or if you're decorating with kids), assemble the house first and enjoy sticking on your decorations.
Step 6: Decorate.
Everyone’s favorite part! If you're a purist, you can thin the royal icing a bit (or whip up a more traditional recipe) and use the icing like paint to add windows, shingles, snow, or fine details of any kind. Naturalists can use nuts such as slivered almonds to outline house features or use pistachios for a stone cottage look. Powdered sugar makes for a natural-looking snow.
Maximalists can use all the sweets at their disposal: gumdrops, candy canes, M&Ms, peppermints, Skittles, sprinkles, pretzels, rock candy, marshmallows ... you name it. And feel free to use a more traditional frosting with some food coloring to pipe on extra details. If it’s brightly colored or even remotely Christmas-y, chances are, you’ll find a place for it.
Beautiful Blueprints: Build your Dream Home with these Gingerbread House Recipes
Now that you've got an understanding of the basic process, it's time to build the ultimate gingerbread house. From the design to the decoration, a gingerbread house is almost endlessly riffable. Here are 10 inspiring ways to go about it.
If you’re vegan…
In this 100% vegan recipe, from Little Swiss Baker, the dry ingredients for the gingerbread are held together with sunflower oil, molasses and soy milk, and the royal icing is made with aquafaba.
If you’re gluten-free...
Gluten-free flour and vegetable shortening make this gingerbread recipe, from Petite Allergy Treats, versatile for all sorts of diets, and there’s no egg in the royal icing, either. This house is peanut free, tree nut free, dairy free, egg free, soy free and shellfish/seafood free. Whew!
If you want to go au naturel...
Sliced almonds for shingles? Yes, please. This nutty gingerbread house, by Life, Love and Sugar, has a healthy, rustic vibe to it.
If you want to go big...
This recipe, from Martha Stewart, is not for the faint of heart, nor the novice baker. But if you are willing to invest, it’s perfectly edible — there’s an elaborate French cake hidden behind those townhouse exteriors.
If you want to go small...
BBC Good Food presents a mini house that's a step up from the milk-carton gingerbread houses of my youth.
If you want to go really small...
These adorable mug toppers, from Baking in Pink, are great for holiday parties — or as gifts.
If you want a farmhouse...
It took The Cake Chica more than 16 hours to make the roof alone, due to the individual shingles attached to the roof pieces. Oof!
If you like an A-frame...
If you want to really set a scene...