How to Build an Awesome Gingerbread House from Scratch
Learn the basic steps to making a homemade gingerbread house. Crafty genes not required! We’ve got plenty of gingerbread recipes, decoration ideas, and tips to build this iconic, edible holiday centerpiece at home.
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.
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The 6 steps to making a gingerbread house from scratch
Read these step-by-step instructions before you get out your mixing bowl so there won't be any unwelcome surprises once you get started. Who needs a last-minute trip to the grocery store anyway?
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 make a dummy house first. As you cut out and assemble your walls and roof, you are effectively creating your own house pattern 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 early success!
Step 2: Prepare the gingerbread
There's no shortage of gingerbread dough 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: Christmas trees, fences, a snowman for the front lawn...) — so keep your cookie cutters on hand to make some cute decorations with any leftover dough before it all goes in the oven.
With your dough made, use a rolling pin to roll it out into 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).
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 the baking sheet out on the counter (don't store the gingerbread in a container or wrapped in plastic wrap) 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. Other folks swear by melted-sugar caramel syrup for the job (recipe below, of course).
Step 5: Assemble the house
Using a piping bag filled with your "glue" of choice and a small piping tip, 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 side walls 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 (preferred over a dusting of all-purpose flour).
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 with a pastry bag. Think edible Christmas trees and candy ornaments. If your sweets are brightly colored or even remotely Christmas-y, chances are, you’ll find a place for it.
Gingerbread dough recipes
What other residential construction site smells like ground cinnamon, ground cloves, allspice, ground ginger, and dark brown sugar?
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 ground ginger make it smell just right, though.
Gingerbread house icing recipes
Icing is a critical part of gingerbread house-making success. It’s the glue that keeps the walls stable and the candy decorations attached, and it also serves as its own gorgeous decoration when piped in intricate patterns on rooftops, sidings, and more.
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.
A simple mixture of confectioners’ sugar, meringue powder, and water give you a strong decorating frosting.
Gingerbread house recipes for special diets
Whether you're vegan, gluten-free, or paleo, you can still partake in the gingerbread house-building tradition.
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.
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!
The most amazing thing about this paleo recipe is homemade gumdrops using natural ingredients! Get yourself an ice cube tray that makes mini ice cubes and you’re in business.
Showstopping gingerbread houses
You've got run-of-the-mill gingerbread houses, and then you've got these stunners. If you've got the time and the patience, you can assemble a gingerbread house with ornate detailing and realistic-looking features. Plus bragging rights, of course.
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.
This piece de resistance is not just architecturally stunning; it has actual lights shining through the windows. The key to adding lights into your design is to leave the back of the house plain, allowing for holes to insert the string lights.
Architecturally unique gingerbread houses
From a farmhouse to an A-frame, a log cabin to a Victorian storefront, what can’t you build out of gingerbread?
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!
Ok, technically this is not a house. But how amazing and unique it is!
Sliced almonds for shingles? Yes, please. This nutty, au naturel gingerbread house, by Life, Love and Sugar, has a healthy, rustic vibe to it, and feels quite different from the more common over-the-top, candy-covered gingerbread houses.
BBC Good Food presents a mini house that's a step up from the milk-carton gingerbread houses of my youth.
Unconventional gingerbread house-themed recipes
Besides your standard gingerbread house centerpiece, there are many more fun ways to bring the gingerbread house theme into the holiday season. From a mug topper to deconstructed gingerbread houses sprinkled on candy bark, check out these unexpected and totally fun ideas.
These adorable mug toppers, from Baking in Pink, are great for holiday parties — or as gifts.
Make a whole village out of these cute gingerbread house cupcakes. Then eat them!
For a totally unexpected approach to a gingerbread house, try this festive bark. It might be more appropriate to call it a deconstructed gingerbread house.
This perfect holiday treat is fun to look at and delicious to eat. If you can bear to eat them! These are individual gingerbread houses wrapped around an Oreo cookie truffle that you can just pop in your mouth.
Easy gingerbread house shortcuts
If you’re not feeling the urge to make your gingerbread house walls from scratch, check out these easy shortcut recipes. Graham crackers make fantastic walls, you know.
When you’re in a rush, crispy rice marshmallow treats come to the rescue. They are easy to make, cut, mold, and, well, eat.
Graham cracker walls save significant time without sacrificing on style. Now you can focus your precious time on the decorations.