Gluten free animal crackers are the lightly sweet, simple vanilla cookies that you remember from childhood. Just like the little cardboard box!
What makes animal crackers special?
These gluten free animal crackers are buttery and light, and melt in your mouth just like the conventional kind in that little box. And just like the conventional ones, they break easily. It's part of their charm.
They taste a bit like butter cookies, but they also have an egg in the batter. That gives them some richness, and also creates some structure.
They're fragile mostly because animal shapes tend to have thin portions. A giraffe neck and an elephant trunk always seem to be the first to go.
The history of animal crackers
My personal history of animal crackers goes back to other kids' having them at lunch in grammar school. If I had a cookie, it was probably in a Glad fold over plastic bag—and it was probably an Oreo.
I have plenty of legitimate gripes about my childhood, and I know that this doesn't rank. But would it have killed my parents to just buy me that little shoebox with the tiny string for my lunch the once?
A little internet sleuthing reveals that Nabisco has been making the P.T. Barnum-inspired shaped cookies since 1902. Nabisco named them animal crackers, but a similar version had been around in Britain before that.
Apparently, the Brits just called them “animals.” That doesn't help explain why they're animals in the first place, but I stopped being super curious by the turn of the 20th Century.
Besides Nabisco Barnum's Animal Crackers, there also that type that comes in that huge plastic bear.
This gluten free version is more like the Barnum's kind, since the huge bear kind have no taste whatsoever. And their texture isn't much better. Let's stick with Nabisco.
The frosting seems to have originated with the Stauffers brand of animal crackers. I wonder if the ones in the big bear are made by that brand. If so, the frosted ones no doubt taste like frosted nothing. 🤷🏻♀️
What are the best animal shaped cookie cutters?
The very cool cookie cutters you see me using above and in the video are made by a company called Mrs. Anderson. I bought them online years ago, when I was writing my third cookbook, Gluten Free Classic Snacks.
They're spring-loaded cutters, with the ability to imprint details onto the dough. You use them the regular way, by pressing the edges into the dough.
Then, you press the plunger to imprint the pattern on the dough. Lift the cookie cutter from the rest of the dough, and press the plunger again to release the shaped dough.
I bought the cookie cutters online at a Philadelphia home goods store called Fantes. You can find them at Fantes.com.
These cookie cutters are sometimes available at big box stores online, but not always. I'm not including links since these sorts of links tend to lead nowhere before long. Just Google the name!
You can also just use any small cookie cutters in any shape. Ateco makes a set for Spring, with duck and flower shapes. They're fun, too.
Ingredients and substitutions
The only dairy in this recipe is the butter. You should be able to replace it with vegan butter.
My favorite brands of vegan butter are Miyoko's Kitchen and Melt brands. They're available at many larger grocery stores, and often Miyoko's is even sold at Trader Joe's.
I caution you against using Earth Balance buttery sticks, since they have a ton of moisture. The cookies probably would not hold their shape during baking.
There's only one egg in this recipe. You might be able to replace it with a “chia egg” (1 tablespoon ground white chia seeds + 1 tablespoon lukewarm water, mixed and allowed to gel).
In place of cornstarch, you can try arrowroot or potato starch. If you're using a higher starch all purpose gluten free flour blend, like (mock) Cup4Cup, replace the cornstarch with 36 grams more of your all purpose gluten free flour.
If you can't have corn, be sure your confectioners' sugar is corn-free. Organic confectioners' sugars are often made with another starch, like tapioca starch.
If you'd like to make frosting for your animal crackers, but you can't have light corn syrup (which is not the same as high-fructose corn syrup), try making the royal icing instead (linked in the ingredients list).
I always have rainbow nonpareils in my house. They're so fun, and make anything sweet seem a bit more festive.
Cake Mate brand and Signature brand nonpareils are both made by Betty Crocker. When I've called the company, they've always been able to assure me that they're reliably gluten free.
If you’re concerned about whether any ingredient you're using is gluten free, please be proactive. Contact the directly using the contact information on the package or on their website.
Gluten Free Animal Crackers | Like Nabisco
For the cookies
1 ¼ cups (175 g) all purpose gluten free flour (I used Better Batter), plus more for sprinkling
Heaping ½ teaspoon xanthan gum (omit if your blend already contains it)
¼ cup (36 g) cornstarch (See Recipe Notes)
½ cup (58 g) confectioners’ sugar (See Recipe Notes)
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
Dash (⅛ teaspoon) baking soda
7 tablespoons (98 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 egg (50 g, weighed out of shell) at room temperature, beaten
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
For the frosting (optional)
1 cup (115 g) confectioners’ sugar (See Recipe Notes)
½ teaspoon light corn syrup (See Recipe Notes)
½ to 1 fluid ounce (1 to 2 tablespoons) lukewarm water
Gel food coloring (I love AmeriColor brand)
Or Royal icing
Gluten free rainbow nonpareils (optional)
Animal-shaped cookie cutters (See Recipe Notes)
If you can’t have corn, you can replace the cornstarch in the cookies recipe with arrowroot or potato starch. Be sure your confectioners’ sugar is corn-free, as most confectioners’ sugar has added cornstarch to inhibit clumping.
Light corn syrup, which is not high fructose corn syrup, is made by extracting the sugars from cornstarch. If you’re sensitive to that as well, I recommend using royal icing (follow the link above).
For animal cookie cutters
The cookie cutters I used here are made by Mrs. Andersons. I bought them online at Fantes.com. They’re sometimes available on Walmart.com or even Amazon.com.
Preheat your oven to 325°F. Line rimmed baking sheets with unbleached parchment paper and set them aside.
In a large bowl, place the flour, xanthan gum, cornstarch, confectioners’ sugar, salt, and baking soda, and whisk to combine well. Create a well in the center of the dry ingredients and add the butter, egg, and vanilla, and mix until all the dry ingredients are moistened. It helps to press down with the back of a mixing spoon, rather than just turning the mixture over with the bowl of the spoon. With clean hands, knead the dough together until it’s cohesive.
Place the dough on a lightly floured surface, and roll it about ¼-inch thick, sprinkling lightly with flour as you roll to prevent sticking. Turn and rotate the dough often. Place the rolled out dough, still on the rolling surface or another flat surface, in the refrigerator to chill for about 10 minutes or until firm.
Remove the rolled out dough from the refrigerator and, using small animal-shaped (or any-shaped) cookie cutters, cut out shapes. Place the shapes on the prepared baking sheet about 1-inch apart. They won’t spread much during baking.
Place the baking sheets, one at a time, in the center of the preheated oven. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the cookies are set and just beginning to brown slightly around the edges. Do not overbake. Allow the cookies to cool completely on the baking sheet, as they’re very fragile until cool.
To frost the cookies, make the frosting recipe (or the royal icing at the link in the ingredients list). To make the frosting, place the confectioners’ sugar in a medium-size bowl and whisk to loosen. Add the light corn syrup, 1 tablespoon lukewarm water, and a bit of gel food coloring. Mix until smooth. The mixture will be very thick. Add more water by the drop, mixing to combine after each addition, until the frosting falls off the utensil slowly in about a ¼-inch thick ribbon.
Dip one side of each cooled cookie in the frosting, coating it completely. Invert the cookie as you remove it from the frosting, and then replace it on the cooled baking sheet. Sprinkle immediately with nonpareils, if using. Repeat with the remaining cookies, or as many as you like. The frosting will be completely set after 12 hours if you used royal icing, and after 24 hours if you used the frosting.
For storage: These can be stored in a sealed glass container at room temperature and they’re retain their texture for at least 5 days. For longer storage, seal tightly in a freezer-safe container, and freeze for up to 2 months. Defrost at room temperature.
Adapted from the book Gluten-Free Classic Snacks: 100 Recipes for the Brand Name Treats You Love, by Nicole Hunn. Excerpted by arrangement with Da Capo Lifelong, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2015.