Making Salt Dough Ornaments

"It's easy!" they said. "It's fun!" they insisted. "Try it!" they encouraged.

Whether you're on Pinterest or just browsing in the Internet for fun Christmas ideas to do with the kids, chances are you've run across a website telling you making salt dough ornaments is a great family activity for December. Well, I'm here to tell you that every tutorial I read was WRONG.

My children (7 and 4) found the process mostly frustrating. In fact, my youngest gave up on it pretty quickly. But in the end, we were happy we stuck with it. So if you're thinking of making salt dough ornaments, please read this tutorial first! Unlike the others you may find, it is no-nonsense and gives you a heads up on the most difficult parts of the process.

What You Need:

4 cups all purpose flour
1 cup table salt
1 1/2 cups warm water
food coloring (optional)

Large mixing bowl and spoon
Baking sheets
Small rolling pin
Cookie cutters (optional but recommended)
Butter knife
Straw or similar stick-like object
Paints, markers, etc.

How to Do It:

1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.

2. In the mixing bowl, combine the flour and salt. Add the warm water, a little at a time, mixing well with a large spoon. Finish by kneading the dough with your hands until it's blended and pliable.

(Already, we are faltering. I follow the recipe exactly but the dough is very sticky. Never having made salt dough anything before, we proceed to roll out and cut the dough. But the dough sticks to the cutters and makes the gingerbread man look like he's made of spikes. We re-roll the dough and try again - and fail again. My 4 year old son gets mad and leaves the kitchen. Are we having fun yet?? TIP: The dough should not feel sticky. If it does, add flour, a little at a time, until the dough is still pliable, but not sticky. If the dough is dry and cracks, add water a little at a time. Also chill the dough for at least 15 minutes before rolling it out. Work in very small batches - just enough to use one cookie cutter at a time - and return the dough scraps to the fridge to chill again.)

You may now also add food coloring to the dough. 

(But let me warn you the colored dough will dye your hands, too. TIP: I recommend dividing the dough and adding just a tiny amount of food coloring to each piece. I used gel coloring - such as you'll find in the cake decorating section of a craft store; this made for nice, bold colors. You may also use liquid coloring, but you may need to add a bit of extra flour to prevent the dough from being sticky. The colors may also be more washed out.

While we wait for the dough to chill, the kids keep talking about eating the "yummy cookies" we are making. I explain that even though the process is similar to making cookies, these ornaments will be hard and taste awful. Still, I keep hearing, "I'm gonna eat a gingerbread man! I'm gonna eat an angel!")

4. (Once the dough is chilled, we try rolling out the dough again. But when we transfer the cut out ornament from the counter to the baking sheet, it stretches. "This is really hard, Mommy!" says my 7 year old. Next we try rolling dough as directed below. Definitely a better way to do it.)  

Take a small amount of dough and place it on a baking tray. Roll it out until it's about 1/8 in. thick; if it's thicker, it will take forever to dry. 

(TIP: Use a child-sized rolling pin - or, better yet, a Play Dough rolling pin. If you don't have either, a small, smooth jar will do.)

5. Use cookie cutters to cut out shapes in the dough. It will still be tricky to get some shapes to come out "clean," so I recommend using simple shapes. Also, while pressing down on the cookie cutter, roll as much of the dough away from the outside of the cutter as possible. Use a butter knife to remove any bits of dough that cling to the outside of the cutter. Finally, lift the cutter. If necessary, use the butter knife to remove any stray bits of dough from the edges of the ornament.

(You would think that if your child can cut out cookie dough with cookie cutters, this project would be a breeze. Not so! And my 7 yr. old is frustrated she can't make these ornaments all by herself.)

You may also shape pieces by hand - and now is a good time to added pieces of colored dough as decoration.  

(I found this almost impossible because the heat from my hands made the dough super-sticky and very difficult to shape. Notice how stretched-out my red star is, to the right. Ah well; it makes it look more folksy...right?

You may also supposedly roll or cut out a shape and have your child press his or her hand into the dough - but ours didn't turn out. Once the dough baked, it was impossible to make out most of the hand print.)

You can also use stamps for a subtle look.

Or add decorative holes, glitter, or ornaments like glass jewels. Other types of decoration should wait until after the dough is dry.

4. Use a straw or some other stick-like object to create a hole at the top of each ornament. This is where a ribbon or other hanger will go. The hole will shrink slightly when the ornament bakes. 

(Finally! A job that's easy for the kids!)

5. Bake in the preheated oven for 1 hour, or until completely dry but not brown.  (This amount of baking time will burn the ornaments. In fact, I started checking the ornaments after 40 minutes, and some still browned. TIP: Start checking the ornaments for doneness after 10 or 15 minutes.)

If you have more trays than you can fit in the oven, place the extra trays in the fridge until ready to bake.

6. Remove trays from the oven and allow the ornaments to cool 1 or 2 minutes. Transfer to a wire cooling rack to cool completely.

7. Once the ornaments are completely cool, you may decorate them, if desired, with paints or markers. (TIP: I recommend making the ornaments one day and painting them the next. This allows recoup time after the more difficult process of cutting and baking the ornaments; my 4 year old even got excited about the project again!) You may even decoupage them.  

(Most tutorials say to expect "faded out" colors, but we used Crayola Washable Kids' Paint and our colors were nice and bright. TIP: Cover the work area with a cheap plastic tablecloth, such as you'd find at The Dollar Tree. It's best to stick to simple paintings that require only a couple of colors. Remind children to paint the main color of the ornament first, then allow it to dry before adding another color. For example, if you're painting a candy cane, paint the whole thing white, let the paint dry, then add the red bands. The good news is, the ornaments dry quickly.)

In the end, we were happy with our ornaments. Any frustrations we felt the day we cut out and baked them faded as we had fun painting them - and I was pleased the kids were able to make something to give away as Christmas gifts.

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