Star-shaped cookies have long been a fixture of the Christmas season. They come in many sizes, colors, and flavors. But the most interesting of them might just be German Zimtsterne: after all, gingerbread, shortbread, or sugar cookies come in a variety of shapes as well.
Authentic Zimtsterne cookies can only be star-shaped. That’s the main characteristic of these traditional German cookies that have been used as Christmas tree decorations for centuries.
In the article below, we’ll break down what they are, what makes them special, and how to best enjoy them during the festive season.
What is Zimtsterne?
Zimtstern is a traditional star-shaped cinnamon cookie from Germany, popular during the Advent and Christmas seasons.
Usually, Zimtsterne cookies are supposed to be dry and crispy, but denser and chewier versions are not that uncommon, depending on the ingredient ratios. They’re made with a combination of whipped egg whites and ground nuts - traditionally almonds, but hazelnuts can be used either as a full-on substitute or with the two nuts mixed together - and generously flavored with sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla extract or vanilla sugar. Ground nuts must account for at least 25% of the overall cookie weight.
Zimtsterne dough is supposed to be thick, compact, and sticky. It doesn’t contain any flour, so there’s no need to wait for the gluten to develop. The dough is almost immediately covered with frosting, cut into star-shaped forms, and popped into the oven to bake.
A rather distinguishing feature of Zimtsterne cookies is the white frosting on top. The white frosting is what sets the Zimtsterne apart from other traditional Christmas cookies, often shaped like stars, including the ubiquitous gingerbread, Austrian Linzer cookies, and Czech Vanocni Cukrovi.
In the original recipe, the white icing is a type of very basic meringue made with sugar and egg whites. Many bakeries and commercial producers use the original version to this day. But modern manufacturers sometimes decide to make their cookies fancier and swap the basic meringue for Royal Icing: a meringue-type mixture made with confectioner’s sugar, egg whites, and a bit of lemon juice, sometimes with a bit of extra water for a thinner texture and vanilla for flavor.
Royal Icing, while not considered strictly traditional, is becoming more and more common as it’s easier to work with than classic meringue: it’s submissive to handling, sets quickly, and doesn’t get as hard when it dries.
Zimtsterne cookies are traditionally baked at low temperatures (at around 250 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit).
What Does the Name “Zimtsterne” Mean?
Zimtstern is a compound word made up of two German words: “Zimt,” meaning cinnamon in German, and “Stern,” meaning star. So Zimstern literally translates to “cinnamon star.”
Which is Correct: Zimtstern or Zimtsterne?
Both are! Zimtsterne is simply the plural form of Zimstern in German.
You might assume the cookies have been mislabeled or falsified depending on which form you’ve been taught is correct. Most people tend to believe the packing should be labeled as Zimtsterne, as using the plural form is more common, but manufacturers use both forms.
Whether your candy is labeled Zimtstern or Zimtsterne, it’s both correct, and more than likely, you’ve purchased an authentic German product.
(Now, if the packaging is mislabeled as Zimsterne without the T, then you should get suspicious).
What Do Zimtsterne Cookies Taste Like?
Zimtsterne cookies have a very prominent nutty flavor and a robust cinnamon aroma with noticeable hints of vanilla.
The cinnamon flavor is more subtle and accentuates the nuttiness rather than overwhelming it. However, this, too, can be individual, especially at artisanal bakeries: the amount of cinnamon added to the dough can vary from as little as just 1 tsp per 3.5 oz to 1 tbsp per 5 oz. The higher the cinnamon-to-almond ratio, the more prominent its flavor becomes.
Note: for heavily spiced cookies like Zimtsterne, it’s always prudent to check the ingredient list to know precisely how prominent certain flavors will be.
Most of the time, the Zimtsterne cookies veer on the sweeter side both due to the generous addition of sugar to the dough and the meringue (or Royal Icing) frosting liberally covering the cookies.
How Many Points Are Zimtsterne Cookies Supposed to Have?
Classic Zimtsterne cookies most often have 6 points. There are even Zimtsterne-shaped cookie cutters with six rays.
But as long as the cookies are star-shaped, the number of points hardly matters. Even among commercial producers, the consensus hasn’t been reached: you may encounter 5-pointed and 7-pointed Zimtsterne cookies as often as 6-pointed ones, though 5-pointed ones seem to be the least popular options.
Are Zimtsterne Cookies the Same as Lebkuchen?
No! Not only are Zimtsterne cookies NOT a variety of Lebkuchen, but they’re not connected to any gingerbread cookies at all! The only spices used for Zimtsterne dough are cinnamon and, occasionally, vanilla.
Are Zimtsterne Cookies the Same as Speculoos?
No. While both Zimtsterne and Speculoos are classified as cinnamon cookies, the latter is more of a shortcrust cookie with a very tender and crumbly texture. Speculoos cookies have more prominent butter and brown sugar flavor notes, with a slight hint of cinnamon.
In contrast, Zimtsterne cookies are nuttier with noticeable cinnamon notes to the flavor.
Note: Belgian Speculoos is not the same as Dutch Speculaas, despite the similarities. Speculoos uses almost no spices, while Speculaas is spiced similar to traditional gingerbread cookies, with the conventional Speculaas spice blend containing ginger, cloves, cardamom, and nutmeg, along with cinnamon.
Who Invented Zimtsterne Cookies?
Zimtsterne cookies have been around since at least the first half of the 16th century. The earliest mention of “cinnamon stars” is dated 1536, in a document describing the visit of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio, who served him “delicious cinnamon stars” at the celebratory feast. For context: cinnamon was an extremely expensive spice in medieval Germany, so the cookies were indeed a “treat fit for a King” (or the Emperor, in this case).
Unfortunately, as with many other foods with roots in Medieval cuisine, we have little idea about who first came up with a Zimtstern cookie recipe. The use of costly ingredients does show that it was most likely a pastry Chef serving a wealthy noble family and that the recipe was most likely developed for a grandiose celebration of some kind. Still, that’s no more than speculation.
It took over two hundred years for Zimtsterne cookies even to become a fixture in recipe books, not to mention a common treat for the ordinary folk, even if only during the holidays.
When Did Zimtsterne Cookies Become Associated with Christmas?
Zimtsterne cookies are one of the Weihnachtsgebäck, the traditional German “Christmas cookies.” But even though they’ve been around since the middle ages, they didn’t become a holiday fixture until the 19th century.
During the mid-to-late 1800s, many products that were largely unavailable to the common folk started becoming more accessible. Not every day, but enough for people to allow themselves the luxury once or twice a year during the special holidays.
Many varieties of Weihnachtsgebäck popped up during these times, some new and some old, made accessible for the people.
Zimtsterne cookies became popular due to a lucky crossover of circumstances: cinnamon became a globalized commodity during this time, with its price sharply dropping, and its star shape was seen as an attractive Christmas tree decoration. Being a popular Christmas tree decoration, in turn, allowed them to quickly join the list of traditional German Christmas food as their sales keep increasing yearly.
Is There Any Specific Way the Germans Eat Zimtsterne Cookies?
No, nothing of the sort. Zimtsterne cookies are treated similarly to other Weihnachtsgebäck, like Lebkuchen, Pfeffernusse, Springerle, or Emperor’s cookies. People either snack on them during the day, or after a meal, either by themselves or accompanied by a cup of hot beverage like coffee, tea, and hot chocolate.
What makes Zimtsterne stand out among other Christmas cookies is that they maintain their decorative function to this day, similar to classic gingerbread houses. It’s not uncommon to have Zimtsterne adorn a Christmas tree for a few days before kids finally rip it off on Christmas day to munch on.
How Long Do Zimtsterne Cookies Last?
Zimtsterne cookies are sturdy and can last for a relatively long time. They wouldn’t make a very handy decoration if it were otherwise. Nobody wants to snack on a stale cookie.
The real question is, are your Zimtsterne cookies coming from an artisanal bakery, or were they commercially packaged? Because the shelf life between the two will differ drastically.
When properly stored, freshly baked Zimtsterne cookies can maintain freshness for at least two weeks. Proper storage includes keeping them in an air-tight container at a cool place (or at least at average room temperature no above 75 degrees Fahrenheit) to protect the cookies from exposure.
Zimtsterne cookies are high-fat cookies, so carelessly exposing them to oxygen can cause the lipids to oxidize faster, causing a rapid decline in quality. Lipid oxidization can lead to alterations in taste, aroma, and color, loss of nutrients, and even forming of dangerous bacteria. Heat and humidity will accelerate the process, but that’s not usually something one has to worry about during the Christmas season unless you live in the tropics or have the heat cracked up to the max.
Commercially packaged Zimtsterne cookies are even sturdier. Vacuum sealing is like magic; it keeps the food fresh for months longer than it would last otherwise, and the cookies aren’t an exception. Zimtsterne cookies in commercial packaging, on average last for a year unless the vacuum seal is somehow damaged. The label will come with a best-by or expiration date printed upon it anyways, so you just need to follow the instructions.
Once you’ve opened the package, commercially manufactured Zimtsterne will start to lose its freshness due to exposure, similar to the freshly baked one, though it can last for longer, about three to four weeks instead of just two. But by the fourth week, it’ll start to lose the intensity of its flavor and aroma.
While the cookies will stay suitable for consumption for weeks, it’s generally not a good idea to keep them around for that long. Freshly baked Zimtsterne should be consumed within 3-4 days if you wish to enjoy the flavors to the fullest, while the commercially packaged Zimtsterne cookies are best consumed within the week after the package opening.
Do You Refrigerate Zimtsterne Cookies?
No, Zimtsterne cookies do not strictly necessitate refrigeration. They can be left out at room temperature without the threat of spoilage, at least as long as they’re kept in an air-tight container.
On the other hand, as with other similar products, storing the cookies in the refrigerator may help them maintain their flavor and aroma qualities for longer. Refrigerating will harden them further, but for dense and crispy Zimtsterne, that’s hardly a problem. Just leave it out at room temperature for a couple of hours before serving, and they should be back to their original texture (or close by).
Can You Freeze Zimtsterne Cookies?
Yes! You can freeze Zimtsterne cookies if you wish to prolong their shelf life. Freshly baked artisanal Zimtsterne cookies should last up to four additional weeks in the freezer, while the sturdier commercially manufactured cookies will last up to two additional months.
Ensure the cookies are placed in a freezer-safe air-tight container before freezing them.
The best way to thaw Zimtsterne cookies is to store them in the fridge overnight. Neither the meringue topping nor the cookie itself will take too kindly to being defrosted either in the oven or at room temperature.
The meringue might get soft and sticky, and the cookies can get a little rubbery. Let it rest in the fridge first, then keep it at room temperature for an hour or two if you don’t want to eat cold cookies.
Explore Yummy Bazaar’s Holiday Assortment for More Traditional Christmas Treats:
Yummy Bazaar hosts one of the largest online selections of gourmet holiday treats, with a wide variety of items from across the globe. Explore the Italian section for a wide assortment of gourmet panettone or pandoro, go to the Spanish section for authentic Christmas turron nougat candy or check out the German collection for high-quality marzipan, far too often overlooked during the Christmas celebrations. Or maybe you’d like to go a little original with your choice of Christmas gingerbread cookies? You’ll find an assortment from all over the world, from German Lebkuchen to Swedish Pepperkakkor to French Nonnettes. All it takes on your part is sparing a few minutes to stock the cart with all your favorites, and we’ll take it from there, ensuring the goodies get delivered to your doorstep ASAP.