We’re back at that time of the year when grocery and bakery store shelves are stocked with gingerbread kits and ready-made gingerbread houses just waiting to grace your dinner table this Christmas. According to Spruce Eats, gingerbread can be traced as far back as the 16th century as it was even mentioned in William Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor Lost. Like its present-day counterpart, old-school gingerbread was made of almonds, ginger, and sugar, but instead of getting fresh bread, you got recycled bread made from repurposed crumbs.
Not so bad right? Except the gingerbread house has been around for just as long and we still haven’t codified the principles of creating a structurally sound gingerbread house. With global warming being one of the key issues of our time and the threat of the Big One hanging over our heads, we’ve made it our duty to find out how to create a gingerbread house that won’t collapse on our gingermen, gingerwomen, and non-binary ginger friends no matter how hard that one hyperactive kid at your family Christmas party slams into the dining table.
Start With Choosing the Right Gingerbread Recipe
Before we get to the actual building part, let’s start with choosing the right recipe. Think of your gingerbread batter and icing as the concrete of your gingerbread house. The first step to putting together a structurally sound gingerbread house is having good materials, not substandard ones.
Baker and blogger Liz Mincin says, “The key to a sound house is to have a recipe that’s stiff enough to allow a firm structure but also soft enough that it isn’t brittle and prone to cracking. Much like with actual buildings trying to withstand earthquakes or natural disasters – the goal isn’t actually something 100% solid in the strictest sense. You want a bit of room for flexibility when you’re making your construction.”
Liz uses a recipe consisting of butter, light brown sugar (a.k.a muscovado), egg yolks, molasses, plain or all-purpose flour, baking soda, ground spices (ginger, allspice, and cinnamon), and vanilla extract. It’s simple and straightforward so don’t be afraid to give it a shot even if you’re new to baking.
Liz recommends leaving your dough in the fridge for up to three days. Sounds like overkill? Karen M. Ricks, head chef at Our Kitchen Classroom, follows a similar process. She starts by making her dough from scratch and waiting for it to chill, only assembling her gingerbread houses 2-3 days after the bread is made.
“It’s a good idea to roll out relatively thick cookies so that the finished walls will be nice and sturdy.” Karen explained, “Baking the gingerbread for 2-5 minutes longer than usual can help ensure the cookie is firm and crisp when it cools, leading to a stronger house.”
If your gingerbread doesn’t come out as crisp as you feel Karen and Liz would like it to be, have no fear. Karen says it’s not the dough but the icing that makes the gingerbread house. According to her, this is because your icing will serve as the mortar for your gingerbread house so having a good consistency to your icing goes a long way towards making a structurally sound gingerbread house.
Karen shared the secret to her royal icing recipe with us, “I like to whip approximately 1 to 1 and 1/4 cups of powdered sugar per large egg white until the mixture forms thick and glossy firm peaks.”
“Piping neatly is not required, but allowing the icing plenty of time to dry overnight is a great way to make sure that the house is solid.”
Only then are you supposed to start decorating.
“Once you know that the walls and the roof are structurally sound, covering them with loads of drippy white icing and piles of candy is an absolutely delightful family activity that’s sure to become a treasured tradition!”
Let’s move on to the most important aspect: putting together your gingerbread house. In case you thought we were joking, we most certainly were not. We reached out to an actual engineer to ask about how to make a gingerbread house that can withstand the chaos of your family Christmas party.
Building Your Structurally Sound Gingerbread House According to an Actual Engineer
Mike Powell is a professional engineer and certified home inspector with a background as a forensic engineer, an engineer who determines the cause and origin of failures, and a gingerbread house site engineer for his kids. Basically, he’s the most qualified (and overqualified) person to be giving tips on gingerbread house construction.
Mike says you have two options when you’re putting together a gingerbread house. You can go with a store-bought kit or a built-from-scratch gingerbread house. The former tends to be easier to make but is less customizable and stable compared to its from-scratch counterpart.
“The connections are where the typical gingerbread house goes sideways (literally). The icing does a decent enough job when given adequate time to “cure” and harden.” Mike explained to us, “Consider cutting small sections of gingerbread material to cover in icing and reinforce the corners. The gingerbread material is great in compression (pushing) and not in tension (pulling), so try to think of ways to combat these forces where possible.”
A quick throwback to your grade school science class here, tension is the force that pulls objects apart, away from their center. Compression pushes objects inward. Mike recommends tinkering with your gingerbread house to balance these as well as you can. His top technique is to cut notches into oversized beams (gingerbread, of course, not steel) so it takes on the load of the gingerbread house since your icing, whether buttercream or royal, can only do so much.
This is where things get fun. Mike suggests that you can use this technique to create a multi-level gingerbread house. “If you get ambitious and go for multiple levels, make sure you reinforce both the wall/ceiling and the wall/floor (top and bottom) as each is equally likely to fail.”
Okay, but let’s say you want to move on from making a gingerbread house. This year, you wanna get ambitious. It’s gingerbread Empire State Building or nothing.
In that case, you’re gonna want to make your own gingerbread recipe. While all our sources say the gingerbread isn’t the key but the way the house is put together, Mike says making your own dough will let you test out what works best for your build.
“If you have the luxury of creating your own gingerbread material, playing with the “mix design” (much like we do with concrete) may help out quite a bit. Dryer materials tend to be stronger but tougher to work with.” Still, he insists the way you build the house will be more important, “As said, however, this tends to not be the weak link in the gingerbread building chain. Cutting your building components with notches and interlocking sections could strengthen the house beyond anything icing is capable of providing.”
Mike recommends looking into pegged wood construction, a type of construction that uses no nails. Instead of adhesives and metal, this method used holes and notches in wood that fit together in order to make buildings that were rigid enough to stay put together but also flexible enough that the joints and pegs could sway together in the event of an earthquake.
It’s so structurally stable, in fact, that a lot of ancient Japanese temples are made with the same method.
Since your gingerbread house is meant to be eaten and not last for centuries, you won’t have to worry about that too much.
“Build the house where you want the house to stay. Once built, this very well may be an unstable mess until the icing starts to harden.” Mike said, “We do not need this to pass any wind or seismic load, but we want it to survive the high-traffic family table.”
Depending on how chaotic your family gatherings can get, though, it may as well be a real earthquake.