Congratulations, we’ve made it to the holidays: a time for loved ones, joy, and baking (and consuming) as many cookies, cakes, and pies as humanly possible between now and the New Year.
Many people may choose not to travel to see friends and family this year, to avoid the risk of COVID-19 transmission. One way to still be with each other in spirit is to exchange lovingly made sweet treats through the mail — but what’s the best way to do that without ending up with boxes full of crumbs or crushed brownies?
I asked experts for their best tips and tricks to assure your baked goods arrive at their destination mostly intact. From ideal treat type to packaging to shipping carrier to cost, here’s a comprehensive guide to mailing cookies, cakes, and more:
The sturdier or denser the baked good, the better
When it comes to cookies, it’s no surprise that hardier varieties travel the best. Gingerbread and thicker chocolate chip cookies are two examples of sturdier types, says Alex Rush, a Jannuzzi’s Cookies co-founder who handles all things packaging and shipping. Additional recommendations include hard cookies, like shortbread and biscotti, and bars, such as brownies and blondies, according to the Kitchn.
Other softer cookies can potentially survive the trip, depending on how well they’re packaged, says Rush, but delicate cookies like sugar, pizzelles, or even thin and crisp chocolate chip cookies are likely to break in the mail, no matter how meticulous the packaging. Cookies with soft fillings also tend not to travel well, according to Jessica Vitak, who, with her family, bakes an average of 4,000 cookies — of which approximately 1,000 are mailed out — each holiday season. Vitak, an associate professor at the University of Maryland College of Information Studies, says that cookies with elements like caramel can be mailed, but they have to be packed carefully to avoid sticking to each other and causing a mess.
As for other baked goods, the denser the better, says Brad Hedeman, a product and marketing specialist at Zingerman’s Mail Order, which ships hundreds of thousands of freshly made baked goods each holiday season. That includes quick breads like pecan loaves, coffee and bundt cakes, as well as pies with crumb toppings rather than delicate lattices — “things that are made to not look perfect.” He also recommends goods that can freeze well. Speaking of…
Consider freezing before shipping
Hedeman is a big proponent of freezing, both as a way to protect the baked good by making it harder and more solid, and to help it stay fresh en route. He recommends enfolding the treat tightly in plastic wrap or a ziploc bag before freezing. For cookies, he says, you could even wrap them on a plate with plastic, and then freeze them in the arrangement you’d like them to present in.
If going the frozen route, you don’t need an insulated shipping container, says Hedeman; just keep the cookies or baked goods in their plastic packaging and let them defrost as they travel. There might be some moisture due to the defrosting, but not so much that the package leaks, which would go against USPS rules. Still, just to be safe, Hedeman advises against using water-soluble packaging materials like biodegradable packing peanuts.
When packing, keep flavors separated, bags and containers airtight, and everything snug
Vitak packs her cookies in separate ziploc bags, often one big one for the majority of the cookies, and additional smaller bags for cookies with strong flavors. “The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that when you have several flavors in a bag for a few days, those flavors diffuse across all the cookies,” she tells me. From her years of experience, she’s learned to always separate lemon, coffee, ginger, mint, and almond-flavored cookies. She then squeezes as much air out of the ziploc bags as possible before sealing, places the bagged cookies in a shipping box, and surrounds the contents with bubble wrap or styrofoam packing peanuts.
Cookie tins (or tupperware) are also an option, but they come with some limiting factors: namely, “you’re much more constrained in the number of cookies you can pack (especially if you’re separating out strong flavors) and the tin needs to be full to minimize movement,” per Vitak.
Jannuzzi’s Cookies favors a similar packaging method: for each standard order, Rush packs a kraft paper bag — typically one with a tin tie, although there are also ziploc varieties — with a dozen cookies, seals the bag, and then slips it into a bubble wrap pouch, which then gets surrounded by a layer of tissue paper and tied off with baker’s twine. Jannuzzi’s uses corrugated shipping boxes measured exactly to size from East Coast Packaging. Generic boxes are fine, too, says Rush; just be sure to pad out the package with materials like tissue paper, kraft paper, inflated air pillows, newspapers, or even old rags and towels.
The key is to use these materials to surround your precious cargo and “fill the void” of the shipping container. The baked goods don’t need to be placed perfectly equidistant in the center of the box, either, says Hedeman; you can also shove them in the corner of the box, and then fill the space until everything is snug.
Kim Frum, a senior public relations representative for the USPS, suggests placing a card with the delivery and return addresses inside the package, in case the mailing label becomes damaged or falls off en route. Next, both Rush and Hedeman recommend doing a quick shake test to make sure nothing is rattling around inside the box. If anything moves, open the box again and stuff more cushioning in there.
And finally, it doesn’t hurt to label the box as “perishable.” This isn’t so much for the carrier’s sake, but for the recipient — that way, they’ll know that they should open up the package right away instead of letting it languish under a Christmas tree, says Hedeman.
Ship well in advance
There are three main shipping carriers: USPS, UPS, and FedEx.
USPS tends to be the most economical. Priority Mail, which Vitak uses, has flat rate pricing available ($15 to ship a medium-sized box), includes tracking, and estimates a delivery time of 1-3 business days. Priority Mail Express, another option the USPS recommends for timely service, is even faster at overnight to two days, but flat rate prices start at $26. Envelopes and boxes for both of these options can be ordered online or picked up from a post office for free, and you can schedule free package pickups from home if you print out your own shipping labels.
UPS and FedEx can be pricier, but Hedeman recommends either of these options “for peace of mind.” In his experience, they have a better track record with avoiding delays. UPS, which Jannuzzi’s Cookies uses, has a flat rate of $13 to ship a medium box within 1-5 days using Ground and $23.50 for 3 Day Select, but Rush has found that deliveries tend to be on the faster side, so Ground typically suffices. FedEx’s flat rate options for medium boxes range from $12-$15 for delivery in three business days, depending on distance. Both FedEx and UPS offer home package pickup options, but it may cost extra, depending on your location and the service.
For all three of these services, you should use their price calculators to compare the flat rates versus the cost of sending your specific packages. Destination, weight, and box dimensions are all factors that go into the cost (pro tip: use a flatter box, if possible).
This year, it’s singularly important to plan your shipping time well in advance. Due to the pandemic and huge shipping volumes, there may be delays, although Frum maintains that the Postal Service “has the capacity to flex its nationwide processing and delivery network to meet surges in volume of mail and packages, including the expected additional holiday package volume that may result as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Still, Hedeman urges home bakers to ship their treats early and to not pin all hopes on packages arriving just in time for Christmas. Why not send a care package before or after Thanksgiving (that might “also give the person that receives it time to get you something on your gift list”) or for the New Year? It’s better to skip the rush and arbitrary deadlines. “It’s enough that you pour yourself into these baked goods to share with your friends and family,” says Hedeman. “That’s what matters, not the day.”
And while you’re at it, consider showing some love for your neighborhood package carriers. “They have so much to do and so little time to do it,” says Hedeman. Rush makes extra batches of cookies for her UPS guys because she knows they’ll treat her packages well — and because it’s just a nice thing to do.
Be prepared to spend a pretty penny
There’s no sugarcoating it: mailing cookies is not a cheap hobby. “If people are going to mail a home-baked good as a gift, they’re doing it because they love doing it, and they know that the person will appreciate it — they’re not doing this to save money,” says Hedeman.
He recommends budgeting $10-$20 per package; Vitak estimates that her packages cost $8-$15 each with USPS. The costs of packaging material can also add up, but it’s often more economical if you purchase in bulk. Split the materials and the costs with a friend, or save the remaining materials to use again next year.
… but it’s still worth it
It’s been a hard year. The coming year(s) will likely continue to be hard. For people like Vitak, who is immunocompromised, mailing cookies is a way to send “a big hug” to friends she hasn’t seen in a long time.
“In the end, I don’t mind the costs of shipping cookies because I know how much my friends appreciate getting them,” she says. “It brings me such pleasure to know that these cookies are enjoyed by my friends and their families and that they look forward to December because of my family’s cookies.” This holiday tradition has been in her family for nearly 50 years. Now, more than ever, she intends to keep it alive.
Photo credits: Pumpkin loaf, Cavan Images/Getty; Mailbox, Misunseo/Shutterstock