You know those fancy pants cookies that look like they’ve been decorated by Pinterest fairies? The ones that are impossibly pretty to look at and you (almost) feel guilty about eating them?
Yeah, those cookies are decorated with royal icing!
And I’m here to tell you that even YOU can make gorgeous cookies that will impress your family, friends, coworkers, and complete strangers on the Internet. Here’s how to make the best royal icing for decorating your cookies.
What Is Royal Icing?
Royal icing is a decorative hard white icing made with egg whites, powdered sugar, and some flavoring and coloring. That’s it. It’s super easy to make, but there are some pretty specific things you need to know about making it and using it.
The Best Egg Whites to Use
There are three basic ways to make royal icing:
- Using raw egg whites
- Using egg white powder
- Using meringue powder
Traditional royal icing used regular raw egg whites as an ingredient, but that’s not recommended nowadays because of the potential for salmonella and other pathogens that might occur in raw eggs.
But pasteurized raw egg whites are readily available in almost all grocery stores, and that’s the ingredient that I use in this recipe. Just look for a carton of them near where you buy the eggs. The cartons look like a quart or pint of half-and-half, but they’re actually egg whites. These egg whites have been heated to the point of killing off any bacteria, but not enough to have cooked the eggs, and they are safe to use for making royal icing.
What About Egg White Powder or Meringue Powder?
Egg white powder and meringue powder can both be found in specialty stores or online. You can substitute the egg whites in this recipe with:
- Egg white powder: Follow the instructions on the package to create the equivalent of three egg whites. Make sure to let the powder fully hydrate by beating it together for five minutes. Proceed with this recipe as written.
- Meringue powder: Meringue powder is actually comprised of powdered egg whites plus sugar and a stabilizer like cornstarch. Combine three tablespoons of meringue powder and five tablespoons of warm water. Beat together for about five minutes to fully hydrate the powder, then proceed with this recipe as written.
How to Make Brilliant White Icing
The base color of royal icing after you make it is white. But this white color might be more of an eggshell beige white than a stark brilliant white. This is because pure vanilla extract is dark brown and will tinge the final icing.
Normally this isn’t an issue, but if you want to make bright, stark white icing, do the following:
- Use clear vanilla extract, or use a different clear extract for flavoring (like peppermint or lemon).
- Make sure to also use conventional powdered sugar. Organic powdered sugar is often made with evaporated cane sugar, which has impurities left in it, and this results in a slightly beige color. Conventional powdered sugar has been processed in such a way that it is white in color.
- Finally, you can actually buy a professional White or Bright White food coloring. This will help brighten up the icing! The white food coloring is also a great way to make true white buttercream frosting, which is often a slight off-white because of the butter in it.
How to Color Royal Icing
My preferred method to color royal icing is professional grade gel food coloring. It is an intense coloring agent in gel form and doesn’t dilute the icing much. One or two drops is often all you need to get the vivid color.
Unfortunately most grocery stores don’t carry gel food coloring, but you can find it easily at craft stores like Michael's as well as online.
A lot of well stocked grocery stores will carry Betty Crocker gel colorant, which doesn’t thin down the icing as much as liquid food coloring. But the Betty Crocker gel colorant isn’t as intense as the professional grade coloring, so you do need to use more of it. To get the same amount of vivid color that I want, I’ve noticed that I have to use a lot of the Betty Crocker gel, which does thin my icing down a bit. So keep that mind.
Yes, you can use the regular liquid food coloring in royal icing, but keep in mind that you often need to use a lot of it to get the same intense color. So make sure the icing is thick before adding the coloring, and you may want to test the icing after adding the coloring.
One thing to note, royal icing frostings tend to darken slightly after they dry. So keep that in mind. The darkening will depend on the type of food coloring you use and what color you use. If this is a concern, you can make the royal icing the day before, and then let it sit overnight in the fridge. The icing color will deepen and give a better sense of what the final product will look like.
Artificial vs. Natural Colorants
Most natural colorants won’t work in baked goods, as the high heat will break down the coloring agents. But this isn’t an issue with royal icing! There are a number of natural based food colorings on the market now. Keep in mind the colors might not be as vivid as the artificial based ones (I find the colors are more pastel). The natural-based colors also tend to fade after a few days, so make sure to serve the cookies right away!
Equipment Needed for Royal Icing
There’s no way around the fact that you need some special equipment for decorating cookies. That said, most of the equipment is easy to find online or at a well-stocked grocery store (look in the section where you would find sprinkles and colored sugars). That said, almost all of the equipment is relatively cheap and easy to store!
- Piping Tips: Round piping tips come in a variety of sizes, ranging from #1 on up. The larger the number, the larger the hole. I usually go with a #4 tip for super basic shapes like a circle or a square and a #3 tip for most other shapes. I might opt for a #2 if I’m doing more intricate work, or a #1 if I really want to get detailed.
- Coupler: A coupler is a plastic screw that allows you to change the tips. If you think you’ll be changing tips in the icing process, use a coupler
- Piping Bags: I like to use clear plastic disposable bags, because then I can see the exact color I’m using.
Piping vs. Flooding Royal Icing
There are many ways to decorate royal icing. The two main ways to use it are piping and flooding, both of which are dependent on the thickness of the icing. For piping, you want a thicker icing, and with flooding, you want a thinner icing.
- Piping is exactly what it sounds like: You are piping the icing from a pastry bag onto the cookie into a thin line. This is for “drawing” a decoration or outlining a large area that you will cover with icing. You want a slightly thicker icing for this technique, for more control.
- Flooding is also as descriptive as it sounds. This technique involves filling a piped area with a thinner icing, covering it with a flat color.
Think of it like a coloring book: First you outline the area that you want the color (with piping), then you color in the area completely (with flooding).
Since it’s difficult to get the exact same tint of color frosting between two batches, starting with one colored frosting and dividing it in half is recommended.
There are more advanced techniques on decorating, as well. Check them out HERE.
- TIP: If you are new to royal icing, I highly recommend first baking up and decorating large cookies (instead of smaller cookies or delicately-shaped cookies). The bigger the surface, the less “detail” work that you need to do. You can get a feel for how the icing works on larger surfaces, and you’ll be way more satisfied with the outcome.
The Best Consistency for Piping Royal Icing
Royal icing piping consistency should be thick enough that it holds its shape when you pipe it out of an icing bag, but not so thick that it doesn’t adhere to the cookie itself or break as you pipe it. I’ve heard different comparisons in terms of consistency, but “toothpaste” is usually what I am aiming for. Don’t worry, it sounds like a narrow window but there’s some leeway with it!
The recipe below should give you a decent piping consistency for royal icing. When you pull the whisk or beater up from the mixer, as the icing falls to the bowl, you should still be able to see the strings of icing on the surface for a good eight to 10 seconds before it melts back into the pool of icing. If it’s longer than that, you should thin the icing down with a little water (try one teaspoon at a time) and if it’s too thin, sift in one tablespoon of powdered sugar at a time.
Keep in mind that if you add food coloring to the icing, depending on what type of food coloring, you will be thinning down the icing with it. So thicker is always desired at first.
Once the icing is at the right thickness, pour half of the icing into a piping bag fitted with a small round tip or a coupler.
- TIP! The easiest way to fill a piping bag is to place it in a pint glass, then invert the top of the bag over the sides of the glass, creating a “cuff”. Then pour the icing in, about 1/3 full, and then pull up the sides of the bag and twist and seal it shut with a twist tie. This prevents the icing from back-flowing and getting all over your hands.
The Best Consistency for Flooding Royal Icing
Transfer the other half of your colored royal icing into in a bowl. Thin the icing in the bowl down to flooding consistency. Here’s how:
- Add some water to the icing, a teaspoon at a time, until you get a consistency of glue, something that slowly flows.
- Spoon some icing up and then allow it to drizzle down onto the icing in the bowl. The drizzle should stay on top and then melt back into the surface after two or three seconds. If it immediately disappears, your icing is too thin.
How to Pipe Royal Icing
If you’ve never used royal icing before, practices makes perfect! I always pipe a little bit of icing onto a piece of parchment paper and do swirls and lines to make sure I get the feel of the icing, the pressure I need to pipe, and to get the movements down again.
You’ll find that if you work slightly above the surface and think of the icing as a “string” that is falling from the piping bag, you have less shakes and the icing will look more organic. The closer you are to the surface, the more control you have, but also the more wobbles will show up! As you get more experienced, you’ll find yourself naturally moving up and down for more or less control and flow.
Pipe the design you want on the paper, or just jump ahead and pipe it on the cookie itself!
How to Flood With Royal Icing
Start by pipping the outline of the area that you want to fill, or “flood,” with icing. This outline acts as a barrier or wall to the icing. Then fill in the area with the thinner flooding icing.
A lot of folks use squeeze tubes and bottles for flooding the icing, but I tend to throw caution to the wind and just spoon my icing up! Yep, I carefully spoon some icing into that area, then use the spoon tip to push the icing around carefully. Once most of the area is done, I’ll use a toothpick and push and pull the icing to fill the corners.
But if you are more particular or are looking to fill in detailed areas, I definitely recommend a squeeze bottle.
Basic Decorating Ideas
There are tons of royal icing techniques you can explore, but even with simple piping and flooding, you can do a whole range of decorations. Here are a few ideas:
- Outline intricate designs and patterns with piping.
- Flood whole areas of the cookie, then add sprinkles or small candies on top.
- Flood whole areas of the cookie, let it dry, then draw on them with food coloring markers, available at craft shops.
- Outline patterns and fill in part of the pattern with flooding. Think checkerboards or argyle patterns.
LOOKING FOR MORE IDEAS? 6 Ways to Decorate Cookies with Royal Icing
Can You Store Royal Icing?
Royal icing immediately starts to dry and get crusty when exposed to air. The thicker the icing, the faster it dries! I immediately cover any bowl with plastic wrap or place the icing in an airtight container to prevent it from drying out.
Royal icing will keep in the fridge for up to two weeks, so you can make the royal icing ahead of time! Just keep all royal icing in airtight containers. If you have royal icing already in a piping bag, just place the bag in a zip-top freezer bag. Some folks even place a toothpick in the piping tip before placing it in the zip-top bag to try and seal the icing more.
How to Store Decorated Cookies
Cookies decorated with royal icing need to dry completely before being stored. I like to allot at least a two hour period for drying. It also helps to have a gentle fan blowing over the cookies to make sure the icing is completely hard. But you can also leave the cookies out overnight on the countertop or kitchen table to make sure they are completely dry.
Once dry, place them in an airtight container with a piece of parchment or wax paper between layers. They should keep at room temperature for up to five days.
I don’t recommend freezing cookies with royal icing. The colors tend to bleed into the cookie when they thaw out because of condensation.
Try Royal Icing on These Cookies!
- Best Sugar Cookies
- Gingerbread Cookies
- Stained Glass Cookies
- Best Christmas Cookies
- Thin and Crispy Chocolate Cookies
This recipe makes enough for basic decorations for one batch of sugar cookies. If you're planning more elaborate decorations, we recommend doubling this recipe.
- For the basic icing:
- 3 ounces (6 tablespoons or 3 large) pasteurized egg whites
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, or another flavored extract
- 4 cups (460 g or 1 pound) powdered sugar
- To finish:
- Food coloring of your choice
- Additional powdered sugar to thicken icing
- Water to thin icing
Mix the egg and vanilla:
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment (or using a bowl and a whisk), add the egg whites and vanilla extract. Mix together on medium speed until it starts to get frothy, about 15 to 20 seconds.
Add the powdered sugar:
Sift 1 cup of the powdered sugar over the egg whites. Do not skip sifting as powdered sugar tends to clump up! Mix on medium speed until the sugar is absorbed. You may need to scrape down the sides of the bowl to get all the powdered sugar into the liquid.
Repeat 3 more times, sifting in 1 cup of the powdered sugar at a time, and scraping down the sides to make sure all the powdered sugar is incorporated into the icing.
Test icing for thickness:
Lift the whisk up and check to see how long it takes for the icing thread to disappear in the surface of the icing. You want about 8 to 10 seconds for the piping consistency. If it’s not thick enough, sift 1 tablespoon of powdered sugar into the icing and mix together, repeating until you get that thickness.
Color the icing:
If using different colors of icing, divide the icing into bowls and then add separate food colorings to each bowl. Check thickness and mix in more sifted powdered sugar if necessary for piping, or thin as necessary with water for flooding.
For flooding, spoon some icing up and then allow it to drizzle down onto the icing in the bowl. The drizzle should stay on top and then melt back into the surface after 2 or 3 seconds. If it immediately disappears your icing is too thin, and you should sift in more powdered sugar.
Decorate your cookies:
Transfer the piping frosting to a piping bag with a #3 tip or smaller. Pipe outlines or decorations onto your cookies. Use the flooding icing to fill in the spaces, if desired.
Allow cookies to dry:
Let the icing dry completely before storing, at least 2 hours with a gentle fan blowing over the cookies, or overnight. Store cookies between parchment in an airtight container for up to 5 days.