Make this easy royal icing recipe for sugar cookies and you can decorate beautiful sugar cookies for any occasion! I'm sharing all my tips & tricks to give you the confidence you need to try this technique yourself!

An overhead image of cut out sugar cookies decorated with royal icing in shapes of Christmas trees, candy canes, pumpkins, ghosts, and hearts.

I didn't like sugar cookies with royal icing for years but that's only because I had only ever tried ones that tasted like cardboard with an edible cement icing on top that was hard enough to break a tooth. But then my friend Tiffany entered my life with her delicious edible works of art and showed me that there was a way to have your cake (erm, cookie?) and eat it too.

Tiffany made fancy sugar cookies for my oldest daughter's birthday, but then she moved.

So I finally had to figure out royal icing for sugar cookies on my own. But armed with this classic royal icing recipe and my favorite cut out sugar cookie recipe, I realized it's much more doable than I previously thought!

Myths About Royal Icing

I had some pretty strong misconceptions going in to this endeavor. Such as:

  • You need to be an artist to create a beautiful sugar cookie decorated with royal icing. Totally not true. I mean, it's not like I'm attempting intricate designs or heading to Cookie Con any time soon (yes, there is a convention for cookie artists!). But to make cute, easy cookie designs? You got this.
  • Getting just the right consistency is practically impossible and one drop of water too much will cause your icing to run everywhere. False. Yes, thickness or fluidity is important when decorating sugar cookies with royal icing, but it can be demystified by knowing that the two main consistencies used are a thicker piping consistency (think the consistency of toothpaste or really soft cream cheese) and a thinner flood consistency (think the consistency of honey or shampoo).

What is Royal Icing?

Royal icing is a sweet, hard icing made from powdered sugar, egg whites or meringue powder, and flavorings like vanilla or a squeeze of lemon juice. It is used to decorate sugar cookies, gingerbread cookies, or a gingerbread house.

Royal icing dries out completely and almost makes sugar cookies look too perfect. Ya know, if they are decorated by a pro with mad piping and flooding skills instead of somebody like me with a shaky hand and general lack of patience for precision and perfection when I just want to be cramming the dang cookies in my mouth already!.

What You'll Need

Scroll down to the recipe card below this post for ingredient quantities and full instructions.

  • Meringue powder - This ingredient is easy to find at grocery stores, craft stores or you can order it online. My favorite brands are Wilton and Genie's Dream.
  • Powdered sugar - Also known as confectioners' sugar, if it's lumpy you might want to sift it first before mixing with the meringue powder and water.
  • Water - For best results, use room temperature or slightly warm water.
  • Optional flavorings - You can add vanilla extract, mint extract, almond extract, or other flavorings to your royal icing if you want.
Meringue powder, powdered sugar, and water in bowls on a marble surface.

How to Make Royal Icing

Add the powdered sugar and meringue powder to a large bowl and whisk them together. I like to use my KitchenAid stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment but the paddle attachment or hand mixer will also work.

Add the water and vanilla extract while the mixer is running on medium-low speed. Then increase to medium-high speed until it forms stiff peaks and the icing loses some of it's glossiness, about 5 minutes.

I don't like using high speed because I feel like it adds too much air to the royal icing.

Thick vs. Thin Royal Icing

I like to start off with a stiffer, thick consistency icing because it's easy from there to thin the icing out to a flood consistency just by continuing to add a little water. A thicker royal icing should be spreadable and easy to pipe. It reminds me of the consistency of toothpaste or very soft cream cheese.

An image of white royal icing in a stand mixer.

To color the icing, divide it between separate bowls for each color you want. Mix in gel food coloring (affiliate link) (I prefer AmeriColor or Chefmaster colors) until you get the shade you want.

You can use lighter colors first, then build on that color with darker colors to save yourself dirtying a separate bowl for every color. I will start with light pinks, blues, yellows, or greens, then move to darker reds, purples, oranges, etc.

Once colored, you can use the thick icing to pipe borders to decorate your cookies or go ahead and thin out the icing to a flood consistency by adding additional water a little at a time and stirring well after each addition.

For flooding, the royal icing should be thinned out enough to melt in on itself in about 10-15 seconds when you run a knife through it.

Think about the viscosity of honey or shampoo to help you gage flooding consistency. It should melt in on itself in about 10 seconds but not be so thin that it will run off the sides of the cookie.

If you go too far and add too much water to your flood icing it will be too thin. But you can save it by adding a spoonful or two of the thicker consistency icing and mixing that in.

Give bags of royal icing in green, orange, white, purple and black.

Using Thick Royal Icing

When I was just starting out with royal icing, I found it much easier to use thick royal icing to pipe borders around the edges of my cookies, then fill them in with thinner flood icing. The thicker icing border helps create a barrier to hold in the flood consistency icing, which is advantageous if your flood icing is a little thinner than you meant it to be. The thicker consistency royal icing can also be good for piping some details on more intricate designs.

The main downsides of this approach is that it takes a little more effort and forethought, and the border of thicker icing is sometimes visible in the finished cookie. It's also less forgiving if you have a shaky hand, but it's a great learning approach if this is your first time using royal icing.

Using Flood Consistency Royal Icing

Alternatively, you can thin out all of your icing to flood consistency from the get-go and use it to both outline and fill your cookies by piping the border with flood icing and then immediately "flooding" the middle of the cookie to fill it in. I recommend using a toothpick or scribe tool to fill in gaps between the border and the flooded center or to pop any air bubbles, if needed.

The upside of this approach is that your border will completely blend in with the flooded center and be invisible. Also, you avoid the nuisance of having to make two consistencies of every icing color by using flood consistency for all your decorating.

The main downside is the risk that your flood consistency icing is too thin and it could run off the edge of the cookie. However, this is my preferred method because once you have figured out the right flood consistency you shouldn't have any problems with your icing being too thin.

How to Decorate with Royal Icing

Once your icing is ready to go, transfer it to a piping bag or even a ziploc bag for decorating your sugar cookies. You can use a small piping tip if you have them, or just snip a tiny corner of the bag instead. Just start really small when snipping off the corner of the bag since it's not like you can undo things if you snip too much and get too heavy of a flow, which will make it difficult to pipe borders around your cookie edges.

For borders, I find that it is easier to hold the piping bag slightly above the cookie so that the icing sort of just falls onto the cookie instead of dragging the tip right along the surface. You'll get cleaner lines this way. It's sort of like laying down a thin rope of icing along the edge and you can practice on a piece of plastic wrap or plate to get the hang of it before you actually start in on a cookie.

Also, if you have a shaky hand like me, it helps to stabilize your arms by resting them on the edge of your work surface.

Wet-on-wet technique

This technique is where you pipe a second color right on to the still-wet first layer of royal icing so that the design melts together. I used this technique to add eyes and mouths for the ghosts in the pictures below. A favorite easy design using the wet-on-wet method is polka dots which you can make by piping dots of a contrasting color onto the still wet flood colors covering your cookie.

Wet-on-dry technique

This approach requires a little more patience because you will pipe part of your design, then let it harden for an hour or two before piping on additional design details. You can see wet on dry technique in action in the image of holly leaves and pumpkins below.

Tips for Success

  • If you cannot find meringue powder or would rather use raw egg whites, you could just replace both the water and meringue powder called for in the recipe with 3 large egg whites.
  • Use clear vanilla extract if you have it to avoid tinting the icing. This will help it keep a pure white look.
  • If your icing it too thin, don't just add in more powdered sugar. Instead, add some of the thicker consistency icing to save it. Keep in mind that it is easier to thin out icing by adding a little extra liquid and more difficult to thicken the icing, so go slowly adding more water until you get the consistency you like.

Recipe FAQ's

What is the difference between royal icing and buttercream frosting?

The biggest difference between royal icing and a frosting like buttercream is in the texture: buttercream is creamy and soft whereas royal icing hardens to an edible candy-like shell. Royal icing also doesn't have the same buttery flavor as buttercream.

Is royal icing safe to eat?

Yes, absolutely! Some recipe use raw eggs, but my version is for royal icing with meringue powder, which is perfectly safe to eat. If you want to try royal icing with raw eggs, I recommend using pasteurized eggs which are safe for consumption.

How long does royal icing take to dry?

Once the cookies are decorated with royal icing, they will take about 6 to 8 hours to dry out at room temperature. Which means if you want to pipe more detailed designs without them settling in to the first layer of icing, you are most likely looking at a multiple day decorating process.

Can I freeze royal icing?

Yes! Royal icing can be frozen for up to 2-3 months. It's a great way to plan ahead or to save any leftover icing you have after making sugar cookies. Just be sure to seal each color separately in a freezer-safe, airtight container or bag before freezing it. 

Then when you are ready to use it, just transfer the icing to the fridge to thaw overnight and let it come to room temperature on the counter the next day and use like normal.

Sugar cookies decorated with royal icing can also be frozen as long as the icing has had time to set completely first. Just thaw at room temperature before enjoying. 

Candy cane and Christmas tree decorated sugar cookies with royal icing and sprinkles.

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Let me know what you thought with a comment and rating below. You can also take a picture and tag me on Instagram @houseofnasheats or share it on the Pinterest pin so I can see.

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Easy Royal Icing Recipe for Sugar Cookies

4.90 from 148 votes
Amy Nash
Prep Time 10 mins
Total Time 10 mins
Course Dessert
Cuisine American
Servings 24 cookies
Beautifully decorated cut-out cookies for every celebration and holiday are totally attainable at home with this easy royal icing recipe for sugar cookies and a few tips & tricks to give you the confidence you need to try this technique yourself!

Ingredients
  

  • 4 Tablespoons meringue powder
  • 4 cups powdered sugar (about 1 pound)
  • 6 Tablespoons warm water + additional 3-4 additional tablespoons for thinning to flood consistency
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Gel food coloring (I like AmeriColor or Chefmaster)

Instructions
 

  • In a large bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together the meringue powder and powdered sugar, then slowly mix in the water and vanilla extract while the mixer is running on medium-low speed. Increase speed to medium-high and beat until stiff peaks form, around 5 minutes. This can be done with a hand mixer, but will take a couple minutes longer.
  • Divide the thick white icing into individual bowls and add gel food coloring, a few drops at a time, mixing well until you achieve the shades you like. From there, you can reserve some of the thicker icing for piping borders as described in the post, or thin all of the icing to flood consistency.  
  • To thin each color to flood consistency, add 1 teaspoon of water at a time and stir well, continuing to add water by ½ teaspoon increments until you reach your desired consistency. If you are thinning the entire batch of icing at once to flood consistency, it will take an additional 3-4 tablespoons for a total of 9-10 tablespoons of water.
  • Once your icing is colored and the right consistency, scoop it into a piping bag fitted with a Wilton #2 or #3 tip. Decorate your sugar cookies by first outlining the border, then filling in the middle with flood icing which should settle into itself. Use a toothpick or scribe tool to fill in any gaps by spreading the icing around, then tap the cookie on the counter a few times to help the icing settle into a smooth, even layer.
  • Dry cookies at room temperature for 6-8 hours until the royal icing is completely firm before adding additional layers or design or stacking for transport.

Video

Notes

  • Be sure all bowls and utensils are totally grease-free or your icing will never reach the consistency you are going for.
  • Using Egg Whites: If you cannot find meringue powder or would rather use raw egg whites, you could just replace both the water and meringue powder called for in the recipe with 3 large egg whites. 
  • How to Thicken: If you thin out your icing too much, you might be able to save the batch by continuing to beat the icing. This incorporates more air and lets some of the liquid evaporate to theoretically thicken the icing. Or if you have additional thick icing that you haven't thinned, you can add that to the icing that is too thin to help save it.

Nutrition

Calories: 81kcal | Carbohydrates: 20g | Protein: 1g | Sodium: 9mg | Potassium: 8mg | Sugar: 20g | Calcium: 1mg | Iron: 1mg
Tried this recipe? Show me on Instagram!Mention @HouseOfNashEats or tag #houseofnasheats!

This post was originally published in April, 2018. The photos and content were updated in November, 2022.

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About the author

Hi, I'm Amy

I enjoy exploring the world through food, culture, and travel and sharing the adventure with mostly from-scratch, family friendly recipes that I think of as modern comfort cooking.

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Reader questions and reviews

    1. No, cream of tartar won't work as a substitute for meringue powder. The only approach that I know of that works is to use actual egg whites instead.

  1. Can you show turning the gingerman upside down to make a dearhead? I have made mine but no one has put a pix on how to decorate the cookie as a Dear. Will you do so and text me it is there on your site, l saw them earlier this year but now my photo has disappeared on my phone. I guess it is in cyberspace🤣😂. Thank you

    1. Leftover royal icing can be stored in the fridge as long as you cover the surface with plastic wrap. It needs to actually touch the icing so that a shell doesn't form on the top. I wouldn't store if for longer than a couple of days, but I have heard that it actually freezes really well in freezer-safe ziploc bags for up to 1 month. Then you just thaw it on the counter before using!

    1. Yes! You can freeze your royal icing for up to about 2 months, even if you have already added the water to make it the right consistency. It's a great way to save leftover royal icing rather than just tossing it.

    1. If you can't find meringue powder, you can use egg whites instead! Just leave out the water as well. There are instructions for substituting egg whites for meringue powder in the recipe notes.

  2. Hi there, I know it’s an old post but wonder how this icing performs overnight.  Can you make it the day before and store it in the piping bags?
    Would you refrigerate or just keep in an airtight container?
    How long does the icing stay runny in the piping bag ?

    1. Yes, you can make this in advance and store it in the piping bags! As long as the bags are sealed and the recipe is made as written with meringue powder, you can leave the bags of icing at room temperature for up to 2 weeks!

  3. The recipe call for 4 cups of powered sugar, which equals two pounds.  I also used over 12 tablespoon of water.   Just thought you might make a correction.  It turned out good

  4. Thank you so much for sharing your ideas. They were very easy to follow. Happy Holidays to you and your family! 

    1. The problem with regular food coloring is that it adds more liquid and isn't as strong in color as the gel-based type. Yes, you can use it, but be sure to do it on thicker icing first so it doesn't thin out too much.

    1. Is it runny? If it's not thickening up, that sounds like a measuring issue. Either you are missing some of the powdered sugar, or too much water was added up front.

  5. I keep a small spray bottle with water in it and that way I can thin the icing out by adding just a small amount of water at a time to achieve the desired consistency. If I need to warm the water just a little I pop the bottle into the microwave oven and zap it. As a novice at using royal icing with meringue powderI found this one little thing to be extremely helpful.

    1. I wouldn't keep it in the fridge longer than a few days. Royal icing freezes really well, so my preferred choice would be to freeze it and just let it thaw when I'm ready to use it.

  6. Thanks for a great recipe and directions for outline and flooding! It was my first time trying royal icing and it came out perfect!

  7. I can’t wait to try this recipe! Would you have an alternative recipe for those of us who can’t eat wheat? I’m wondering if I can just substitute the all-purpose flour for either oat flower or gluten free flower

  8. I can’t wait to try this recipe! Would you have an alternative recipe for those of us who can’t eat wheat? I’m wondering if I can just substitute the all-purpose flour for either oat flour or gluten free flour

  9. Hi! I just made this recipe today! It’s great ! Except it is cracking…what did I do wrong!?! Did I over mix it? I mixed it for about 7 minutes. It was still pretty runny at 5 so I scraped the edges and then mixed for 2 more minutes then it was good. I used it right away & didn’t refrigerate or freeze it.

    Thank you!!

  10. 5 stars
    This turned out so well! It hardened and tasted good! First Royal icing recipe that actually hardened and worked to decorate