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!
I've shared three of my favorite sugar cookie recipes (classic cut-out sugar cookies, chocolate cut-out sugar cookies, and oatmeal rolled sugar cookies), but I can't just give you a cookie recipe without sharing an easy royal icing recipe for sugar cookies, now can I? Be sure not to miss any of my cookie recipes!
Easy Royal Icing Recipe for Sugar Cookies
Here is my confession for the day: I kinda sorta didn't like sugar cookies for years. I know! What kind of monster am I? Apparently the kind of monster that somehow had only ever tried sugar cookies 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 and I swapped services with each other where I took family photos for their Christmas cards and she made fancy sugar cookies for my oldest daughter's birthday. But I was still feeling too intimidated by sugar cookies back then to ask her to actually show me her decorating ways! And then, of course, she moved.
So I finally had to bite the bullet and figure out royal icing for sugar cookies on my lonesome. But you know what? This royal icing recipe is great and so much more doable than I previously thought!
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 heading to Cookie Con any time soon (yes, there is a convention for cookie artists!). But to make a cute, easy polka dot design? 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 and gingerbread houses.
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 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!.
Is royal icing safe to eat?
Yes, absolutely! Some people worry about salmonella that is sometimes found in the yolk of the egg, but royal icing made with meringue powder or pasteurized eggs is totally safe for consumption.
How to make royal icing
Making royal icing is actually very simple, especially if you use meringue powder which can be ordered online through Amazon or found at any local craft store like Michael's, Hobby Lobby, or Joann's in their baking supplies section. 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.
I like to add the powdered sugar (also called confectioners sugar) and meringue powder to the large bowl of my stand mixer first and whisk them together first before adding the water and vanilla while the mixer is running. Then it is just a matter of letting the mixer run on medium speed (high speed adds too much air) until it forms stiff peaks and the icing loses some of it's glossiness, about 7-10 minutes.
You want to start off with this stiffer, thick consistency icing because it's easy from there to thin the icing out to a flood consistency. Like I described above, the thicker icing should be spreadable and it reminds me of the consistency of toothpaste or very soft cream cheese. It should be easy to pipe out of a narrow decorating tip like a Wilton #2 or #3 (although you could totally just use plastic zip-tight bags with the ends snipped off).
At this point, while the icing is thick, divide it between separate bowls for each color you want. Mix in gel food coloring (I prefer AmeriGel colors) until you get the shade you want.
Once colored, you can further divide each color in two if you plan to use both thick and thin icing to decorate your cookies (more about why you might take this approach in a second) and thin out just half of each color by adding 1 teaspoon of water, then additional half teaspoons of water, stirring well after each addition until you reach your desired flooding consistency.
For flooding, the icing should be thinned out enough to melt in on itself in about 10-15 seconds when you run a knife through it (again, think honey or shampoo viscosity), but not so thin that it will run off the sides of the cookie.
If you go too far and get your flood icing too thin, don't try to save it by adding in more powdered sugar. Instead, you will need to add a spoonful or two of thick icing and mixing that in. It's just easier to thin out your icing slowly so you don't go too far.
How to use royal icing
There are two ways I would recommend decorating sugar cookies with royal icing. The first is to use thick icing to pipe a border around the edges of your cookie, then fill in with flood consistency icing. The upside to this approach is that you get a barrier of thick icing to help hold in the flood consistency icing, in case you are worried about getting it too thin the first time you attempt royal icing.
If you take this approach, definitely color the icing while it is still thick, then thin out half of each color so that both consistencies are the same shade instead of trying to match colors later on. This takes a little more effort and forethought, which is a negative for me, but still worth trying at least once. The other downside is that a border of thicker icing is usually visible in the finished cookie.
On the other hand, you can thin out all of your icing from the get-go and use flood icing to both outline and fill your cookies by piping the border with flood icing and then immediately using the same consistency icing to flood the middle of the cookie, using a toothpick or scribe tool to fill in gaps between the border and the flooded center.
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 downside is the risk that your flood consistency icing is too thin and it could run off the edge of the cookie. Either approach works, although I think the second one is my preferred method.
How to decorate with royal icing
Once your icing is ready to go, you need to transfer it to a piping bag or ziploc bag to be used for decorating your sugar cookies. While you could use do this directly and either throw away the disposable piping bags afterwards or mess around with washing them out, another approach is to lay a piece of plastic wrap on the counter, pour your icing from the mixing bowl onto the plastic wrap, and then wrap it up tightly into a little package like these ones in the picture.
Then you just insert each little bundle of frosting into a piping bag, snipping off the tip and attaching a piping tip with a couple. Then when you have used up your frosting, you can just pull out the empty plastic wrap and discard it, which saves you the expense of using a new "disposable" pastry bag each time (because honestly, they aren't that cheap and they are a pain to wash).
Or you could just use plastic zip-tight bags and snip off the ends if you don't want to invest in tips and couplers and bags. 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 practically impossible to do clean piping of borders around your cookie edges.
Outlining and flooding
When outlining the cookie, I find that it is actually 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. 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 might help to stabilize your arms by resting them on the edge of your work surface.
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.
Since I'm still a novice when it comes to decorating with royal icing, I find the wet-on-wet technique where you pipe a second color right on to the still-wet first layer of royal icing to so that the design melts together to be just right for my purposes of balancing a desire for cute cookies with my need to eat the cookies sooner, rather than later. I achieved the polka dot design in these Easter egg cookies this way, by piping dots of white onto the still wet pastel colors. It was easy and I think the cookies turned out cute!
For these particular Easter Egg sugar cookies, I was inspired by this tutorial and did my best to recreate her simple design using a wet-on-wet technique with flood consistency royal icing.
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 royal icing you have after making sugar cookies. Just be sure to seal each color separately in a freezer-safe, airtight 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.
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Easy Royal Icing Recipe for Sugar Cookies
- 4 Tablespoons meringue powder
- 4 cups powdered sugar (about 1 pound)
- 6 Tablespoons warm water
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Gel food coloring (I like AmeriColor)
- In a large bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together the meringue powder and powdered sugar, then slowly mix in the water and vanilla while the mixer is running on medium-low speed. Increase speed to medium 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 for how ever many colors you want 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 half of each color at piping consistency for piping borders as described in the post, or thin all 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.
- Once your icing is colored and the right consistency, scoop it into a piping bag fitted with a size 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.