How to Decorate with Royal Icing

I have posted many times about sugar cookies I have decorated with royal icing.  I just don’t think you can beat the gorgeous detailing and smooth finish that royal icing provides.  Though I have done my best to share all my tips and tricks in other posts, many readers have requested a “how to” post with step-by-step photos.  So for those of you who need the visual guide, let’s decorate with royal icing!

Let’s start out with a list of what you will need:
A batch of sugar cookies to decorate (this is my favorite recipe)
A batch of royal icing (you may need more than one batch, depending on how many colors you use, and how many cookies you decorated)
Icing gel colors – these are best because they create bright colors without affecting the consistency of the icing (unlike liquid food coloring)
Small airtight containers for each color of icing you plan to use
Spoons
Toothpicks
Disposable pastry bags fitted with small round tips (I like size 2 for most purposes)
Squeeze bottles (not pictured here, but these make the whole process much easier)

Once you have all your supplies together, invert the pastry bags so that they will be ready to be filled with icing.

Divide the batch of royal icing between the various airtight containers and color each as desired.

Transfer the colored icings to the prepared pastry bags.  You do not have to use all of the icing you color, only as much as you think you will need for piping.  Leave any excess in the container and cover with the airtight lid while the icing is not in use.

Pipe outlines around the edges of your cookies.  To keep your lines as smooth as possible and reduce stress on your body, do this seated at a table and keep one elbow or forearm steady against your work surface.  Keep the tip of your pastry bag very close to the cookie as you pipe, to avoid the “squiggles”.  (The more space between your tip and the cookie, the more room for the icing to move where you do not want it.)

Let the icing outlines set for at least one hour before proceeding.

With any of the piping bags that are not in use, store them upright in a drinking glass with a very small amount of water in the bottom.  This prevents the icing in the tip from hardening.

Now that the cookies have been outlined, we will make the thinned icing to flood the centers of the cookies.  To do this, use a portion of the thicker icing in its airtight container.  Add water, a very small amount at a time (maybe ½-1 tsp.), and stir well until the water is incorporated.  Continue this process, thinning the icing until you reach the desired consistency.  For the best flooding icing, you want it to run off the back of a spoon…

And be quickly reabsorbed into the icing still in the container.  I aim for the icing to disappear back into the icing below in about 5-10 seconds.

Once the icing has been appropriately thinned, let it stand for about 5-10 minutes.  This allows bubbles incorporated into the icing during the thinning process to rise to the surface.  After the bubbles have risen, give the icing one gentle stir around the surface to pop these bubbles, and transfer the icing to a squeeze bottle.

Fill the center of the outlined cookies with the thinned icing.

Use a toothpick to help the flooding icing reach the edges.

If you notice any air bubbles that have made it into the flooded icing, pop them with the tip of the toothpick.

Repeat this process until all the outlines have been filled.

Let the cookies set for several hours, until the icing has set completely.  (I like to let them set overnight.)

Once the icing has set, it will have a matte sheen and a hard surface.

Use remaining thick icing in pastry bags to pipe detailing onto the cookies.  Let this icing set at least one hour.

And you’re done!  That’s all there is to it.

I also made these little acorn cookies to go along with the maple leaves.


Package them up in little cellophane baggies, tie with ribbons, and you have some very adorable cookies for any occasion!

For all my previous entries on sugar cookies with royal icing, see these posts:
Christmas Cookies
Sugar Cookies with Royal Icing
Valentine’s Cookies
Onesie Cookies
Andrew’s First Birthday Party
Wedding Sugar Cookies
Home, Sweet Home Cookies
Halloween Sugar Cookies

98 Responses

  1. Hi Annie! I’m so excited that you posted this! I’m on the second day, detail day, of my snow flake cookies. As always, I’ve been loving your blog and am always excited to see your fantastic creations!
    Jill
    ps: congratulations on your new home! It looks great!

  2. Thank you so much for this! I’m planning my sugar making cookie activity for next weekend, and have received my meringue powder and gel from the US!

    This was a great post!

  3. So excited for this post…I want to make cookies for ballet teachers for Christmas, and now I know how to make them look pretty. THANK you thank you!

  4. Your decorating skills are so impressive! Thanks for the great tutorial.

  5. Thank you Annie for posting this. Now I am excited to decorate my cookies.

  6. Wow! I’ve done Christmas cookies for years, but never could get them to look so professional. Thanks for the great tutorial. Seems very doable. I’m itchin’ to give it a try this year.

  7. I love detail. Thanks for taking the time to do this!

  8. Thanks for the tutorial. I want to try this. Question for you. So, if you leave the flood icing to dry overnight, do you need to make a new batch to do the piping on top? Or, if you saved the thicker royal icing in the pipe bags in the glass with water… do you refrigerate those or leave them out overnight, too?

    • Great question, Karen. I typically try to save some of the initial piping icing for the detailing, but sometimes I end up making more. It really just depends on your needs. That is ideal, I suppose, so you don’t have to make extra or end up coloring more icing, but it is dependent on how many cookies and the type of design you are doing.

      Also, you definitely don’t want to refrigerate royal icing. It can cause it to harden, and then when it returns to room temperature, the condensation will cause it too thin out a bit and melt. Always keep it at room temperature. It can be stored in airtight containers for quite some time (weeks).

  9. Annie, can you tell me where you get your supplies? I’m in Indianapolis too and want to try my hand at royal icing next weekend. I’m also curious how you get so much baking done with a little one? My guy is about the same age as Andrew, and I can’t imagine how holiday baking is going to go.

    • Hi Alisha,
      You can find the pastry bags, tips, squeeze bottles, gel coloring and meringue powder all in the Wilton aisle in craft stores (like Michael’s, Joann’s, etc.) As for baking with the little one – he’s just well behaved I guess. Our living room and kitchen are open to each other, so I can keep an eye on him, plus I have a very helpful husband. Also, Andrew loves to be in the kitchen with me while I bake so I just turn on some music and we have a little dance party. No special tricks, we just have fun!

  10. Thank you Annie!! I am a very visual learner, so you have helped tremendously! I am confident now that I can use royal icing and have it turn out well,thanks to you 🙂 Merry Christmas!

  11. Where do you get the cellophane bags? That really adds to the presentation!

  12. Annie,
    This is soooo helpful! I’m very intimidated by royal icing and this made it look so much more approachable. Thanks for the post!
    Also, I am in love with your granola recipes! I’ve been making them for the past several weeks for our breakfast parfaits and its by far the best recipe I’ve tried.
    April

  13. This was such a helpful post! Thanks so much! How long are the cookies good after you have wrapped in cellophane bags? In other words, how long will they taste fresh? Thanks so much!!! Love your blog!!

    • Jessica,
      These cookies keep really well for quite a long time. I have eaten them nearly two weeks after making them and they still taste great. I don’t think I’ve gone beyond that, so I don’t have a definite answer, but they keep very well.

  14. Yeah, that would have been brilliantly helpful when I started doing my cookies. Nice job!
    Question for you: Do you find using the couplers helpful enough to justify purchasing? I know they’re not terribly expensive, but I am just curious what your thoughts are.

    • Hi Jaime,
      Yes, I think the couplers are really helpful – but I’ve never tried without them, so I wouldn’t know how to compare. However they are super convenient when you just want to switch out a tip on the same bag of icing (for example, I sometimes use a wider tip for outlines and a very thin one for certain detailing.)
      🙂 Annie

  15. Thanks so much for this!! I always see your vibrate and beautiful cookies and just can’t seem to get the same effect with buttercream 🙂

  16. What a brilliant how-to guide! I have saved it for future use. Thank you 🙂

  17. Thank you so much for posting this. I have been really wanting to do this for a long time, but I have been hesitant. Now that I have this post, I think it will be much easier for me to attempt it for the first time. Thanks so much!!!

  18. What a great tutorial, your cookies are gorgeous!

  19. Awesome job! I never really thought royal icing would be too hard, but it makes it even less intimidating to see just how easy it really is. I’ll have to try it on some Christmas cookies — my in-laws have ‘allowed’ (read: told) me to host this year’s family Christmas party, and I’m sort of nervous about the little details like this one… I’ll be practicing soon!

  20. This is perfect! Icing cookies (at least neatly) has always escaped me and these look amazing! I am excited to try this out next week.

  21. Great post and beautiful images! Keep up the good cookin’

  22. Wow. This tutorial was awesome! I went through cooking school and never once was I taught how to work with royal icing like this. Love your blog!
    ChefAlice

  23. These are always such wonderful posts, there are not enough quality posts that explain how to work this process online. These make wonderful gift basket bouquet displays.

  24. I am in awe of you. You do all this, with a baby AND you are a doctor. Your blog should be published as a book!

  25. Hi Annie, I can’t wait to try this technique on our Christmas cookies this year. You would probably laugh if you saw the way my grandma & I use royal icing. We use a butter knife or a spoon and smear them with icing and it all ends up falling off onto the racks & paper. Such a mess! Also, I know you have heard this before but your site is so lovely. My mother-n-law turned me onto your site last week and I’ve been hooked. I love the detailed steps you give for the baby food. I see that many people ask you how you do it. “It” being all the hats you wear, with being a wife, mommy, doctor, baker & keeping up with your beautiful site. And you never respond. So what’s your secret Miss Annie? I think the Indianapolis Monthly or Indy Woman’s magazine should find room for you in their columns soon. Keep up the good work girl!

    • HoosierMamma,
      Thank you so much for your sweet compliments. I know, people ask me all the time how I do it and it’s a difficult question to answer – I just do it! I think anyone is capable of doing all I do. It just takes organization and good time management skills. You have to make time for the things you love, no matter how busy you might be! I hope you continue to enjoy the blog 🙂

  26. Great tips! I have yet to decorate with royal icing but your tutorial makes it look so simple 🙂

  27. Thank you! I tried my hand at royal icing last weekend and it was a disaster, I didn’t get any of the consistencies right. I’m going to try again this weekend and I know this will be very helpful!

  28. Thanks for posting this, Annie! Getting better with royal icing is something I’m working on and this is super helpful. Your cookies are always beautiful. I’m going to have to pick me up some squeeze bottles this weekend and get practicing! 🙂

  29. Those cookies are beautiful…and so are you pictures!

  30. Thanks for the tutorial!! You make it so organised, I tend to decorate in a completely haphazard manner!

  31. I am SO impressed! Beautiful and it’s interesting to see what all goes on behind the scenes.

  32. Great post. Thanks for all the hints. You make it looks so easy:))

  33. Thanks for the post! I will try my 2nd attempt at royal icing this xmas. And now that I found this pan (http://www.amazon.com/Wilton-Christmas-Cookie-Shapes-Pan/dp/B001D8ZUT4), no need for the cutters or even rolling out the dough!

  34. Thank so much for the post, Annie! LOVE it and am going to give it a try this year…we should all report back on how ours turned out…a ‘where are they now’ post. 🙂

  35. thank you, thank you, thank you-this is the best tutorial on this out there!!! as always you amaze me!!!!

  36. Beautiful cookies…I’ll definitely have to keep this in mind. My decorating attempts are always interesting 🙂

  37. wow those look amazing!!

  38. Thank you for this great tutorial !!!

  39. Annie: Thanks for this tutorial! Have you ever frozen your cookies after they were iced? I am curious how they hold up.

    Thank you!

    • Angie, you don’t want to freeze after icing (or even refrigerate). The condensation that will collect on the cookies when they warm back up will dissolve the icing and make it into a mess, and all the hard work goes to waste.

  40. Loved this post! Thank you for explaining it so clearly. I love your method of flooding. And I didn’t know it’s best to set the cookies aside for an hour between outlining and flooding. Your cookies are always so beautiful.

  41. Wonderful tutorial! Thank you so much!

  42. […] hoping to perfect my cookie decorating skills before next Christmas using this guide on How to Decorate with Royal Icing from Annie’s […]

  43. Thank you so very much for this 101 on Royal Icing! I discovered your blog a while ago and am totally hooked on it! Thanks so much for being so generous with your recipes and tips. It amazes me how a mom+current doctor could be such a lovely and proficient baker as well! Keep up the good work and all the best to you and your family!

  44. Your cookies look SO much better than my gingerbread house decorating ever did LOL, I totally have that “6 year old” look to my icing skills right now 🙂
    – one thing my mom was telling me is to never use plastic wrap, plastic containers or plastic bags because the plastic will break down the royal icing, and she told me to always cover with aluminum foil in a stainless steel bowl instead – is this something that one needs to worry about? Can one even find non-plastic icing bags?

    • Jenn, I’ve only ever used plastic containers and plastic piping bags for royal icing. It’s never been a problem. In fact, because royal icing keeps so well, I’ve kept it for over a week in a plastic container, used it later, and it’s been fine. That’s what I’ve seen on most other blogs as well. I don’t think you need to worry about it!

  45. Wow! You have some amazing looking ideas Annie. I thought your cookies were very creative in design. What a way to augment the feeling of the Autumn season! Thanks for sharing with us!

  46. Annie,
    Thank you so much for the tutorial! I am planing on making sugar cookies to decorate my Christmas tree this year. Ive never made sugar cookies before and your tutorial is great and really helpful! thank you so much!

  47. This is outstanding. I’ve been looking for something like this so I can make cookies for my daughter’s birthday party. You are awesome!

  48. HI Annie, Thanks for the 101. However I can’t find meringue powder. Can I use Cream of Tater in it’s place?
    Thanks, Ashley

    • Hi Ashley,
      Meringue powder can be found at craft stores such as Michael’s, Joann’s, Hobby Lobby or wherever Wilton products are sold. Cream of tartar is not an acceptable substitute. It is really a flavoring, where as the meringue powder is essential for the hard drying finish of royal icing.

  49. What a great post! I followed your recipe for sugar cookies and royal icing this weekend for a baby shower. Everyone loved them. Thanks for sharing!

  50. exactly how my mum does it at her bakery. my boyfriend says it tastes like poptart icing. 🙂

  51. I cant wait to try this, they are beautiful. I am just wondering if I am doing them as gifts how long are they going to keep like this. Do I have to wait until like the day before?

    • Hi Tabitha,
      These cookies keep very, very well. You could probably make them up to a week in advance and as long as they are stored airtight, they should be fine. I’ve eaten them two weeks later and they have tasted great.

  52. Thank you for this lesson. I have made three batches and they all came out great! I would never have had the wherewithal to try it if I had not seen your post. And I learned a lot from the replies and responses. Love your site!

  53. wow! this is really helpful! although it seems to take a bit of time (to let the different layers of the icing set), it’s worth it for the look

  54. […] the past and once again had great success with it.  If you haven’t found Annie’s new royal icing tutorial, you must check it out whether you’re considering embarking on the royal icing adventure or […]

  55. I’ve decorated a lot of cookies with Royal Icing, but I find that when I want to write on them with white lettering the letters seem to turn a yellowish color. Does anyone have advice for avoiding that?

    • Hi Jenn,
      I use white royal icing all the time for detailing, but I’ve never had any problem with it yellowing. Do you add an extract for flavoring that isn’t clear? I really have no idea why that would happen and I’ve never had that issue. Sorry!

  56. I made these cookies and they were amazing, I cant stop eating them dangit! Will be making them again for the superbowl….mmmm! Thanks for the recipe. Love the website

  57. What a helpful blog on Royal Icing! Something I have yet to attempt but just might try it soon…

  58. I finally got around to trying this and made some four-leaf clover cookies for St. Patrick’s Day. The main ingredients are definitely time and patience!

  59. First off, I LOVE your blog. You have some incredible recipes that are simple enough for the working women! Here is my question – Can you make the royal icing using a regular hand mixer or whisk or do you have to use a stand mixer with the paddle attachment?

    • Jennifer,
      I don’t think it’s really possible by hand. I mean, anything is possible, but it would be unbelievably difficult. A hand mixer might be able to handle it, but I’m not sure.

  60. Love the tutorial. Thanks. I made the sugar cookies gluten-free from your recipe and they turned out well. I have a question: I colored my royal icing and was set to outline with a #2 tip from wilton and the first one was fine, but then the icing got stuck in the tip and came out in a big blob. I went right from cookie #1 to cookie #2, so there wasn’t a long time in between. Has this ever happened to you? Either way, any ideas so I don’t get a jam in my tip. I am not sure if I made the icing too thin for the outlining, but I don’t see why that would cause a jam. How much thinner is the icing for the filling in part than the outlining part? Any advice would be great.

    • Anna, it sounds like the icing maybe just wasn’t evenly mixed so some parts were thicker than others, creating blobs. I don’t really ever have that problem but if you do, you can use a toothpick to unclog the tip.

  61. Hey Annie – I’m trying these out this weekend. How long do the finished cookies last? I know you’ve shipped them before, so I’m guessing a week or so? Thanks!

  62. Hi Annie,
    My daughter and I are planning on making IU cookies for her grad party in 2 weeks. How soon can we make them and what is the best way to store them until the day of. We are going to put them out on the dessert table in celophane bags so people have the option to eat them or take them home. Would it be best to put them in the bags right away?

    • Hi Cindy,
      I usually make mine up to a week in advance of when they are needed, and they keep very well. Any air-tight container will do but if I’m packaging them individually, I tend to just put them straight into the baggies with ribbon and then they are good to go!

  63. Dear Annie: I love the cookies but wanted to ask you about the flavor. I have a friend that makes beautiful cookies and the cookies themselves taste great but I always find that her frosting is very hard and crisp to bite into. Is that the nature of all royal frosting? I know I have had some other cookies from a local bakery that the royal frosting is crisp on the top but softer underneath. Does that make sense? Just wondering what your opinion is. And, LOVE your website!

    • For a icing to be as perfect for decorating as royal icing is, there is inevitably a compromise in taste/texture. No, it isn’t soft at all – if it were, the intricate details could never hold up. I actually think it doesn’t have much of a taste at all and the cookie really shines through.

  64. One of your steps is to prop the piping bags w/ icing in a glass with a bit of water at the bottom. Do we leave them this way until the next day when we are ready to pipe the details on the cookies or will it dry out by then?

  65. Great post, currently making my royal icing and sugar cookies with kindergartner for a class party:) Thanks for sharing!

  66. How did you get the sugar lines on the pumpkins? Is there a special applicator tip or tool for that?

    Thank you so much for sharing your talent with us! You are truly amazing.

  67. This is very helpful – I didn’t know you could not put the icing in the fridge. We started two years ago making a gingerbread house (which we have to start the week of Thanksgiving) and this will help advance the design quite a bit!

  68. Thanks for such an informative post! Definitely book-marking this, can’t wait to use your tips!

    Quick question though, you said that these cookies will last for about 2 weeks at room temperature, and that they shouldn’t be refrigerated because the royal icing doesn’t react well with those conditions. If I were to ship a box of cookies with royal icing over seas, do you think that it would that ruin the icing due to being in cooler conditions during travel?

    Thank you so much for this post.

  69. Hi Annie, Do you cover the cookies when you let them dry overnight? I am always afraid they are going to get dry if I leave them out.

    • No, if you do you are likely to ruin the perfect smooth finish that is (to me) the point of royal icing. They don’t dry out.

  70. I think this post is very welcome! But it also scares me how time consuming this proces can be. But it does give me confidence that I can make it work as well.

  71. Hi Annie! I just discovered your blog and am in love!!! I have tried a million times at royal icing and seem to fail with each and every one. It A – turns to THICK nasty GLUE (thick meaning really sticky) and B – tastes exactly like straight powdered sugar (I know, it *is* powdered sugar, but I swear the cookies I’ve had made by others do not taste just like powdered sugar). Any suggestions? I have a feeling I am going to be spending a lot of time at your site catching up – just gorgeous! And YUMMY!

    • All my tips regarding the use of royal icing are included in this post. If it is too thick, you need to add more water. I don’t use royal icing for taste but for its decorating capabilities. I don’t think it tastes bad, but just sweet. Not sure what to advise you in that regard.

  72. Hi Annie,
    I love the look of these cookies topped with royal icing.
    Do you have a recipe for that, as here in Germany you can’t buy it?

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