How to Decorate Cookies

Easy tips and techniques to help you get creative with cookies.

two snowman-shaped sugar cookies intricately decorated with royal icing: green scarves, red mittens, and black hats with red bands adorned with holly sprigs
Photo: justmeandacake

You can dress up plain cookies to suit any occasion with decorations that can run from super-simple to as fancy as you want to be. To get you started, we'll share simple techniques for decorating cookies, including tips on making and working with frosting and icing. Once you get a feel for the basics, you can keep practicing to take your skills to any level you wish.

More: Get recipes for cut-out cookies to decorate and use these easy tips to bake cut-out cookies.

Cookie-Decorating Tools

Note: Make sure your cookies are completely cooled so the frosting or icing will stick to the cookie and set up properly, otherwise a warm cookie will melt the decoration right off. It's often easier to bake cookies on one day and decorate the next.

You'll need:

  • Cookies
  • Squeeze bottles or piping bags and tips
  • Funnel (if you use squeeze bottles)
  • Small bowls
  • Spoons for mixing
  • Small paint brushes and toothpicks for spreading icing
  • Food coloring
  • Sprinkles, sugars, other decorations

Cookie Frostings and Icings

The two terms are often used interchangeably, but many cooks think of frosting as thick and fluffy, and icing as relatively thinner and glossier. For more on this mini-debate and info on how to make them, check out How to Make Frostings and Icings.

The simplest types of cookie frostings and icings are made using confectioners' sugar, butter or shortening and milk or water:

  • Decorator Frosting is an example of a basic frosting. It will stay fairly soft even after drying and is the easiest to apply, but it's not your best choice if you want to do elaborate smudge-proof designs.
  • Sugar Cookie Icing is an example of a basic frosting with corn syrup added to the mix, which results in an icing that dries to a harder finish. You can use this kind of icing to make smudge-proof designs on cookies.
  • Royal Icing is made with confectioners' sugar, water, and meringue powder or egg whites. It dries to a hard, crunchy finish and is the icing of choice for gluing gingerbread houses together, but it tends to be flavorless unless you add a little vanilla extract.

Watch the video to see how to make sugar cookie icing.

How Thick to Make Cookie Icing and Frosting

You can make frostings and icings in different consistencies depending on how you're going to use them. Make a batch of icing and divide it into bowls, then add liquid a few drops at a time to thin the icing as needed:

  • Thick icing is best for adding fine details with a piping bag usually after an iced cookie has completely dried to a hard finish.
  • Thin icing is best for "flooding" a cookie with a smooth layer of color, for dipping cookies, or for drizzling a thin thread of icing over a cookie. You can use a piping bag or squeeze bottle, and a small paintbrush or toothpick to help coax thinned icing into areas if needed.
  • In-between thick and thin is the medium consistency of icing you'll use to outline areas of the cookie you're going to flood with thin icing. Use a piping bag or squeeze bottle.

Applying Cookie Frostings and Icings

A white platter with a row of Christmas cookies decorated to look like red stockings with white tops

For the most basic cookie decorating:

  • Make a bowl of Decorator Frosting and apply it to cooled cookies with a pastry brush, blunt knife, or small spatula. Add your choice of sprinkles and call it a day.
  • Or dip the front of a cookie in thinned icing and put it on a cooling rack or plate. Add sprinkles and let dry.

If you want to make designs that dry to a hard finish:

  1. Make a bowl of Sugar Cookie Icing or Royal Icing and divide into bowls.
  2. Add food coloring and/or thin to the desired consistency.
  3. At this point, you can outline cookies with your medium icing, flood it with thin icing, let it dry, then add details with thick icing.
  4. As an alternative, use your small paintbrush or toothpick to add details while the icing is still wet.

Easiest Cookie Decorations

Cookies don't have to have elaborate decorations to be worthy of your holiday cookie trays. Sometimes it just takes a little extra touch to elevate the simplest frosted cookies into party-ready treats. Try spreading cookies with frosting or icing, and then sprinkle on colored sugar or other decorations in a contrasting color.

Here's a perfect example of how a simple sugar cookie can look extra-special with very simple decorations. This technique is so easy, even your littlest kids can help out. Simply fill a piping bag with a soft frosting like Sugar Cookie Frosting, swirl it on, and finish with sprinkles.

homemade Sugar Cookie Frosting recipe tinted blue, swirled on top of a sugar cookie and decorated with candy sprinkles

Chocolate-Dipped Cookies

Dipping a cookie in chocolate is a quick and easy way to add eye-appeal and enticing flavor to any cookie. Here's how to do it:

  1. Bake and cool cookies (or start with plain store-bought cookies - no judgement here).
  2. Use these easy tips to melt chocolate.
  3. Dip cookies halfway into the chocolate, and scrape the excess off of the bottom using a small spatula or the side of the bowl. Then give the cookie a gentle shake and once again, scrape the excess chocolate off. This will keep the chocolate from forming a puddle around the cookie while it sets up.
  4. Place the cookies onto waxed paper starting at the farthest end and working inward. This prevents accidental drips on the finished cookies. Before the icing hardens, press pieces of candy into it or sprinkle the cookies with different colors of sugar or edible glitter, if desired.

Video: How to Melt Chocolate

How to Dip Cookies

overhead view of Chocolate Chip Shortbread Cookie Logs dipped in melted chocolate and decorated with crushed nuts
Maggie Tidwell
  • Dip one end of each cookie into ground pistachios, hazelnuts, pecans or other nuts while the chocolate is still wet.
  • When the first coat has set, apply another color of chocolate. Try dipping one half of each cookie in dark chocolate, and the other half in white. You can even color white chocolate a nice pastel color: use candy coloring pastes from craft stores or kitchen supply stores.
  • Use a pastry bag (or a plastic sandwich bag with a tiny hole cut in the corner) to drizzle stripes on cookies for an elegant touch.

Decorations Baked Right In

homemade red and white Christmas Pinwheel Cookie decorated with a silver candy in the center

For pretty cookies that don't require an all-day production, add a garnish before the cookies are baked. Rolled cookies can be shaped into logs, chilled, cut, and baked. Roll logs in colored sugar, finely chopped nuts, coconut, sesame seeds, or sprinkles before baking. Even a light dusting of confectioners' sugar or cocoa powder will give any cookies an elegant finish. Dust the cookies again, right before serving, to freshen their appearance. For more elaborate cookies, try pinwheels or checkerboards.

More: See our entire collection of cookie recipes.

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