What Is Royal Icing: How To Make It and How To Use It

You don't need to be a pro to make beautifully decorated Christmas cookies. You just need a few tools, a little know-how, and a good batch of royal icing.

Royal icing can be tricky, so you're probably wondering things like: What's the difference between royal icing and regular icing? How do you make royal icing from scratch? and How do you make royal icing with egg whites?

I'll be answering all your questions and you'll feel like a royal icing pro when you're Christmas cookie decorating!

What Is Royal Icing?

What most folks mean when they say "icing" is really buttercream frosting. Buttercream frosting has a butter base, so it's soft, creamy, and thick enough to spread on large cakes while maintaining its soft, whipped texture.

Royal icing, on the other hand, has an egg white base, so it's thinner while you're working with it and hardens very quickly. It has a smooth candy-like finish which makes it perfect for delicate cookie work.

Bake some sugar cookies or gingerbread cookies (or both if you're really in the Christmas spirit) and let them cool, then you're ready to get started learning how to decorate cookies with royal icing.

For this royal icing tutorial you'll need:

  • Baked and cooled cookies
  • Royal icing (recipe below)
  • 2 small bowls
  • 2 toothpicks
  • 1 piping bag with a #3 tip (a zip top bag with a tiny corner snipped off can work in a pinch or you can make your own pastry bag out of parchment paper using this quick tutorial)
  • 1 icing spreader
  • Sprinkles of your choice
three sugar cookies decorated with green and white royal icing and green and red sprinkles
Jessica Furniss

How To Make Royal Icing

Making royal icing is much easier than you think, but it can be difficult to work with if you don't have a good recipe: It can be too runny to do detailed decorating, it can harden enough to nearly break your teeth when it dries, and working with fresh raw egg whites can get messy. With this guide, I'll help you avoid all those scenarios.

Your first step is to make your icing. You have three options:

  1. You can make your icing with egg whites (use pasteurized egg whites if you don't want to use raw egg whites)
  2. You can make your icing with meringue powder, or
  3. You can buy your royal icing already prepared

I've recently worked with all three methods, and I have to say that using pasteurized egg whites is my favorite method. The meringue powder is a close second. While tempting as a shortcut, the store-bought pre-made royal icing is the most difficult to work with. I followed this recipe to make my own.

Tip: Separating eggs might feel a little intimidating, but you've got options! This video shows you several different ways to separate the yolks from the whites or you can buy egg whites in a carton from your local grocery store. Not sure what to do with your leftover egg yolks? This recipe shares 17 different ways you can use them.

Adding food coloring

adding food coloring to royal icing
Jessica Furniss

Your next step will be to add gel food coloring to the royal icing. You'll take a toothpick and get a small amount of the coloring on the tip to swirl into your icing. Don't worry about mixing it all the way; that will happen in our next steps. For this cookie decoration, I'm using two bowls of icing. One will stay white and the other will be dyed green.

Tip: Keep your icings covered at all times when you're not using them. Homemade royal icing dries quickly so you'll want to keep it covered with a damp paper towel. The icing becomes unspreadable as it dries and you'll have to start over with the recipe and your color mixing.

Thick and thin royal icing

To get gorgeous, professional-looking iced cookies, you'll want to follow the "flooding icing" method. This means you add a border to your cookie with a thicker icing, and then flood the center of the cookie with a thinner, runnier icing.

First things first, you'll want to thin out your two icings as explained in detail below. The royal icing recipe as written creates a thick icing so you can separate it into smaller bowls and thin each one according to your decorating needs.

Your white border/detail icing will have a very small amount of water added to it, so it stays pretty thick and your green flooding icing will have a bit more water added to it to make it runnier.

Testing your icing consistency

Most recipes work off exact measurements, but royal icing is different. The way to tell if your consistency is right with royal icing is to lift your spoon above the bowl and count from the time a drop of icing falls from your spoon back into the bowl. How many seconds does it take to settle to a flat surface again with no ripples? The thicker border/detail icing should be 12 seconds and it should be five seconds for the green flooding icing.

To get that consistency, you very slowly add water to the icings in ½ teaspoon increments. Be sure to mix gently when adding your water. You want to keep all that lovely egg white volume you got when you beat the icing with your mixer.

  1. Split your icing into two bowls. Designate one bowl for your border/detail icing (it will end up thicker) and one bowl for your flooding icing (it will end up thinner).
  2. To your border/detail icing bowl, add water in ½ teaspoon increments until it reaches the 12-second consistency. (You need less than you think you do. Mix and test after each ½ teaspoon is added).
  3. To your flooding icing bowl, add water in ½ teaspoon increments until it reaches the five-second consistency.
  4. If you go overboard with water (which can happen quickly), just add in a little extra sifted powdered sugar until your consistency is right.

Let's look at our five-second flooding icing. Below you'll see the icing as soon as it was dropped from our icing spreader into the bowl. Lots of ripples.

a bowl of green royal icing - testing thickness with an icing spreader
Jessica Furniss

And after 5 seconds it should be settled with a smooth, glossy finish.

a bowl of green royal icing
Jessica Furniss

Follow this same method, but with less water for your border/detail icing. It should become smooth after 12 seconds, instead of five.

When you've reached the consistency you want, use a damp paper towel to cover your flooding icing to be used momentarily.

Outline

outlining a sugar cookie with white royal icing
Jessica Furniss

Add your border/detail icing to your pastry bag with a #3 tip (or your zip top bag with a tiny corner snipped off, or your parchment paper cone). When you're outlining, think of the icing as a string instead of like a pencil. You're gently dragging the string along the edge of the cookie, as seen below.

You want to outline the edge of the cookie, making sure there are no gaps in the border. It will act as a barrier to keep the thinner flooding icing from spilling over the edge of the cookie.

Flooding

using an icing spreader to add wet royal icing to a sugar cookie
Jessica Furniss

While the border icing is still wet, you'll move on to flooding the cookies. This step is usually done with a pastry bag with a larger round tip, but you don't have to go through all those extra steps if you have an icing spreader.

Simply take a small amount of the green flooding icing onto your icing spreader and add it to the center of the cookie, being careful to keep it all inside the border. Work quickly when flooding since the icing will start to harden and become unspreadable fast.

using a toothpick to help flood wet royal icing inside a dry royal icing border
Jessica Furniss

Immediately take your toothpick and spread the icing to the edges, leaving no gaps between the border and the flooding.

Then, while the icing is still wet, grab your pastry bag with your border/detail icing and pipe small dots in a circle as seen below. Using your toothpick, gently pull it through the circles to create a wreath pattern.

dragging a toothpick through wet royal icing to create a wreath pattern
Jessica Furniss

Now, we wait!

Drying iced cookies

  • Dry your cookies out overnight on the counter. This allows the icing to dry beautifully, giving you a fresh surface to do your detailed icing work the next day.
  • If you're rushed, two or three hours might be enough. You can gently check the dryness with the tip of your finger.
  • Store your leftover border/detail icing in an airtight container overnight at room temperature.

Detail design

two different ways to decorate with royal icing: dry and wet methods
Jessica Furniss

For detail work, you'll use the thicker border icing with your pastry bag again. (That's why you stored it correctly so it wouldn't dry out.)

Because the icing on the cookie has completely dried, the detail icing will sit on top of the dried icing, instead of blending with it as the wreath design did.

To make the Christmas tree design above, grab your pastry bag with the border/detail icing and make a zigzag pattern that starts larger at the bottom and gets smaller as it goes up. Then, while it's still wet, add sprinkles to give the look of Christmas lights. Allow this icing to cool on the counter overnight before storing.

How To Store Cookies

two sugar cookies decorated with green and white royal icing
Jessica Furniss

Store your dried, iced cookies in an airtight container that has wax paper between each layer, or as a single layer in a zip top bag for up to one week.

Tip: Cookies with royal icing can be frozen for up to three months, but they will need to be individually wrapped.

The possibilities with royal icing are only limited by your imagination. Get creative and have a holly jolly, merry time with your Christmas cookie decorating!

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