There’s a good chance you’ve experienced the joy (and mess) of decorating sugar cookies, topped with icing and colorful sprinkles. I have very fond memories making christmas cookies with my grandmother, and now I get to share that with my kiddo. What’s nice about this royal icing recipe is that you can carefully craft gorgeous designs, or you can make your sprinkles stick fast without falling off everywhere.
What is royal icing?
Royal icing is a fast-drying icing made with powdered sugar, vanilla extract, and pasteurized egg whites (or you can use meringue or egg white powder). I use egg whites because, for one, I always keep organic, pasteurized eggs in my fridge anyway. It also helps to turn your icing into a glossy white finish, that easily thickens with more powdered sugar, or thins with a little water.
What is the difference between royal icing and buttercream?
While they are both laden with powdered sugar, royal icing uses egg whites as the base, whereas buttercream uses softened butter. Buttercream also stays relatively pliable, while royal icing is fast-drying and hardened when set. The hardening aspect is nice if you are creating designs or stacking them in a tin to save or give as gifts, as the icing won’t smear everywhere. That said, I absolutely love a good buttercream, especially on my cakes.
How to make this recipe
- 3 pasteurized egg whites (6 tbsp) at room temp
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 4 cups (460 g) powdered sugar, sifted
- In a stand mixer (or hand mixer) with paddle attachment, beat the egg whites on med-low until it looks frothy.
- Add in the vanilla extract and then the sifted powdered sugar, one cup at a time (start on low so that the sugar doesn’t fly everywhere)
- Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl after adding the sugar to make sure everything is incorporated, then turn up the speed to med-high and beat until soft peaks form and the icing looks glossy.
- If you’re using food coloring, divide into separate bowls and add the colors of your choice. You can thin the icing for decorating with a little bit of water, mixing as you go to get the consistency you want. Alternatively, you can thicken the icing by adding a little more powdered sugar, then mixing.
- Sifting is the bane of my existence too, but it’s important to sift the powdered sugar to ensure a smooth finish, without any clumps.
- Make sure your mixing bowl and paddle/whisk attachment are very clean! This helps the eggs to froth up and set the icing correctly.
- When using food coloring, start with just a little, adding a little at a time until you get your desired color. If you’re using gel food coloring, it’s more concentrated, so a little goes a long way!
- When piping onto the cookies, I snip just a little hole on the end of the piping bag, which makes it easy to outline the cookies, then flood the interior.
- If you are using egg whites, make sure they are pasteurized! You can even find a little carton of pasteurized liquid egg whites at the grocery store, in which you’ll need 6 tbsp. Also make sure to separate your egg whites from the yolk while they’re cold, and then let the whites go to room temp from there.
- The icing dries quickly, so if it starts to dry while you’re mixing in the colors, add just a few drops of water, mix, then it’ll go back to it’s rightful consistency. When it dries on the end of the piping hole, you can honestly just clean it off with a paper towel because the icing will stay at a liquid consistency inside the piping bag.
You can definitely make the icing ahead of time, as it will keep in the fridge for a couple weeks. Just make sure it’s sealed tightly because it will start to dry if air gets inside. If you choose to freeze your icing, it will keep for about two months. Just make sure to thaw it out all the way before using and mix. If it seems thick, you can add a few drops of water to thin it back out. When storing the cookies with icing, they will stay at room temperature for about 4-5 days, but I wouldn’t recommend freezing them.
Tips for decorating cookies
- Fill each piping bag with the icing and cut a really small hole at the tip. You will want it small so that you can pipe the outline of the cookie first and also make designs without it spreading out too much. The outline is important to make sure that the icing doesn’t flood off the edges and makes it way easier to decorate.
- “Flood” the inside with icing with a toothpick or the tip of the piping bag. Flooding refers to piping more of the icing in the interior and letting it spread out. You will want your icing thin enough to achieve this.
- If you’re doing a base color with designs over it, let the base coat dry for about 15-20 min before you add the next layer. It doesn’t dry completely with that amount of time, but enough to be able to keep going and design over it. It takes a couple hours at least for the icing to dry and harden completely to stack the cookies in a container.
- You can even have some thicker icing and some thinner for different textures. In the photo below, I used a thicker icing for the top of the stocking to create a “fluffy” like texture, and then a thin icing for the rest to flood the cookie and create a smooth finish.
- If you want to add sprinkles, use them right away because of the icing drying so quickly. It makes for a fun racing game with my son and I!
Royal Icing Recipe
- Stand mixer/Hand mixer
- Piping bags
- Food coloring optional
- 3 Pasteurized egg whites (6 tbsp) room temp
- 1 Tsp vanilla extract
- 4 Cups (460 g) powdered sugar sifted
- In a stand (or hand) mixer with paddle attachment, beat the eggs on med-low until it looks frothy.
- Add the vanilla extract and then the sifted powdered sugar, one cup at a time (start on low speed so the sugar doesn't fly everywhere).
- Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl after adding the sugar to make sure everything is incorporated, then turn the speed up to med-high and beat until soft peaks form and icing looks glossy.
- If you're using food coloring, divide into separate bowls and add the colors of your choice. You can thin the icing with a few drops of water to get the consistency you want for decorating. Alternatively, you can thicken it by adding a little more powdered sugar, then mixing.
- Sift the powdered sugar prior to adding to ensure a smooth finish, without any clumps.
- Make sure the mixing bowl and attachment are very clean! This helps the eggs to froth up and set the icing correctly.
- If you are using gel food coloring, it’s concentrated, so a little goes a long way.
Recipe adapted from Simply Recipes.