Applying gold to royal icing usually calls for the addition of alcohol in order to turn gold pearl dust into a paint. You can read my original tutorial on how to make gold royal icing here.
I’ve received lots of inquiries about what can be used in place of alcohol for this method, so I decided to try out some different liquids to see what works best. I was surprised by the results!
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Shown here are Beanilla vanilla extract (35% alcohol), Mount Williams imitation vanilla (water, vanillin, artificial flavors, caramel color), Bacardi 151 (75.5% alcohol), lemon juice and water.
I almost always use Wilton gold pearl dust for this method. Wilton is one of the only companies I know of that make FDA approved pearl dusts and color dusts. Most of the others that are available on the market are labeled non toxic, but also non edible, so they’re just meant for use on decorations that won’t be consumed, such as gum paste flowers. NY Cake just came out with a line of FDA approved dusts, which I haven’t had a chance to try yet.
I piped some royal icing disks for this experiment using the royal icing transfer method. A video tutorial on this method is available in my tutorial shop. You’ll also find my cookie and royal icing recipe there.
When painting with gold, I like to start with a brown base because it helps the gold stand out and it is also more forgiving if you miss a spot. The brown gel paste that I use is too pink on its own when used to make light and medium shades, so I almost always add a little bit of green in order to neutralize it.
The reason that alcohol is used to paint on royal icing is because it evaporates very quickly, so there is little time for the liquid to dissolve the icing. In order to get the best results, you need to start with a smooth, shiny royal icing surface. Read this post for more information about that.
I was not surprised that the Bacardi 151 and the vanilla extract produced the shiniest gold finish. You can use any alcohol based flavored extract in place of vanilla. Vanilla extract has about the same alcohol content as vodka, which, as I said earlier, I find to be a little too watery. So, if you’re okay with using alcohol, I recommend the Bacardi 151 for a shiny gold.
What surprised me the most was the result of the water versus the lemon juice. I had always assumed that lemon juice would be the better choice (not that I have any reason to believe that other than I read it in a forum once). The gold mixed with the water actually turned out to be shinier than the gold with the lemon juice. As you can see, however, both the water and the lemon juice have dissolved the icing slightly, leaving the surface porous and somewhat dull compared to the alcohol. The lemon juice took much longer to dry than the water.
Here’s the result of the imitation vanilla flavor. It dried a little faster than the lemon juice, so the surface didn’t end up as dull.
Water! After all of the disks had some time to dry, the one painted with water remained the shiniest out of the alcohol free options. While the lemon juice and imitation vanilla are water based, the water on its own dried the fastest, leaving very little time for it to soak into the surface of the icing.
If you are going to be painting with an alcohol free liquid, be sure to use light, quick strokes with your brush. You want to make sure that the liquid has as little time as possible to dissolve the icing. I wouldn’t recommend using this method for painting tiny details or for delicate royal icing transfers, as it will make your icing porous and fragile. Starting with royal icing that has dried smooth and shiny (again, tips on that here) will help to prevent any problems.
I’d only recommend using water when painting with gold in cases where it is absolutely necessary. As you can see in these results, alcohol gives the shiniest finish with the least risk of dulling the icing.
Another option is to apply the dust with a dry brush. This method is great for covering large areas. However, you have to be careful because it will get all over everything! Also, it smudges and rubs off very easily.
Here are some different angles so you can see how the light reflects off of each one. Individual results may vary!
Click on the images for more on these designs that are painted with gold pearl dust:
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