What is royal icing? Royal icing is made from confectioners sugar, water, egg white, and flavorings. This is the only icing that I use to decorate my cookies. The egg white is what allows it to dry hard, which is what makes royal icing so versatile. I make my royal icing with meringue powder, which consists of dry powdered egg white and stabilizers (you can read more on the different forms of egg white below). I use 10 tablespoons of meringue powder per 2 pounds of confectioners sugar (yes, that’s a lot of meringue powder. More on that later in this post), 3/4 cups of water, plus more for thinning. A video on how to make royal icing is available in my tutorial shop. You can learn more about decorating cookies with royal icing in my online class on Craftsy.
Icing Consistencies: There are three different consistencies of royal icing that I use most often when decorating cookies: Stiff consistency, medium consistency and flood consistency.
This is the consistency I refer to when the icing comes off of the mixer. It is spreadable, but able to hold a peak. It’s sort of like cream cheese. I mix my icing on medium-low speed (speed 2 on a stand mixer) so as not to incorporate a too much air. While the icing will increase in volume and lighten in color as it is mixing, it turns out thick and dense rather than very fluffy.
Uses:Brush embroidery, borders, roses, ruffles, basket weave (video tutorials on these methods are available in my shop)
The best way to describe this consistency is that it is similar to soft serve ice cream that’s on the verge of melting. It holds a very soft peak, and doesn’t spread on its own. It can, however, be smoothed out with a scribe tool. To achieve this consistency, start with stiff icing and add a few drops of water at a time. It doesn’t take much water to get there, so be careful to not add too much at once. Medium consistency icing is thin enough to flow smoothly out of a small tip, but is not so thin that it spreads and loses the shape of the design you are piping, which is why it’s great for piping script and filigree.
Uses: Tufting (or quilting), royal icing transfers, filigree, lettering.
This is the consistency that is used for applying a super smooth layer of icing onto a cookie. The icing should be thin enough that it smooths out on its own within 14-16 seconds, but not so thin that it runs off the edge of the cookie. I use flood icing to outline and fill in my cookies, so it’s important that the consistency is just right. It will take some practice, so don’t get frustrated if you don’t get it the first time.
To achieve this consistency, start with stiff icing and add a couple of tablespoons of water at a time. To test the consistency, take a spoonful of icing and drop it back into the bowl. It should take between 14-16 seconds for the icing to smooth itself out. Depending on how much icing you apply to your cookie or the pressure that you put on your piping bag, the consistency of your icing may need to be adjusted. I find that somewhere between 14-16 works best for me. Trial and error is the best way to learn what will work for you. If you’ve added too much water, do NOT add more powdered sugar. Instead, add a spoonful of stiff icing to thicken it back up. Keep a batch of stiff icing on hand for this purpose. You can see the process of making flood consistency icing in my flooding with royal icing video, which is available in my tutorial shop.
Uses: Flooding, wet-on-wet technique, wet-on-wet filigree, tiny details (such as the reindeer on this cookie).
Meringue Powder, Dried Egg Whites or Fresh Egg Whites?
The form of egg white you use to make your royal icing is really a matter of personal preference. These days I prefer to use meringue powder, but during culinary school when I first learned about royal icing, we only used fresh egg whites. From a food safety standpoint, I feel more comfortable using meringue powder. If you can’t find meringue powder where you live, you can replace it with dried powdered egg white in the same amount. However, in my experience, royal icing made with meringue powder is more stable and has a better consistency for decorating cookies than when it’s made with fresh egg white or dried powdered egg white.
Like I mentioned in the beginning of this post, I use 10 tablespoons of meringue powder per 2 pounds of confectioners sugar in my royal icing. This is about double what a lot of recipes call for, but I prefer it this way because it helps with the consistency and also gives a few more minutes to work with the icing before it starts to crust over.
Storing Royal Icing
It’s better to have too much icing than not enough, so I almost always have royal icing left over after finishing a project. Even when I’m going to be using the same icing the next day to finish up a set of cookies, I never store the icing in the bags overnight. I always empty the bags into an air tight container and put the icing in the refrigerator. When I was in culinary school, we would put a damp paper towel over the icing inside the container so that it wouldn’t form a crust. I don’t do this now because the moisture from the paper towel changes the consistency of the icing. As long as you clean the inside edges of the container before closing it up tightly, it will be fine.
The icing will separate after sitting for several hours, so you’ll need to give it a good stir before using it again.
If you won’t be using the icing within 10 days, you can store it in the freezer. I’d recommend not storing it longer than a month, just to be on the safe side. Freezer burn does not taste good.
Royal Icing Troubleshooting Tips:
Most of the problems I’ve encountered with royal icing can be solved by making sure the icing is not over-mixed. The icing should be thick and creamy when it comes off the mixer rather than light and fluffy. I mix my royal icing on medium-low speed for no longer than 5 minutes. For a more detailed look at making royal icing, you can download my video tutorial here.
Dull or Bumpy Icing
In order to get a smooth, shiny finish on your flooded cookies, make sure to dry them in front of a fan. Or, better yet, keep the cookies in an air conditioned room. Humidity will cause the icing to dry slowly, which will make it become porous, dull, fragile, and sometimes leave you with a bumpy and uneven surface. Dull or bumpy icing can also be caused by icing that is too thin, so make sure your flood consistency is not too runny.
Air Bubbles and Color Bleed
Icing that is too thin can also lead to air bubbles, uneven texture, fragility (a big problem with royal icing transfers) and even color bleed. It helps to keep the icing on the thick side so that you don’t encounter these problems. When making flood consistency icing, try making it a day ahead of time so that the air bubbles can rise to the surface. Then, when you’re ready to use the icing, stir it by hand to get rid of the bubbles.
When making dark colors, try to use as little color as possible in order to get the shade you want. Too much food coloring in the icing will lead to color bleed. Make the icing several hours ahead of time so that the color can darken on its own.
Icing Dissolving When Painted
When you’re trying to paint on royal icing with luster dust or food coloring, there’s nothing more frustrating than icing that pits or completely dissolves when it comes in contact with the brush. This is most likely caused by over-mixed icing. Make sure that you mix your royal icing on medium-low speed for no longer than 5 minutes. When you’re finished mixing, the icing should be thick like a paste, not fluffy. See also, “Dull or Bumpy Icing” and “Air Bubbles and Color Bleed” above.
The smallest tip I use is a Wilton #1, which has a larger opening than a PME tip 1. I’ve never used those super small tips, such as a double 0, so I rarely have issues with clogging. If you are having issues with clogged tips, you can strain your icing through a nylon stocking while filling your piping bag.
When the weather is too warm, butter bleed can become a big problem. This is when the butter from the cookie melts just enough to seep into the royal icing and make it look blotchy or yellow. Unfortunately, once this happens, there’s nothing much you can do. There are creative ways of covering it up, such as adding luster dust or hand painting some designs over the stained areas. If that’s not an option, you can wait and hope that the butter bleed covers the entire cookie so that at least it’s not blotchy. It’s best just to keep the cookies as cool and dry as possible to prevent butter bleed in the first place. The same rules for preventing color bleed apply here. Thin, porous icing can exacerbate the problem, so make sure that your icing is not too thin when flooding and also make sure to dry your cookies quickly in front of a fan (no heat guns!). You can also make tweaks to the cookie recipe, like adding more flour, for example. The outcome of any recipe depends on lots of different factors, so it might take some trial and error to make it work for you.
To browse the decorating products that I use most often, visit the recommended products page.
Read this post for tips on making cookie dough and storing cookies.
Take my online class at Craftsy to learn more about cookie decorating with royal icing.