Getting Started with Royal Icing Decorated Sugar Cookies

story and photos by Amy Colburn
The formerly simple tradition of frosting sugar cookies has evolved into a whole new art form that involves its own tools, lingo and techniques. A host of popular social media influencers are pumping out expertly crafted, intricate designs, each more jaw-dropping than the last.

I began making sugar cookies decorated with royal icing in winter of 2020 and have been creating cookies for friends, family and coworkers ever since. I don’t have a business; I am simply creating for the enjoyment of it! Here are some tips for those interested in upping their decorated sugar-cookie game.

You can begin with some basic items and, after some practice, invest in a few tools that will help you perform more complex techniques. Bare necessities include baked cut-out cookies (search for “no spread” sugar cookie recipes), royal icing beat to stiff peaks with an electric mixer (photo 1), gel or powder food colors, wooden skewers, plastic sandwich bags, parchment paper and standard kitchen items like bowls, cups, scissors and paper towels. As your skills improve, I suggest investing in a turntable, a rolling pin with adjustable thickness rings, tipless bags, baking mats, edible markers and edible luster dust. If you decide to “go pro,” there are stencils, edible printers, projectors and even airbrush kits.

The key to effectively achieving a 3D look with royal icing lies in the consistency of the icing itself. Starting with stiff icing, gradually add corn syrup to achieve various consistencies. Consistencies are named for the number of seconds the icing takes for a line drawn through the center with a spoon to disappear, and the icing to self-level and look flat again. Flooding is the technique used to cover the cookie with icing, because an outline, or dam, is created around the perimeter of the area and then icing is used to fill or “flood” inside the dam (photo 2). When writing or detailing, you’ll want a nearly stiff icing, the consistency of toothpaste. When flooding, you’ll want a 15-18 second consistency, like honey or shampoo. If your icing is too thin, it will run off the sides of your cookie before drying. If your icing is too thick, it will crack and appear bumpy. Getting the right consistency is truly the key to making exceptional cookie art. 

To get the icing onto the cookie, you’ll perform what’s called piping. The icing is placed into a cone-shaped bag called a piping bag, and icing flows from a small hole at the point of the cone. I place my piping bag into a tall glass to hold it upright while filling it (photo 3). There are different metal tips you can add to the bottom of the bag that change the shape of the icing coming out of the hole. When you begin, I suggest using an everyday plastic sandwich bag and cutting a tiny opening out of one corner with very sharp scissors. There’s no need to invest in fancy supplies until you’ve mastered the basics, and sandwich bags are affordable and make for easy clean-up. You don’t even need piping tips to begin; the small hole in the bottom is sufficient, until you work your way up, skill-wise.

There are countless cookie cutters available, in every imaginable shape. My advice is to use restraint when starting out, only collecting a few basic shapes. You can create hundreds of designs for every occasion using basic shapes like a circle or a square. You can even cut your own shapes from dough using a sharp knife. There’s also a technique called Franken-cookies, in which new shapes are made by joining different cutters in unexpected compositions.

Set aside plenty of time to learn, and keep it simple. Then practice, practice, practice. Each cookie will take exponentially longer than you expect, and being in a hurry to finish will only hinder your progress. The average time I spend on each cookie ranges from 15-25 minutes. That’s eight hours for just two dozen cookies! Making cookies is a fun hobby for me, and I‘ve been able to experiment with delicious flavors and unique themes. And don’t forget: Cookies make great homemade gifts.  

Online inspiration & tutorials



Search On YouTube:

– SweetAmbsCookies

– The Flour Box Shop

– My Little Bakery

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