Welcome to cookie decorating 101!
A few weeks ago, my favorite sugar cookie recipe made its debut on the cover of Go Gluten Free Magazine’s holiday issue (this probably isn’t news to you, seeing as I’ve only mentioned it about a dozen times now). Since then, I’ve gotten a lot of compliments on how pretty those cookies were. Since I only had a one page spread in the magazine, I didn’t have much room to go into the details of how to decorate your cookies, so I thought, why not do a little tutorial here?
I should probably start off by saying, I am no expert on icing cookies. In fact, prior to the magazine, I had never even made royal icing. Crazy, right? I did spend a couple of weeks getting comfortable behind a piping bag in preparation for the cover shoot, though, and I learned some very useful tips and tricks along the way. Hopefully some of the things I learned will be helpful for you, too!
The hardest, and arguably most important, thing to master when it comes to royal icing, is getting the consistency right. There are two main consistencies you need to know about: piping consistency, and flooding consistency. I’ll do my best to describe them both here, but even when you know what to look for, it can take some trial and error to get it right. The good news is, if you mess up a few cookies, they’re still delicious. Heck, sometimes I mess up on purpose! “Oh, this cookie isn’t as pretty as the rest? I guess I’d better eat it before anyone sees.”
(I wish I were kidding, but I’m not.)
Piping consistency: For piping a border around the cookies, or doing detailed work with a piping bag, the icing should be thin enough to squeeze through your smallest piping tip, but thick enough that it doesn’t spread out once the line has been piped. I’ve heard this referred to as a “toothpaste” consistency, and honestly, that’s the best description I can think of. The icing should look thick and glossy, and should hold stiff, or medium-stiff peaks when the beaters after lifted out of it. If the icing is too thin, your lines will spread out and meld together, and if it’s too thick, your line may crack or break while trying to pipe it out (plus you’ll have to squeeze really hard to get it out to come out of the bag, which will become a major problem if you’re doing a lot of cookies). To fix the consistency, just add a little more powdered sugar, a TBSP at a time, to thicken it, or water, a few drops at a time, to thin it out. The image above, on the left-hand side, shows the icing at a good piping consistency.
Flooding consistency: To get that smooth, perfectly even coat of icing, thin with water, a few drops at a time, until it is the consistency of warm honey. You should be able to dip a spoon into the icing and when you pull it out, a smooth ribbon will fall back into the bowl. One of the easiest ways to test if your icing is the right consistency is to watch this ribbon — the ribbon should remain visible on top of the icing in the bowl for anywhere from 3-7 seconds. If it is visible for longer than that, the icing is too thick, and needs a little more water. If it disappears right away, it’s too thin, and needs a bit more powdered sugar. The image above, on the right-hand side, shows icing at flooding consistency. (There are different preferences when it comes to exactly how thick or thin flood icing should be — I prefer mine on the thicker side, but once you’ve done it a few times you’ll find what works best for you.)
Keeping the icing fresh: If you’re making the icing in advance, first mix it to a good piping consistency, then cover with plastic wrap, pressing the plastic down directly onto the surface so the icing isn’t exposed to the air. Refrigerate, then give it a stir when you’re ready to use.
To keep the icing fresh while decorating, I like to have all my icing divided into piping bags, and have each piping bag tightly rubber-banded at both ends. This way no icing will spill out, and it will stay nice and fresh — just slip off the rubber-band at the piping tip end, and pipe away. Piping bags sealed this way can be kept in the fridge for up to a day or so, which is really handy when you’re doing a ton of cookies. While I’m working, I like to keep a tall glass nearby, this way I can set my piping bag in it, upside down, and not worry about icing spilling out (just be sure to close off the end with some plastic wrap or a damp towel if you’re going to leave it for very long, or else the icing will harden inside).
Coloring: If you plan on coloring your icing, I suggest making your icing into a piping consistency, then separating it into as many bowls as you need different colors. I prefer gel food coloring, as opposed to the liquid kind, as it has a very vibrant hue, and won’t water down or change the consistency of your icing. Once you have all the colors you need, you can fill individual piping bags with half of each color for piping, then thin the remaining colored icing into flood consistency. Try to make more icing than you think you will need in each color, this way you won’t have to go back and re-mix, since it can be hard to get the exact same shade twice.
(As you’ve probably noticed, I’m a fan of white-on-white icing. That’s just me, though, so feel free to go crazy with as many different colors as you want!)
Practice: Before I start decorating, I find it helpful to pipe a few test lines on some parchment paper first. Even if you’re pretty confident in your skills, this is a great way to test the consistency of your icing, and make sure it will flow smoothly. (These aren’t the best lines I’ve ever piped, but hey, it’s hard to photograph yourself when both hands are on a piping bag!) If you’re wanting to pipe words onto your cookies, you can draw or print what you want to write on a piece of paper, and place it under the parchment, this way you can practice tracing the letters in frosting before actually attempting them freehand.
Piping: For piping boarders and detail work, I find it helpful to hold the piping tip at a 90 degree (or close to 90 degree) angle to the cookie. Squeeze the piping bag with a moderate amount of pressure (it helps to have one hand at the very back of the bag for squeezing, and one hand towards the front of the bag to guide the line). One of the things I hear all the time is how hard it is to pipe a steady, straight line — but it turns out, there’s a trick to it. The key is to start with the piping tip almost touching the cookie’s surface, then squeeze the bag with a slow, steady pressure so the icing starts to flow. Once the icing grabs on to the cookie, lift the piping tip a few centimeters above the surface and pull slowly in the direction you want to go, letting the icing drape itself onto the cookie. (Don’t forget to keep squeezing the whole time, or your line will break when you lift your piping tip.) Piping straight lines or circles are the best ways to practice this (you can see what I mean in the photo above). Letting the icing fall into place means your lines will be smooth, and as backwards as it sounds, will actually give you better control. The closer the piping tip is to the surface, the more it will show every little shake and jitter of your hand. This is great news for people like me, because my hands shake pretty badly sometimes. If you’re still having trouble getting a straight, smooth line, your icing may be a little too thick. Try thinning it out with a tad bit of water, and try again. I also suggest resting your elbows on something, if possible, to steady your hands even more. (Did I mention it helps to practice this on parchment, first? After a few tries, this will all make sense and you’ll be piping like a pro.)
There will, of course, be times when letting the icing drape isn’t an option, because you’re piping in a small area, or one with many angles. A good example of this is going around the pointed edges of a snowflake, or Christmas tree. In those cases, you can’t just lift your piping bag and let the icing fall, because it won’t look anything like the shape of the cookie. What I like to do is start at one of the points, then lift ever so slightly as I move to the next point (not very high up, just enough that my piping tip isn’t right up against the surface of the cookie — you want to leave just enough room between the metal tip and the cookie’s surface for the icing to flow). When I get to the next point on the cookie, I lower the piping tip briefly, then lift and move on to the next point, maintaining a steady, gentle pressure as I go. It’s important to lower the piping tip whenever you want your line to change direction, this way the icing grabs on to the cookie, and you’ll get a clean point, or angle, instead of just a curved line. In the photo above, you can see me touching the icing to one of the points of the snowflake, before lifting slightly and piping my way around to the next point.
(The consistency of your icing, and the pressure with which you squeeze the piping bag, will determine how quickly you need to move your piping tip. If the icing comes out quickly, you’ll need to move quickly, and if it comes out slowly, you’ll need to go slow. I suggest starting with a very slow flow of icing at first, until you get a feel for it.)
Using a snowflake as an example, I sometimes find it helpful to “push” the icing into those points with my piping tip (holding the tip close to the cookie, and squeezing to allow a small bead of icing to form), to exaggerate the shape of the cookie slightly. Otherwise, the shape can get a little lost, and the cookie ends up looking more like a blob than a beautiful, unique snowflake.
Once you’ve gone all the way around the cookie and your line is about to meet, lower the piping tip and release the pressure on the bag to end the line. (This takes some getting used to, but another key to smooth lines is to maintain that gentle, even pressure on the piping bag, and then release the pressure when you want your line to end. This is where practicing on parchment paper comes in handy. If you do make any mistakes on your cookie, fear not — you can wipe it away with a paper towel while the icing is still wet, then try again.)
Flooding: Once you’ve piped a boarder, you’re ready to flood the cookies. I like to have my flood icing in a piping bag, fitted with a slightly larger tip (you could also use a plastic squeeze bottle for even more control). Alternatively, you can leave your flood icing in a bowl, and just spoon it onto the cookies (just be sure to keep the icing covered when not in use, or it will dry up quick!). However you choose to do it, pipe/pour some of the icing into the center of the cookie, but be careful not to pour too much! You don’t want so much icing that it covers the entire area you want to fill, or else it will run right over the border you so carefully piped. Instead, I like to fill the cookie about 1/2-3/4 with flood icing, then use the tip of a toothpic to push the icing around to the cookie’s edges. If you find you need to add a bit more icing, it’s easy enough to do so.
Once the cookie is filled, gently jiggle it back and forth to help the icing settle in. If you notice any air bubbles appear on the surface, pop them with the tip of a pin or toothpic while the icing is still wet.
It’s important to let this layer of icing dry completely before you try to decorate on top of it, otherwise any lines you pipe will sink right into it. I suggest letting the cookies sit for at least a few hours, or better yet, overnight. To speed up the process, you can set a fan blowing over the cookies on a low speed.
(There is another type of decorating called “wet on wet”, where you pipe fresh icing onto still-wet flood icing. This is most commonly used for swirled effects — for instance, you could pipe a red dot in a flood of white icing, then take a toothpic and run it through the center of the dot and it would create a heart shape. Or you could swirl two colors together this way, to create a marbled effect. That’s a whole ‘nother topic though, and I haven’t played around with it much, so I’ll save that for some other time.)
Once the flood icing has dried, you can decorate the surface of the cookie however you want. By now you should be an expert at piping boarders and lines. Dots are fun, also, and are easy to make by holding your piping tip at a 90 degree angle to the cookie, with the tip just above the surface. Begin squeezing gently, until your dot is the size you want, then release the pressure and lift the piping tip straight up.
You may find it helpful to switch to a smaller piping tip for detail work, or a star tip for fun effects. You can even adorn your cookies with sanding sugar, sprinkles, or sugar pearls while the icing is wet, which is always fun. When I’m decorating a batch of cookies, I try to make each cookie a little different. Go crazy, use your imagination! The sky is the limit. Just be sure to let your cookies dry completely before packaging them up. Shmooshed icing is sad icing.
Now go! Decorate those cookies, impress thy friends! And if you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments below. As I said before, I’m no expert on icing, but I’ll do my best to answer any questions you have.
If you want to become a total royal icing guru, here are some other resources I found helpful:
- This tutorial from Sweet SugarBelle has some very helpful videos showing the consistency of piping and flood icing. (She also has a great video on 20 second icing, which is a bit thicker than flood icing and can be used to create fun effects, or to ice cookies without the need for two separate consistencies.)
- This video from Karen’s Cookies is absolutely life changing if you mix a lot of different colors. I always forget to use her genius trick when filling my piping bags, and then I wind up kicking myself later when it comes time to clean up.
- Sweetopia has a fantastic in-depth photo tutorial on decorating with flood icing, and even includes some examples of wet-on-wet decoration. (She makes it look so easy!)
(You can find my recipe for Cardamom and Orange Spiced Sugar Cookies (and royal icing) in the holiday issue of Go Gluten Free Magazine.)