Here’s what you need to know before holiday baking season.   

By Corey Williams
November 15, 2019

If you’ve ever watched The Great British Baking Show or attempted to make adorable Christmas cookies, you may have found yourself wondering, “What the heck is royal icing?”

Here’s what you need to know: 

What Is Royal Icing? 

Royal icing, an icing made from egg whites and confectioners’ sugar, goes on smooth and hardens to a candy-like consistency. 

Because of its durability and seamless look, royal icing is used to decorate everything from cookies and gingerbread houses to intricate wedding cakes.

In its purest form, royal icing is white. However, it is often dyed red or green to decorate Christmas treats. 

Royal icing dates back to at least the 17th century. 

There’s a legend about how it got its name that, while probably untrue, is fun to consider: Before the mid-1800s, it was known as “egg white icing.” It didn’t become royal until it was used to decorate Queen Victoria's wedding cake. 

Royal Icing Ingredients

Royal icing is made with egg whites, confectioners’ sugar, and lemon juice or water. A drop or two of food coloring is all you need to transform your pure white icing into something a bit more colorful. 

Can Royal Icing Make You Sick? 

Because of the raw egg whites (necessary for the icing’s stiff consistency), it is possible—though very unlikely—to contract salmonella from traditional royal icing.   

To avoid the risk altogether, opt for meringue powder instead of egg whites. It will give you the texture and glossy finish you’re after without the worry. 

How to Make Royal Icing

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Making royal icing is easier than it sounds: All you have to do is combine whisked egg whites and lemon juice with sifted confectioner’s sugar in a mixer

The mixture should be whipped until it’s opaque, shiny, and forms soft peaks. 

Finding the perfect combination of ingredients can be a bit of a trial-and-error process. 

  • If your mixture is too runny, add more sugar.
  • If it’s too firm, add more egg whites. 
  • If it’s way too firm, add water. 

The consistency you’re after depends on what you want to do with your royal icing: For certain baking projects, a slightly runny texture is fine and is easily spreadable. If you’re building something like a gingerbread house, though, make sure your icing is thick and strong. 

How to Store Royal Icing

Royal icing made with egg whites is higher maintenance than its counterpart made with meringue powder. 

If you used egg whites, store your icing or iced treats in the fridge for about three days. 

If you used meringue powder, though, you can keep it on the counter at room temperature.

You can also freeze royal icing in a tightly sealed container for up to a month. 

How to Use Royal Icing

The most difficult part of using royal icing is completing your design before it dries. 

Since it hardens and becomes difficult to work with as it dries, it’s important to keep the icing wet until you’re finished using it. You can do this with a damp cloth or by stirring in a few drops of water every so often. 

It takes royal icing 6 to 8 hours to dry completely, so plan your baking projects accordingly. 

Royal Icing Recipes

Photo: Caitlin Bensel; Food Styling: Emily Nabors Hall and Kady Wohlfarth; Prop Styling: Kay Clarke

Here’s how to make our best royal icing:

Ingredients

  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 3 tablespoons warm water
  • 1 ½ tablespoons meringue powder 

Directions

Combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl. Beat at medium speed with an electric mixer until firm enough to pipe, but still of spreading consistency. Divide into bowls, and tint with food coloring. Cover bowls with a damp cloth to prevent a crust from forming while icing.

Once you’ve whipped up a batch, try using it to decorate one of our 100 favorite holiday cookies (we’re partial to to these Classic Christmas Cutouts). 


 

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