Even beginners can make cookies that look like a professional's—it just takes a few extra dishes and the right icing recipe. We’ve got the 5 step how-to for cookies that “wow” with colorful designs and perfect lines.
Christmas Cookies image
Christmas Cookies image
| Credit: Getty images/ Leon Neal

You know those oh-so-perfectly iced sugar cookies that you (supposedly) can only find at bakeries, with precise lines and decorations that look all too real to be made from sugar…? Yeah, you can make those.

Royal Icing

I’ve made my fair share of sugar cookies with thick, globby store-bought icing, as well as cookies with runny, glaze-like icing. I tend to choose the lesser of the two evils: glaze icing made from milk and confectioners sugar. Hey, it gets the point across and its easy. But trying to make a design with blobby or runny icing… flat-out impossible.

The solution to sub-par cookie decorating? The icing's consistency.

If you make icing with the *right* consistency, drawing on cookies is surprisingly easy. They key is to use a Royal Icing recipe. Royal Icing is a simple icing made from powdered sugar, water, sometimes vanilla extract, and the magic ingredient: meringue powder.

Meringue powder is a powdered egg white substitute that is safe to eat without heating. It’s responsible for Royal Icing’s perfect decorating consistency, that's thick enough to stand strong, but thin enough to draw with, as well as the signature smooth sheen that professionally decorated cookies have. Meringue powder makes the icing harden into a consistent layer on top of your cookies—optimal for long-lasting, intricate designs.

If you don’t have meringue powder it can be found at cake decorating stores, most supermarkets, and craft stores. If you don't have time to buy some, use a Royal Icing recipe that uses egg whites and lemon juice instead of the powdered equivalent. Either way, these recipes result in icing that is top-notch in terms of decorating ease and stunning final product.

Now that you know the secret ingredient, here are the 5 steps to achieving flawless, gorgeously decorated cookies.

You will need:

  • your cookie dough of choice
  • a royal icing recipe
  • gel food coloring
  • several bowls
  • plastic sandwich bags
  • scissors

Step 1: Bake your cookies

You can make sugar, gingerbread, or even chai shortbread cookies. Just make cookies with a flat, even surface and make sure that they are completely cool before you begin decorating them. You can even make them the night before to save time.

Step 2: Make your royal rcing, with meringue powder or with egg whites and lemon juice

After you whip your ingredients, don’t be alarmed. The icing will be very thick. As in, gingerbread house mortar thick. This is good! You can always add water to make the icing thinner, but thickening it isn't as easy. I like adding a teaspoon of almond extract (or any other extract) to my icing for flavor, but that’s optional. Divide your icing into bowls; two bowls per color that you intend to use. For example, if you intend to use red, green, and white icing, divide the icing into 6 bowls.

Step 3: Thin icing to the optimal consistencies

You need each color icing in 2 slightly different consistencies (hence the 2 separate bowls).

  • Piping constency: For detail and outer edges of the cookie, it should fall from the spoon when you lift it from the bowl of icing and form a peak in the bowl.
  • Flood constency: For filling in large areas of the cookie or the background of the cookie, it should be slightly thinner than piping consistency and fall from the spoon, redispersing into an even layer when you lift your spoon from the icing bowl.

Create these consistencies by adding and stirring in 1 teaspoon of water at a time. Because liquid is used to alter the thickness, it's much easier to use gel food coloring rather than liquid food dye, as the latter makes the icing even thinner. Either way, take the food coloring into account when you add water, or stir in the food coloring before you begin to intentionally thin the icing with water.

Step 4: Set up to decorate

After you have added food coloring and water to reach the right thickness, it's time to spoon your icing into plastic bags. Plastic sandwich bags from the grocery store are fine, but it helps to label the bags so that you know which consistency you are using while decorating. You should have one bag for each bowl of icing.

Cut a small tip off of one corner of the bag, creating a decorating tip. Test your piping skills on a piece of parchment paper to decide how big your opening should be. Just remember to start small with your cut, you can always make it larger. And if you happen to have legit pastry bags, by all means, feel free to break them out and use your preferred tip size.

Step 5: Color your cookies

Now that you have your perfect icing bagged you are ready to decorate. Outline your cookie with piping consistency icing and fill in the “background” of your cookie with flood consistency icing of the same color. When you fill with flood consistency icing, loosely fill the background, because the icing will spread into place and fill any space within your piped outline. Use a toothpick or a long wooden skewer to guide the flood icing as it spreads. Let the background set completely, and then add detail with piping consistency icing for precise lines, details, and designs.

After decorating, let the cookies stand and set for as long as you can. Royal Icing is similar to nail polish in that it looks dry, but it can still be easily bumped or smudged if you touch too soon. Store leftover icing covered in the refrigerator for later use.