How to Decorate Sugar Cookies with Royal Icing

This tutorial will walk you through the process of decorating sugar cookies with royal icing. I’ve found that the easiest way to decorate is using a Kuhn Rikon Cookie and Cupcake Decorating Set (available in The Shiksa Market.) These bottles are so much easier and less messy than using pastry bags; they’re also reusable, which makes them environmentally friendly. The accordion style of the smaller bottles help with creating details, they allow you to apply even pressure to create smooth lines with your icing. The set also includes four terrific decorating tips and a small spatula to help smooth out details. If you prefer using pastry bags, feel free—most of the tutorial will be helpful, whether or not you use the bottles. I just think the bottles are super nifty… they make decorating a lot easier.

The main thing to remember with icing cookies is texture. If the texture of the icing is correct, it will make decorating a lot easier. There are two main textures you will need to achieve—flood texture and detail texture. It will take some trial and error at first (which I learned after multiple attempts)—you will learn the proper texture with patience and practice. I’ve done my best to be detailed and make things as foolproof as possible, so hopefully you’ll get great results on the very first try! Once you master texture and a few other basics, you’ll be able to create gorgeous iced sugar cookies like these:

You will need at least one batch of Royal Icing to begin, as well as a batch of fully cooked sugar cookies. Links appear below.

Royal Icing Recipe

Sugar Cookie Recipe 

How to Decorate Sugar Cookies with Royal Icing

You will need

  • 2 batches of Royal Icing, made separately (recipe on TheShiksa.com)
  • Kuhn Rikon Decorating Bottle Kit
  • Funnel
  • Toothpicks
  • Decorative elements - candies, sprinkles, candied beads
  • There are two steps to creating beautifully iced sugar cookies - flooding and detailing. Flooding describes the process used to create a smooth, beautiful "bed" of frosting on top of your cookies. This flat frosting surface creates a canvas, which you can then add detail frosting to. Both types of icing - flood and detail - have different textures. Each icing step begins with a batch of tinted (or white) Royal Icing - recipe can be found on TheShiksa.com
  • First, create your flood icing. For this tutorial, I started with a vibrant blue royal icing to create a pretty Hanukkah canvas. Add water to your thick royal icing, a few drops at a time, using a spatula to stir the water in. The texture you are looking to achieve is somewhat similar to the texture of shampoo. Frosting can easily go from thick to fluid, so add water carefully and stir frequently till the right texture is achieved.
  • To check if you have the right texture, use the "10 second rule." Drag a spatula through the frosting to make a line.
  • Count how many seconds it takes for the surface of the frosting to become completely smooth again. It should take around 10 seconds... if it takes more time than that, your frosting needs more water added. If it takes less time, your frosting is too liquid-- stir in additional powdered sugar to thicken.
  • Once your frosting is at the right texture, fill two decorating bottles (or pastry bags) with the frosting. For the bottle, I use a funnel to pour the frosting in, since the opening of the bottles is rather small.
  • Pour frosting into the funnel. Agitate it with a thin knife, stirring and pushing the frosting through, till the bottle is full. This may take a few minutes.
  • Once your two bottles are full of frosting, attach a tip to each one. I use a #1 round tip (small) for outlining and a #2 ribbon tip for flooding. In the Kuhn Rikon set, these tips are labeled #1 and #2.
  • Place a small bowl with a damp paper towel on the side of your decorating area. You can place the bottles, tip side down, on top of this towel to keep the tips damp and clean-- royal icing is kind of like cement. Once it dries, it can plug up your tips and make decorating difficult. The damp paper towel will help keep this from happening.
  • Keep unused icing in a bowl tightly covered with plastic wrap.
  • Starting with the #1 tip bottle, squiggle a line on a piece of paper to make sure any air bubbles are pushed out. This will also give you an opportunity to get a "feel" for how quickly the frosting will flow from the bottle. Next, outline a cookie along the outer edge. This thin tip will create a liquid "dam" to keep the flood icing from dripping over the sides of the cookie.
  • As soon as the outline is done, use the #2 tip bottle to fill the center of the cookie with icing. Imagine you are "coloring inside the lines" in a coloring book. Don't overdo it on the icing, a little goes a long way. If you add too much, the icing will leak over the outline you created and make a mess. Use the wide #2 tip to spread out the icing across the cookie and nudge it into detailed corners. Be patient, this process takes a gentle touch and takes some practice to get right... don't be hard on yourself, and take your time.
  • Once the cookie is covered with icing, use a very small spatula or butter knife to smooth out any globs or uneven surfaces (the Kuhn Rikon set comes with a small plastic spatula). If your icing looks pretty even already, you may not need to do this.
  • Use a toothpick to pop any small bubbles that have risen to the surface of the icing.
  • Carefully grasp the outer edges of the cookie with two fingers and gently tap the cookie up and down to settle the icing. This will help to smooth out the surface even more.
  • Let the icing dry for at least 3 hours, up to 24 hours. I let them dry overnight to make sure they're nice and firm before moving on to the detail icing stage.
  • Once your flooded cookies are completely dry, you're ready to play! Detail icing is the most fun part of the cookie decorating process, in my opinion. Once you make a detail icing with the proper consistency, you'll have a blast "drawing" on top of the cookie and making all kinds of beautiful designs.
  • Start with another batch of royal icing. For this tutorial, I used white, which made a lovely contrast to the blue flood icing. For the detail icing, you want your consistency to be thicker and more like glue than shampoo. If you use a 10-second rule for flood icing, I would say the detail icing will be more like a 25-second rule. It should be gloppy, not runny-- but not overly thick. Again, knowing the proper texture takes practice, so add water slowly and test the texture as you go.
  • Fill a bottle with detail icing, using the same funnel method I outlined above. For detailing, I like using the Kuhn Rikon accordion bottles (included in the set). They make even, steady-handed application easier. Attach a #1 tip for thin detailed lines, or another tip of your choice to create pretty details (the star tip is nice for creating flower-like designs, while the #4 tip makes leaf-like designs. Feel free to get creative with your tips!
  • Use the detail frosting bottle to decorate, as you would with a paint brush and thick paint. Press the #1 tip gently to the surface, squeeze, and lift straight up to create dots.
  • To create straight lines, press your tip to the surface and squeeze to create a starting point. Immediately lift the tip, keeping your eye on the end point where you want your line to end. Keep your handy steady and pressure even as you pull towards the end point, lifting and then lowering when your line is finished.
  • The lifting action will help you to control the straightness of the line. Again, it will take some practice to get a feel for the icing... have patience and don't be too hard on yourself!
  • Once your lines have been added, grasp the cookie with two fingers and gently tap to smooth out the icing lines. If you see any small bubbles, pop them with a toothpick as you go. Small imperfections can usually be fixed with a toothpick, too, as long as you fix them within a minute or two of applying the icing. Once it starts to dry, it becomes more difficult to "clean up."
  • While the detail frosting is wet, you can also add small detail effects, like candied beads and sprinkles. The frosting will act as a glue to hold the details in place.
  • When you're done decorating, wait at least 3 hours up to overnight to dry. The longer the frosting dries, the more stable it becomes.
  • Here are some decorating ideas for Hanukkah cookies. Of course, you can use this decorating process for any holiday, or just because! Let loose your inner artist and get creative. It's fun, and I find it strangely relaxing... almost like a meditation. The resulting cookies are like little pieces of art, almost too beautiful to eat! They make great gifts.

Comments (35)Post a Comment

  1. Would the Kuhn Rikon set be good for children to use? The cookies look wonderful. I will be making a batch (slightly different recipe) with a group of kids that I teach in an afterschool care program.

  2. When you are letting the iced cookies dry, do you leave them out in the open on a paper towel? Or are they covered in any way? Can you put them in the refrigerator for this step?

  3. That was a information on decorating cookies thank you so much I feel much better going into decorating cookies for others. I never knew how to flood the cookie off I go now to put your information to good use. THANK YOU AGAIN!!!!

  4. Thanks for this excellent and brilliantly photographed tutorial. My question is: how long will royal iced cookies be good if wrapped in cellophane bags? That is, if I ice the cookies today (Wed.) and wrap them well, will they be edible and good on Sunday?

    1. Hi Laura, in my experience these cookies will still taste good for around 2 weeks after being wrapped in cellophane. After 2 weeks they slowly start to go stale in terms of flavor, though they’ll still look pretty I wouldn’t eat them after more than 2-3 weeks. Enjoy!

  5. You are a life saver! Thank you thank you for your immediate response! Cheers and I look forward to more of your cooking wisdom.

  6. When you say leave the cookies to dry overnight, are they just letting out exposed on the kitchen table, or are they in the fridge? How do you keep their freshness, etc? Tia!

    1. Just leave them exposed in a safe place overnight. These cookies do not stale easily, they stay fresh for quite some time. Once they icing is dry you can cover them or seal them in an airtight bag or container to keep them fresh longer.

    2. I would like to know… I want to use them for gifts. Can I stack 5 on top of each other? Wil the decoration or icing get damaged or does the icing go rock hard?

    3. Hi Suretha, it depends on the amount of detail icing you’re doing. The icing dries quite hard, but smaller icing details can be delicate. If you’re just flood icing the cookies and not doing little dots and embellishments, they should stack okay once they’re completely dry. If you have details, be careful, since they can get messed up easily. Good luck!

    1. Hi Cynthia, great info in this post re: storing royal icing: link to sweetopia.net

      I have also heard that you can freeze royal icing for several months, though I’ve never tried it myself. Thaw completely and remix, adding water if needed for texture, before using.

  7. Hi Tori,

    Thank you for your answer! I had seen the post on Sweetopia before. I was wondering what other people (such as you) do. :-)
    Thank you and happy baking/decorating!
    Cy

  8. These cookies are absolutely beautiful. I will be making them to hand out to family and friends this year. Excellent tutorial. THANK YOU!!!

  9. Hi, the cookies look gorgeous, I want to do them for my daughters first bday, winterONEderland, my questions is could I do them a week in advance and freeze them, or would i have to do the the 2 days before? Im trying to be creative but I want to make my life easier a couple of days before party. Please help

    1. Hi Bianca, once you decorate them and the icing is fully dry, place them in an airtight plastic bag or Tupperware container. They will still taste fresh up to two weeks later.

  10. This tutorial is great! I saw this same decorating set at Sur La Table, but wasn’t sure about how easy cleanup would be, especially for the accordion bottles. How easy was it to clean and wash the bottles?

  11. Thanks so much for such a great tutorial !!! My son likes the cookies softer, so I usually put a slice a bread in the storage container to keep them soft and moist. Will this also soften the icing once it has hardened ? Thanks so much

  12. I’m thinking of decorating an entire cake with this method. Have you tried it before? This is the best way I think of getting a smoother texture on a cake without using fondant. I’m not an expert cake decorator.

    1. Hi America– no, I have never tried this. I’m not sure how it would work since the texture dries hard/brittle like a shell, so it won’t slice very nicely and will probably crumble when you cut into the cake. If you give it a try let us know how it goes!

  13. Hi. I tried these two days ago and have found the icing is not drying as well as it should and is still soft. I live in a tropical region experiencing torrential rain at the moment, could it be humidity which is affecting the outcome?

    1. Hi Leigh, I have never had that issue but I live in the relatively dry climate of Southern California. I’m guessing you are correct and humidity is the problem. Not sure how to remedy that, sorry! Wish I had a suggestion for you…

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