Thursday, December 10, 2009

Royal Icing 101: Space Invaders

Alright! Since I've been getting so many emails and questions about decorating cookies I've decided to do a 'quick' how-to guide for the basics of royal icing (roughly 30 minutes before I head to bed. Yea...I'm nuts). I still have some reject cookies left over from my Gel Electrophoresis set, so lets put them to use.

Now, I still consider myself a bit of an amateur when it comes to icing cookies. Not too long ago my cookie decorating skills were limited to smearing frosting on cookies with a butter knife and ham handed application of sprinkles. I'm still learning from every new batch of cookies I make. So remember, you're leaning from a relative newbie but I am happy to share what I can.

So! Let's do a little Royal Icing 101 shall we...

Now, I figure from the questions I've been asked that most of the folks wanting to try their hand at icing cookies don't have a ton of piping tips, pastry bags and other baking accessories lying around. Thats fine, for the basics you don't need them. In fact, for this little tutorial I'm going to put aside all my nifty tools and ice these cookies with three supplies:

1 toothpick or bamboo skewer
1 roll of wax paper
1 roll scotch tape

Thats all I am going to use. I'm going to rough it.

Before anyone asks me 'But Ms. Humble, what about cutting the corner off a ziplock bag?! Wouldn't that be easier?' I'll answer: I personally don't like using a ziplock as a piping bag for 2 reasons - 1. the opening tends to expand with pressure and 2. the icing can come out in unpredictable ways due to the shape of the opening. I'm really not a big fan of rogue icing.

So lets start with the basic fool proof, heavily taped, pastry cone.

Typically these are made from parchment paper, I used to make them all the time long ago before I started making Ateco rich. However, I find that most parchment paper is silicon coated nowadays, which is great for non-stick baking but bad for want-it-to-stick taping. Sure, you can make a parchment pastry bag without tape, but I am imaging a lot of pastry bag blowouts and angry emails if I recommend it. So, I'm playing it safe. We're using wax paper and lots of tape.

Wax paper makes a fine pastry cone that is functional for a couple hours which should be good enough to do a batch of cookies. Besides, it's cheaper and Mother Humble stole my last roll of parchment paper when she left town after Thanksgiving.

Anyway, tear off a square sheet of wax paper, then cut it down the diagonal making two triangles.

Orient the triangle so that the hypotenuse (the long side) is facing you. Curl one of the side points up to the top. This should begin to form a cone. You want to curl it up so that you've got a tight, closed tip right at the center of the hypotenuse. Then curl the other side around the cone. Got a nice closed pointed cone? Great! Now apply tape. As much as you feel necessary to make your cone sturdy.

Make as many cones as you need now and set them aside to be filled with icing later.

Now it is time to make your icing!

This is my basic royal icing recipe:
enough for roughly 2 dozen cookies

1 pound powdered sugar
5 tablespoons meringue powder
1/3 cup plus one teaspoon water
few drops almond extract (optional)

Mix these together until smooth. It is going to be pretty thick, so add one additional teaspoon of water at a time. You want it to still be fairly thick to start, so go easy with the water. The icing should be smooth and fluid but still hold a firm peak. Meaning that if you pull a spoon out of the icing you have a nice stiff point left behind that doesn't sink back into the icing.

Now the icing is ready to be divided and tinted. Add your chosen colors and mix well.

Add about two heaping tablespoons of the tinted icing and place it into your pastry bag and roll down the top. Set aside the rest of the icing, we'll get back to it later.

Now grab a pair of scissors and snip a teeny tiny bit off the tip of your cone. Not at an angle, mind you, just a nice little bit. You can always take more off but you can't put it back on. Test your tip before you launch yourself at the cookies, you want a nice even line that isn't too fat.

Now take your cookie and pipe out the outline of whatever you want. I decided I wanted to try my hand at some space invader cookies. Two colors and 8 bits, pretty simple. Well, sorta...

So I've taken my evil alien invader's color and piped its outline.

There we go. Not too bad for a paper cone.

Then we outline the cookie with the color that I'll be using for the background.

Then I set this cookie aside and started working on outlining my other cookies. After about 10 minutes you can come back to your cookie and flood it.

To flood, take the remaining tinted icing and add a little more water, just a tiny bit at a time mixing well. You want to get your icing thinned to the point where if you pull a spoon out of it, the peak settles back into the icing and the surface is nice and smooth again in a few seconds. However, you don't want to add any more water than necessary. Too much water leads to powdery surfaces, uneven color and horrific drying times.

Now for larger, simpler cookies I just add my flooding with a spoon. However this cookie has a lot of nooks and crannies so I'll use another pastry bag and fill it with the thinned icing.

Snip off the tip of your cone (you can make a slightly larger opening for this) and pipe the icing into the outline. Don't pipe too much as the icing will spread a bit and could overwhelm the little icing retaining walls you piped earlier.

I tend to pipe into the middle and then spread the icing to the edges. In this case I'm using a bamboo skewer to do so.

Once I have the little alien guy filled, I can fill the rest of the cookie with the background icing, thinned in the same manner.

That's it!

Now, you can also pipe onto wet flood work, which I shall do for the little blue guy's missile..laser...droppings, whatever. Piping onto wet flood work lets you add details to your cookies and still maintain a smooth surface, much like you saw with the Electrophoresis Gel Cookies.

There we go! Now you can expand on that, piping blobs of color on top of each other to make spiffy concentric circles, or do shading, even marble the colors by swirling with a toothpick. Basically whatever your creative little self can come up with. This is also the time to add anything you want to stick to your cookies, coarse sugars, sprinkles, any big decorative item (dragees, candy, nonpareils, etc). Fine sugars I usually add later, as they tend to sink or disolve into something scary. I'll get to how to add sugar in just a moment.

Once the cookie dries (6 hours or overnight) you can pipe on top of your flood work, building up the design on your cookie. I usually do this to add a boarder or other details like I did with the petri dish cookies. I also add fine grain sugars at this point. I do so by painting on a thin coat of meringue powder mixed with a little water, with a soft brush. While it is still wet you can sprinkle the cookies with sugar and any wet areas will get a nice frosted look.

I think that is pretty much the basics for royal icing. It is a good place to start; you can do a lot with just some paper cones.

One last note on the meringue powder. I know that this is an ingredient that a lot of people do not have in their kitchen cabinets. However, it is what I personally use and trust, so that is what I am going to recommend. You can also make royal icing with egg whites, I am sure many do. However I live with a microbiologist who isn't exactly thrilled by the prospect of eating raw eggs on his cookies. So, if you don't have, can't find, or don't want to bother with meringue powder, feel free to seek out other recipes for royal icing.

If you do want to use meringue powder, you can usually find it at well stocked grocery stores. Most in my area have it, in a tiny tin hidden on the baking aisle. It is usually overpriced though, so I get mine from a local cake decorating and baking supply store. I can usually get a pound of meringue powder there for the same price I pay for a few ounces at the grocery store.

So, I hope this guide was helpful! Best of luck to everyone with their baking.

And remember, even if it goes totally wrong and looks nothing like want you wanted it to, it still tastes good. This set is a little sloppy, but it is late (almost 1AM, ack!) and I've not used paper cones in years (good excuses, eh!)

Also, very sorry about the poor photography. At night the indoor lighting is awful and taking photos while icing is surprisingly difficult.


  1. I seriously feel like I just stumbled upon a comprehensive candy store / really good book / or like finding $20 in your pocket.

    I've been wanting to get into pastries for AGES and haven't ever gotten around to it. And now I have a reason.


  2. I found you through Pharyngula (as I'm sure many people did). Those science cookies are amazing, and I love the tutorial. I wish I were that talented, but, alas, my artistic skills tend to be limited to sarcasm.

  3. Hooray! Glad to find another scientist who loves food. I'm working on a kids' book about food experiments. Carry on! Jane

  4. I'd been wondering!... thanks for the guide. this is super cool.

  5. Thank you so much for the instructions. I've never really been able to get the parchment to work so I've gone to plastic bags. I'll still have to use them for my tips, but for normal piping this is fantastic! Thanks for the tip! I LOVE your site!

  6. Actually, this is an icing used on glazed ginger snaps.

    Usually you see the tops of gingersnap cookies just dipped into a bowl of the glaze, or piped in a little zig zag across the surface of the cookie. So naturally the flavors seem to work well together.

    I've also seen the icing flavored with a little lemon juice instead of water or orange zest to compliment the ginger's spiciness too.

  7. You can get cartons of pasteurized egg whites in the egg section of most grocery stores. Cheaper than meringue powder if you make a lot of cookies!

    Great tutorial--I'm inspired to try flooding now.

  8. Do you use Home Cake Decorating Supply Co or somewhere else? I'm sold on the meringue powder idea!

  9. Yup, I'm a frequent shopper of Home Cake Decorating Supply Co.

  10. OK, meringue powder...where do I go about getting that? I've never even heard of it in my sad novice baking world. :(

  11. Oh sorry, is the Home Cake place the best place?

  12. "If you do want to use meringue powder, you can usually find it at well stocked grocery stores. Most in my area have it, in a tiny tin hidden on the baking aisle. It is usually overpriced though, so I get mine from a local cake decorating and baking supply store. I can usually get a pound of meringue powder there for the same price I pay for a few ounces at the grocery store."


  13. The Home Cake place is a local store, not a chain.

    You can check your grocery store, or google for baking supply stores in your area. They should both have meringue powder.

    You can also use egg whites to make royal icing:

  14. I just wanted to thank you for this tutorial. This is really going to help me with my baking this week - especially the wax paper icing bags. Genius.

  15. Thanks for the tutorial & love your cookies.

    But one thing I'm not sure of - how do you get such rich colors in your icing? I've used food coloring before but it ends up tasting weird.

  16. I use food coloring gels. Just a drop of those can bring out intense color in your icing. They work far better than the watery food colorings one finds at the grocery store.

    Here is the type I use: LINK

  17. Great tutorial!
    Though I realized you were using tape on your paper cones..
    Perhaps you already know this, but I thought I might share anyway, that the tape isn't really necessary.
    Once the cones have been formed, the pointy tip folded inwards into the cone keeps it in place solidly enough, just like that.
    That should save you a little trouble.

  18. Yes, I do make my own cones without tape.

    As I mentioned in the post: "Sure, you can make a parchment pastry bag without tape, but I am imaging a lot of pastry bag blowouts and angry emails if I recommend it. So, I'm playing it safe. We're using wax paper and lots of tape."

    The tape is to simplify the process and to minimize the chance of messes and frustration for the novice cookie baker.

  19. I love it! I love all of your nerdy cookies!! MORE MORE!

  20. Thank you so much for the tutorial! I just made my second foray into royal icing - this time using your recipe and tips - and it was infinitely better than my first attempt.

  21. hahahaaaa awesome idea but what's meringue powder?

    also yay for nutrition (which, no offense, sugar does not entirely include...)
    check out

  22. I have been reading and looking for some information and it is amazing and disturbing how many blogs related to Buy Viagra, Viagra, Generic Viagra are in the web. I know that they are products that many people use and need, but it is funny to watch so many information about those products. Anyway your inputs for this subject are very interesting.

  23. my question is how do you get your cut-out cookies to keep their shape while baking? My cookies look great on the cookie sheet and then as they bake look like blobs. Can't wait to try the royal icing technique, just hope I can figure out the cookie part!

  24. Traci,

    Freeze your cookies for 10-20 minutes before baking them, this will help keep the butter in the cookies from melting early in the baking process and distorting the cookie shapes.

    Oven temperature is also important, the oven should be well pre-heated and at the temperature called for in the recipe, so consider an ordinary cheap oven thermometer.

  25. This is an exceptional guide! I've been trying to "hone" my cookie decorating skills with Christmas coming up! Now I know that the trick to neater cookies is to use the border + flood technique. Thanks so much!

    P.S. I laughed out loud when I saw the Venn diagram. I'm a geek/baker/computer science degree holder, myself... so I know just where you are coming from. Now, off to peruse the rest of your site! :)

  26. Love that I've found a cooking blog that doesn't shy away from words like hypotenuse! And cephalopod! I love to cook, and am a PhD-turned-SAHM, and I'm so happy to have found your blog - you're giving me many great ideas!


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