Learning is a hobby in itself for me, and I enjoy sharing what I learn with others. My goal with this post is to provide the basics for you to get started. I spent so much time watching videos, reading blogs, and decorating, so I feel confident that I can help you. This blog will give you everything you need to get started and more, and if it doesn’t and you still have a question or problem, leave a comment or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. You questions will help make this post even more beneficial for others.
In 2017 when I started dreaming about my daughter’s first birthday party, I knew I wanted to attempt royal icing cookies. They were beginning to pop up all over my Instagram and my usual DIY self, thought, “Oh yeah, I can make that!” That thought started me on a fun exploration of baking and decorating cookies. I tried several recipes until I found a simple, tasty one that has not failed me yet. After much practice since then, I have shared the hobby with others and taught in-person classes to tens of women and kids.
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What do you really need to be successful at making sugar cookies and decorating them with royal icing? Not as much as you think. I promise you do not need to buy lots of fancy equipment and tools to try out this hobby. You probably have everything you need in your home already. I will be honest and tell you what you need and what is optional. Here’s a list for you, and where I buy my items. I have also created an Amazon shopping list if you love the ease of online shopping like me.
- Mixer (You do need an electric mixer for the icing. It doesn’t have to be a stand mixer.)
- Cookie sheet for baking
- Parchment paper for rolling out cookies and baking
- Rolling pin (Here’s my favorite)
- Cooling rack (Not required, but I use them)
- Meringue powder (I buy mine from Hobby Lobby when it’s 30% off)
- Gel food coloring (You can buy individual colors at Hobby Lobby, and they go 30% off too. Buy what colors you need without buying a pack of ones you don’t.)
- Containers with lids to store and mix frosting (Use what you have)
- Tip-less piping bags (My favorite ones are from Amazon, or you can use sandwich bags. I have decorated lots of cookies with sandwich bags.)
- Piping bags and frosting tips (Not required, but I purchase mine at Hobby Lobby if you need them for a specific design.)
- Flavoring for cookies and icing (I use imitation vanilla for both, but you can use what you have or your preference.)
- Cookie cutters (Not required. WHAT? Yes, I mean it. If you aren’t ready to buy cutters yet, use a cup, or raid your kids playdoh toys. I have also cut out cookies by hand using a knife and a stencil I made.)
- Scribe (Not required. I prefer toothpicks.)
- Sprinkles (Not required, but sprinkles are FUN!)
Making the Cutout Sugar Cookies
If you already have a cutout sugar cookie you love, stick with it! I tried several different ones before I found one that worked for me, but I must tell you this recipe is so quick and easy to make. It’s not my own, so I must give credit for the awesomeness.
A few tips to help you be even more successful are to make sure your butter isn’t too warm and don’t use margarine. Once your butter has a slight squish is when I start mixing. I do not weigh my ingredients; I use measuring cups, so sometimes I may add a little more flour if the dough is too sticky. On the other hand, if my dough doesn’t start coming together in the mixer after adding the flour, I add a tiny amount of water. Then, the dough comes together without a problem.
When rolling out the dough, I use parchment paper on the surface and my Wilton fondant rolling pin with guides for thickness. The rolling pin usually does not stick to the dough, which I love. If you do have some sticking, add another sheet of parchment paper on top then roll. Do not add more flour to the surface or pin because this can dry out your cookies.
There are a gazillion options for cookie cutters, and there are a couple of differences with cutters. I use both plastic and metal. With metal cutters, you will get a sharper edge, but plastic is easier to clean, in my opinion. To keep your metal cutters from rusting, after washing, put them on a cookie sheet in a warm oven. Doing this will help get your cutters nice and dry before storing them.
Time to bake! Line your baking sheet with parchment paper flat with no folds. I usually cut mine to fit the pan snug. If there are folds or raised places in the parchment, it can warp the edges of the cookies. I do use the same piece of parchment for several batches; however, if it gets wrinkly, then switch for a new sheet. Parchment helps the cookies bake evenly and have a beautiful color without lots of browning.
If you have not baked sugar cookies in your oven before, I suggest you do a test run before you put in all of the cookies. I bake my cookies about three minutes less than the recipe says. Lots of variables can affect bake time, so test yours and see what time works for your cookies and the thickness you choose. Set a timer too! The time for baking sugar cookies goes by so quickly. Have a timer ready to go, so you can get them out before they start to darken.
Once they are out of the oven, give the cookies a few minutes to rest on the pan. Then, remove them carefully to a drying rack to cool completely. You’ll be surprised at how quickly they cool down.
If you plan to decorate with icing later, store your cookies in a container with a lid to keep them from getting dry. Please make sure they are cool before you put them in the container. With your cookies finally cooled, it’s time for my favorite part-DECORATING!
Making Royal Icing
The recipe I use for royal icing is so simple. Four ingredients, and it’s done. What makes royal icing challenging is finding the right consistency and working with layers. I will share everything I have learned about overcoming these challenges in hopes of saving you some time and frustration.
The recipe is so simple like I said, and I think that’s why I was convinced I could do the cookies myself. How could throwing something in a mixer for a few minutes be hard? Here are some tips to help you be successful with royal icing.
First, I mix my meringue powder with water. I whisk these two ingredients together in the mixer before I add the powdered sugar. I mix it until I see lots of bubbles. I have tried other ways, but this produces a fluffier royal icing, which I prefer. I add my flavoring in with the powdered sugar. I use imitation vanilla because it’s something I am used to, but you can certainly experiment with other flavors.
Once all of those ingredients are whisked by hand, I add all of the powdered sugar. I don’t sift the sugar or measure by weight. Again, I use my measuring cups and don’t have a problem. Start your mixer slowly, so there’s not a cloud of sugar when you turn it on and then raise the speed once things start incorporating. I pause the mixing a couple of times to scrape the bowl and fold the frosting from the bottom.
The frosting will lose its sheen and hold stiff peaks when it’s finished. At this point, I empty the frosting immediately into a container with a lid. The frosting starts drying fast if you leave it out, and getting dried icing mixed into the wet icing is no fun. It will be thick, but water changes that quickly.
I use separate containers to mix my frosting with coloring and different consistencies. While we’re here, let’s talk about the consistencies. I like to simplify things whenever possible, so I usually use three consistencies for my decorating. Consistency of royal icing is how thick or thin depending on the amount of water you add.
Take a small bowl of icing, add the gel food coloring of your choice, a small amount of water and mix by hand. I slowly add more water with a spoon until I reach the consistency I need. For flooding a cookie, which means covering the surface with a smooth layer, I use the same consistency for outlining and flooding. Again, simplifying the process.
Make time to practice this step, and don’t get discouraged by mishaps. I still have them too. The icing is forgiving while it’s still wet. You can scrape it off the cookie and start again, or take a toothpick and clean up the edges. Remember, it will begin to get a dry top layer quickly, so clean up the places you want to before moving on to another cookie.
There are lots of decorating options with just a flooded cookie. After the cookie dries, you can write on them with edible markers, paint onto them with food coloring, airbrush them, add more icing layers — endless creative options, which is why I find decorating cookies so much fun.
Here are a few ways that I enjoy decorating my cookies.
Using the wet on wet technique, you can create colorful cookies quickly without waiting on the flood layer to dry. With the chicken cookies, I immediately added the white dots after flooding the black layer. With the mitten cookie, I quickly added red stripes then ran a toothpick through them to create a fun design.
Edible markers are my favorite way to add details and words to my cookies. I love to do hand-lettering, so using the markers on my cookies made sense. I find that it’s easier for beginners as well because it’s similar to writing with a pen. Make sure your cookies are dry, usually eight hours, before writing and don’t press down too hard.
I also love painting, so painting cookies was another decorating technique I had to try. I mixed gel food coloring with a tiny bit of water to paint onto the cookies like the watermelon cookies in the video above. You can purchase food-safe paintbrushes as well. These Independence Day cookies are some of the favorites I have painted.
Adding texture to your cookies with layers and frosting tips gives even more interest to some designs. For the lamb cookies, I used a tiny leaf cut in my tipless bag. The lavender cookie has several layers starting with the faux wood background up to the green ribbon. Adding different layers can take the most time because you have to let the cookies dry, and depending on the different things you want to add, the icing may need to dry completely between layers.
One of my favorite ways to add decorations to my cookies is with royal icing transfers. Using a thicker consistency, one that will hold its shape, you can trace or freehand designs onto wax paper. Let them dry thoroughly, then you have decorative elements to add to your cookies. You can make these ahead of time and in batches as well. Some designs are more fragile than others. The gingerbread men I made at Christmas were some of my favorite transfers. I used them in a kid’s class for characters in snowglobes.
Do not stack your cookies until they are completely dry.
What does it mean to “flood” a cookie? Flooding a cookie means covering the cookie’s surface with royal icing with a thin consistency.
How do you change the consistency of royal icing? You change the consistency by adding water. I suggest separating small amounts into different containers before thinning it. Start with a small amount of water and add more slowly until you reach the consistency you need. If you add too much water, add more frosting from the reserved icing.
Why is my icing running off of the cookie? Your icing is probably too thin. See above for a quick fix.
What are the different consistencies, and how are they used? I have found that different bakers like different consistencies and have differing opinions of what’s best, so I will share what works for me. Thick is straight out of the mixing bowl and holds its shape. Thick icing is perfect for flowers and similar details. Medium is the second consistency I use for mine; it mostly holds its shape but not a peak. The final one is for my flood, but I’d rather not call it a thin consistency. I outline and fill with the same consistency, so there is no line visible once finished. My flood consistency reminds of honey. Here’s a picture of how I use each one.
How long does it take the icing to dry? It depends on the design you are trying to achieve for the drying in between layers, but allow the cookies to dry at least overnight before stacking them for storage in a container. Even if the surface looks dry after an hour or so, the icing underneath will still be wet.
How do I keep my cookies from spreading during baking? If you are still having problems with your cookies spreading while baking after using this recipe, make sure your butter is not too warm or try chilling the dough. If that does not help, I suggest trying a different recipe. Baking can be affected by many different variables besides ingredients as well.
Why are my piping bags getting stopped up? There are several reasons this may occur. If you do not mix the meringue powder with water first, you could get some undissolved pieces. Not sifting powdered sugar could cause this as well. Finally, your bag may become stopped up by dried frosting if it’s sitting out while you are decorating other cookies. My bags do stop up sometimes, so I keep a wet paper towel nearby and pinch the end of the bag to unclog it. It’s an easy fix and not a big problem unless you are having it happen consistently.
Can I freeze the cookies? Yes! Saving these beautifully decorated cookies for later is one thing I love the most about them. I would experiment on your own before you freeze a huge batch, but here’s a little about my experience. I have frozen fully decorated cookies and plain cookies as well. The completely decorated cookies did better, in my opinion. The plain cookies seemed to dry out. You can vacuum seal decorated cookies in bags before freezing or, like me, use plastic freezer storage bags.
After spending days going back over this article, I think I have covered everything to get you started with cutout sugar cookies and royal icing. If you have any additional questions, please leave them in the comments or email me at email@example.com. I challenge you to get in the kitchen and give it a try. Experimenting can be fun. Save this post for later, and tag me on social media; I want to see your cookies.
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