Updated: Dec 7, 2021
I know you've seen the beautiful high speed cookie decorating videos with the icing that just magically flows like sweet, colorful lava. I'm often asked what kind of icing is that exactly? Its royal icing! Royal Icing is a versatile icing that is made with meringue powder or egg whites, water, and powdered sugar and can be mixed with water to create different consistencies (levels of flowyness or stiffness). Different Consistencies are used to create different decorating effects. For example, as soon as icing is finished mixing, its considered pipe or thick consistency. This consistency is used for piping details. Royal Icing can be a bit overwhelming at first glance, but I'm going to walk you through all you need to know to get started!
How to Make Royal Icing
Most royal icing recipes use either pasteurized egg whites or meringue powder (which you can find in the cake supply section of most hobby stores or Wal-Mart or click here to find it on Amazon) to achieve the "hardening when dry" characteristic RI is known for. However, there are recipes that utilize aquafaba or hybrid glaze recipes for states where cottage food laws prohibit the use of egg products or when making RI vegan. My royal icing recipe mixes meringue powder and warm water in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. The mixer and the paddle attachment are both important because you simply cannot achieve the fluffy texture that perfect for piping or florals without it. You can use a hand mixer to make royal icing, but I love the Kitchen Aid paddle attachment to help avoid air bubbles and create perfect stiff peaks. I use two pounds of powdered sugar in my royal icing, and it looks like a hot mess when if first goes into the bowl. It will look like the consistency of thin honey, but this is why a mixer is important. Mixing on medium high speed for around 4 minutes (not much longer than that or icing will be overmixed and won't dry properly) will build the structure in the powdered sugar and create fluffy white icing with stiff peaks that looks like a cloud. You can add corn syrup or glycerin to make royal icing more shiny. I prefer not to, because I like a matte cookie, but if you want to, just add about a tablespoon per batch after mixing. You can also add flavorings like vanilla extract, just be careful to use extracts that don't contain oil. Oil or fat of any kind will keep royal icing from setting up and drying correctly.
Achieving the Right Consistency with Royal Icing
Once your royal icing is made, you'll want to color it with gel food coloring and mix it to the consistency you'll need for your specific decorating task. There are 3 main consistencies that I like to work with that I think are a great starting point for you. Piping Consistency or straight from the mixer is my favorite for piping royal icing flowers or really fine details. Its stiff and will maintain the shape of whatever its pushed through (like a piping tip) Toothpaste Consistency is perfect for fine details that need to be smooth. Its thick enough to maintain its shape, but thinner than piping consistency so its easier to squeeze and you're able to smoothe it with a scribe tool. Flood Consistency is the magical flowing lava icing you see sugar cookie decorators use often. Different people use different methods and consistencies for flooding, but most people use the timing method to determine if royal icing is at the right consistency by dropping a bit of icing into the bowl with the rest of the icing and counting how many seconds it takes to reincorporate completely. Some people prefer to use a thick consistency to pipe an outline (or dam) around the cookie then use a thin consistency to flood. I prefer to use one consistency for both these tasks. It saves time, piping bags, and sanity. I use a 20 second consistency to pipe the outline, then immediately increase pressure on the piping bag to flood inside that outline. You can see the videos below for a detailed explanation of how to create each of these consistencies with your royal icing!
For more on the SG Scoop method described in the video, and to finally conquer Royal icing consistency, check out the Consistency Confidence online class!
What Tools to Use for Piping Royal Icing
There are a few different ways you can pipe royal icing onto your cookie. My favorite method is tipless piping bags. These are really easy to use, because you can just snip the tip of this special plastic bag and it acts as a piping tip. However, some people prefer to use metal piping tips, squeeze bottles or even Zip Locs. See the video below for more on the difference between piping tools.
Basic Royal Icing Decorating Techniques
One of my favorite royal icing techniques is wet on wet. Its a really simple method where you pipe on top of icing that still wet with another color and sometimes manipulate the shape with a scribe tool to create one solid surface with a pretty pattern like dots or flowers. See the photo below to step by step instructions. You can download the Get Started Guide here to download and print this page.
Storing Royal Icing
I get questions about storing icing all the time, and I feel a little unqualified to answer, because I don't often store my icing. If I store icing, its on the counter for a day or two until I need it again. I rarely if ever refrigerate or freeze icing, because I prefer the way it performs when made fresh. This may come as a surprise since I am the girl who likes to make everything ahead of time when I can. Icing is the exception to that for me. I like to prep other components of the cookie process like dough and occasionally some royal icing transfers prior to making cookies. I find it really difficult to get the right consistency when Icing has been stored and I also think the end result isn't as puffy and beautiful when Icing is stored. Although I prefer to make icing fresh, and strongly encourage you to do the same, I wanted to share what to do in case you do find yourself in need of storage solution. No matter how you store your icing, you'll need to revive it after its sat still for more than a few hours. Icing has a tendency to separate and become syrupy over time, so you'll want to mix it all back together in a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment until its well incorporated back together and until its smooth again. The first time you stir through icing that's been sitting, you might notice a texture in the icing similar to air bubbles but larger in comparison. Its looks similar to the inside of a marshmallow when you tear it. After mixing well, this texture should go away and you should have nice smooth icing. When mixing flood consistency from stored icing, you may not need quite as much water, because stored icing tends to thin a bit. Trying to make florals with stored icing is a recipe for frustration, so save yourself the baking breakdown, and just use stored icing for other techniques!
Storing on the Counter- You can store icing in an airtight container on the counter for 2-3 days. This is for a recipe using meringue powder. I like to use my kitchen aid bowl and the plastic lid that fits over the top of it. This makes storage super easy and serves as an airtight seal on days when I'm making cookies and going back and forth to the icing bowl.
Storing in the refrigerator- You can also store in an airtight container in the fridge for 3-4 days after storing on the counter.
Storing in the freezer-Same as before. Store in an airtight container and icing can be store for up to a few months. From what I've seen in the cookie groups, you'll need to let it thaw on the counter until its room temp. before use.
If you’re looking to master Royal Icing consistency, check out this quick, easy online class. Its a workshop that was recorded live with real Royal icing beginners, and now it’s available as a class, so you can finally conquer consistency! In the workshop, I teach the SG Scoop method which is my way of getting icing closer to the perfect flood consistency faster and simpler with a basic ice cream scoop. Click the image below to learn more!