Oh, royal icing. We go way back. I can’t remember a time that there wasn’t always a container of the stuff sitting on my counter. As soon as I use one batch up, I am making a new one. While I do love working with the icing, like any relationship, we definitely have our ups and downs. I am going to share my tips and advice with you in this article. Most of that comes from the lessons I have learned through making mistakes, and from years of experience in working with royal icing. Maybe I can save you from learning some of those lessons the hard way, and help you discover some tricks of the trade much faster than I did.
What Is Royal Icing?
Before I start talking to you about how I make and use royal icing, I want to go over what it actually is. If you are not a cookie rookie, feel free to skip this section. Royal icing is made up of confectioners sugar, egg whites or meringue powder, water, and if desired you can add oil free extract or citrus juice. Glycerine can be added to prevent the icing from hardening too much if you are using it to pipe on cakes. I have never done this myself, though. Royal icing is a hard icing that works great as glue for gingerbread, edible transfers (see photo and description below), and my favorite… cookie decorating. When it dries it has a nice smooth finish. There are so many neat techniques for applying/piping your royal icing that you can really create something beautiful. It has a pretty long shelf life. If stored in an airtight container in the fridge, you can use it for a month. Keep in mind after a few days you will definitely have to remix it, though.
I made this royal icing transfer for my sister’s baby shower, and it was the largest transfer I have ever made! I wasn’t able to get great pictures of the cupcakes with the transfer on top because I was terrified to assemble everything until I got to the venue. Royal icing is fragile! To my surprise… The photo of me holding the elephants is AFTER the shower back at my house! Yup, it made it to the venue, on top of the cupcakes, and back home to my house in one piece. I credit this to the melted chocolate I painted on the back of the hardened royal icing to add strength. So cool, right?
Why I Use Meringue Powder
I always use meringue powder when I make royal icing. (My favorite brand CK Meringue Powder can be found here.) I think it’s easier to whip up a batch of icing this way (just my opinion), and while it is unlikely… there is a chance of food born illness when using egg whites in your icing. Even though it is rare, it’s still something to consider. Here is an article I like from Better Homes & Gardens’ website that talks about raw eggs and royal icing. Take a look if you’d like more information on the subject.
Royal Icing Woes
Let’s talk about some of the tips and tricks I use to achieve a less stressful experience when working with royal icing. Remeber I talked about having ups and downs in my relationship with royal icing? The downs are hard… There’s nothing like spending hours designing, mixing colors, and applying your icing only to come back later and Have your heart sink. Your cookie has a huge crater in the icing! Or your icing won’t set. Your colors bled into each other or have grease spots. You even may find air bubbles dried into the surface of what should be a nice smooth finish. Ugh! These have all happened to me, and I’ve learned or come up with techniques to decrease the chances of this happening. I wish I could say It never happens anymore… it does… but not nearly as often. Here’s why.
I’m A Crater Hater
Adding lots of water to your icing to make it a flood consistency sure does make it easy to fill in an area on your cookie. BUT, don’t be tempted to go overboard on the water to make your icing spread quicker and easier! I have found that when I add too much water, my icing sinks, cracks, and craters. You don’t want that. I like to keep it a little thicker to err on the side of caution. Just thin enough to spread smoothly. I most often need to shake and tap the cookie after I spread the icing to get it smooth because it is a little thicker. What’s my favorite trick to getting the water amount just right? A spray bottle! Even better is that is a dollar store spray bottle! Hands down, this is the best method to add water to your icing to achieve the desired thickness.
Icing Won’t Set?
There are a few reasons I have suspected my icing didn’t set. I have also googled many times to try to find the answer. You can learn a lot this way, but it’s easy to waste hours reading everyone’s opinions on the subject. Not to mention they are often conflicting opinions. This is just my take…
- When I make sugar cookies and I don’t let them set, by this I mean wait until the next day to decorate them, I have found that the icing often won’t dry.
- Another reason I have read people argue for or against online is the humidity. I have to say, for me, I do notice the weather affecting my drying. We recently had 7 days straight of rain in May (so, wet+warm=humid) and my icing would not set! I was careful not to make errors and tried a new batch to test this theory. Again, they would not dry. I have to blame the weather on this one.
- Overmixing your royal icing can certainly be the culprit! If you mix your icing for too long it can affect the consistency.
- Too much coloring, especially darker colors like black, red, brown, blue can possibly cause textural issues. Try to add your coloring a little at a time to avoid overdoing it.
- Oil! Be sure to use a clean mixer and utensils. You don’t want any oily residue. Also, make sure you are using pure extracts, not imitation. Check that there is no oil in your flavoring. Oil and royal icing are not friends. It will mess with your texture for sure.
Your Colors Bled
It’s truly sad when you have just created this pretty little cookie and then notice the colors bled into each other when it dried. Here’s why I have found that happens…
- You didn’t let your icing dry long enough. Leave that cookie out to dry for a long long time! I leave mine out for at least 24hours but even longer if I’m decorating something that has a lot of steps. Your cookie will be fine. Don’t be so worried about your cookie becoming stale that you destroy your beautiful artwork. If you place a decorated cookie into a sealed container before it’s really dry enough, the colors will run.
- Humidity, yup, we’re blaming that again. If it is too humid I believe this can cause the colors to run.
- It won’t always happen, but I have had colors bleed if I was working on a design that had multiple steps and place dark colors next to light colors. By this I mean If I was working on, say, a flower. I want to pipe the petals white, wait a little bit for them to set, and come back and pipe a black center for my flowers. If I didn’t give the white petals enough time to set and then added black to the center, the black could bleed into the white. This might be because I used too much black coloring or too much water to the black icing. You can totally use black and white next to each other, I’m just saying be mindful of the coloring and water amounts in your icing.
Grease Spots… Yikes
This happens because you didn’t let your cookie set long enough before you decorated it. Sugar cookies have a lot of butter and if you don’t let your cookie dry out a little bit the butter and seep into the icing.
Noone Likes Air Bubbles In Their Icing
Air bubbles can make a smooth finish go wrong. Royal icing should dry nice and smooth, but if there are too many air bubbles trapped in your icing, they will ruin your finish. When I flood a cookie I always wait a minute to see if any air bubbles arise before I start on the next cookie. You can use a stylus (found here) or toothpick to pop the bubbles. It’s a good idea to run your tool through a flooded cookie even if you don’t see any air bubbles so that you can pop any that may be below the surface. Also, be careful you don’t add too much water to the icing because along with all the other problems I discussed, icing that is too think can contain a lot of air bubbles. Tapping and shaking your cookie (carefully) after you’ve flooded it can also help get those bubbles out.. or at least to the surface.
My Tried And True Royal Icing Tips
Now that we have the problems we can run into with our royal icing covered, I want to go over just a few quick tips for you.
- The first one, I have come up with the hard way… Throw a clean towel over your mixer while your icing is being mixed up. Icing splatters.
- Next up, thin your icing out with a spray bottle! This is the only way I ever add water to my prepared icing. One like this. I have purchased mine at the dollar store and they are perfect for the job. You have so much control over the amount of water. You can easily add a little at a time this way.
- When adding color to your icing, I prefer to use gel colors. This helps keep extra liquid out of your icing. Also, as I mentioned before, only add a little at a time. Remeber… the icing will dry darker.
- I always take a damp paper towel and place it near me whenever I am piping with royal icing. When I need to place the bag aside for a little bit, or I am working with multiple bags, I make sure the icing tips are buried in the damp paper towel. This prevents the icing in the tips from hardening and clogging the hole.
- Keep a second damp paper towel handy to wipe off your tip as you work.
- Always, always, make enough cookies to allow for mistakes!
- Try to use your colored icing as close to when you mix it as possible. Or, at least, prepare for having to remix it.
That’s it for now, friends! If you can think of anything else feel free to leave it in the comments. We are here to help each other. I hope that now you can have a less stressful time creating your works of royal icing art!
There are so many different recipes for royal icing out there. If you have a favorite, by all means, stick with it! But, if you are looking for the right fit, give my recipe a try. Here ya go! I love it so much… It really dries beautifully.
Happy decorating! xoxo, Katie