05 Feb Royal Icing 101
Hi, friends! I’ve had many requests for a post detailing everything that is royal icing, so finally, here it is! The information below is much of what I cover when I host my Sugar Cookie Decorating Workshops. It’s a long read, but hopefully you find it packed with good information and tips that will help you achieve icing perfection! Let’s get started…
What is Royal Icing?
Simply put, royal icing is a white icing that dries firm, making it perfect for cookie decorating. It takes colour like a dream and can also be used for other baking projects, such as “gluing” gingerbread houses together and helping to set cake tiers in place (plus decorating them, too!). Traditionally, it is made with fresh or pasteurized egg whites, icing sugar and water but when working with raw egg, there’s always a slight risk of salmonella poisoning (emphasis on the slight) and that just makes me nervous so I stay away.
To take the risk of food poisoning out of the equation, many, many bakers use something called meringue powder, in place of the raw egg whites. This magic powder is made up of dehydrated egg whites, corn starch and other various ingredients. It works incredibly well and can be found at most major baking supply shops and even some grocery stores. There are a number of brands out there and almost every baker has an opinion about which works best. Personally, I alternate between Wilton and Lorann brands, but I’m not partial to either of them – I like them both equally and it really just depends on what’s in my kitchen.
Recipes for royal icing may vary a little, but for the most part, they all have three basic ingredients: icing sugar, meringue powder and water. Typically, the icing sugar and meringue powder are stirred together, then water is added and the icing is left to mix until it comes together. Once the icing has come together, it will be of a certain consistency and more water can be added to modify it as needed. So let’s talk about the 3 consistencies of royal icing!
The 3 Royal Icing consistencies
There are 3 consistencies of this wonderful icing and each serves an entirely different purpose.
This icing is thick, dries incredibly quickly and is most often used as an edible glue. When a spoon is dipped into the icing and puled up, the icing should hold a very stiff peak.
Soft and easy to pipe, this icing is most commonly used for piping borders and decorative details onto cookies and cakes. It should hold a soft peak and should pipe smoothly out of your pastry bag, similar to the way toothpaste flows onto your toothbrush.
Here it is, piped onto a cookie…
Flood icing is perfect for “flooding” or filling the inner section on top of a sugar cookie, after an outer border of soft peak icing has been piped. The border is what keeps this runny icing contained. Be sure not to thin out this icing too much, as it will run right over the borders if too much water has been added. When drizzled back on itself into a bowl, the icing should blend in and disappear in about 10-12 seconds.
And a flooded cookie…
Some Things to Know
Royal icing and oil aren’t friends. It is so important to take the time to wipe the inside of any bowls and utensils that will be used to make the icing, before beginning, with white vinegar or lemon juice – I cannot stress this enough. There are some bakers out there that swear that their icing is never affected by any oil that they add (or any greasy residue left behind on a bowl), but it is my personal experience that bad things happen to royal icing when oil is present. As in icing hundreds of cookies and none of them every fully dry kind of bad (these are the decorating nightmares that keep me up at night).
I recommend using a gel food colouring (such as Americolor) as opposed to a liquid. First of all, gels are super-concentrated, so a little bit goes a very long way. Second, gels don’t alter or water down the consistency of your icing like some liquids can. Win-win!
When it come to adding food colouring, less is more. Too much colour saturation can cause cookie icing to dry in a sort of blotchy pattern, especially with red and black colourings. Americolor created “Super Black” and “Super Red” colourings for their line, which allows you to add just enough colouring to your icing so it has almost reached the shade you’re looking for – and then you stop adding colour. While the icing dries on your cookies, the colour will deepen, saving you from the dreaded blotchiness.
When it comes to drying royal icing, how humid the room that the cookies are drying in makes a difference in how quickly (or how slowly) your icing will harden. In my experience, anything over 55% humidity really spiked the drying time of my icing. For instance, I live in Vancouver, where it rains a lot and when it pours for days on end, I notice that my cookies dry slower than usual. However, when I lived in Toronto last winter where it is very cold and dry during those few months, my cookies dried noticeably faster. If you’re concerned about humidity or if it has been an issue for you in the past, a dehumidifier placed in the same room as drying cookies will help speed things along.
Speaking of humidity, try not to stack your baking sheets (full of drying cookies) criss-crossed over each other. I know that doing this saves major counter space, but it can be so risky! I’ve found that doing this really limits the air flow between the baking sheets, which can cause a build-up of humidity and moisture, which prevents your icing from drying like it should (more nightmares).
Water is like acid to royal icing, especially when it is drying. Keep iced cookies in a spot that is safe from water droplets being splashed on them, as water will eat little holes and craters into the icing that can’t be repaired.
Storing Royal Icing
Royal icing forms a crust quite quickly, so be sure to cover any bowls of icing you aren’t using at the moment with a damp tea towel and a cutting board or dinner plate.
If you have multiple pastry bags of icing on the go, make sure to cover the ones you aren’t using. Place a damp paper towel over the piping tips, wrapping it around them so that the icing inside doesn’t dry out and clog the piping tip. Tip: If your piping tips do get clogged up with icing, try poking a clean sewing pin into the ends of them to release any crusted icing.
If you have leftover royal icing and want to save it for another project, cover the bowl with a damp tea towel, set a dinner plate or a cutting board on top and pop it into the refrigerator for up to 2 days. Be sure to give the icing a good mix before using it.
Which Piping Tips to Use for Icing Cookies
It depends on your personal preference, but I find that I use the #1 and #2 tips the most. The #1 is great for piping tiny details onto cookies (eyes and eyelashes, etc.) while the #2 works perfectly for piping borders around the perimeter of cookies, before flooding.
How to Fit a Pastry Bag with Piping Tip
I was taught to pipe borders and details onto cookies using a small parchment paper cone with the tip snipped off. However, I find that works best for me is to cut a plastic pastry bag down to a smaller size (about 6 inches from the tip to where you cut), fit it with a piping tip and then fold the ends down and secure with a binder clip. Some bakers prefer to simply fit a large pastry bag with a piping tip and fill it, but I find that I have so much more control when the bag is smaller. Just my personal preference!
When piping your icing, be sure that your thumb stays up near the top of the bag, at the base of the binder clip – otherwise, you’ll end up with icing pushing it’s way out of the top of the bag. As you’re piping and using up the icing in the bag, occasionally stop to remove the clip, roll the top of the bag down and clip the bag closed again. It’s kind of like when your toothpaste gets close to the end of the tube, how you push the toothpaste towards the bottom for better pressure.
Pastry Bags vs. Squeeze Bottles for Flooding
Every baker has their preference! For a long time, I used plastic pastry bags, fitted with a piping tip, to flood my cookies, but I always found it to be a bit messy. I discovered these amazing squeeze bottles one day (find them here) and haven’t used a pastry bag for flooding ever since. They’re usually pretty inexpensive, about $2 – $3 each. Be sure to wash them by hand only, using hot water and a mild dish soap, then allow them to air-dry completely before using.
That’s all for today! I’ll be back soon with a Valentine’s Day cookie recipe, but if you have any additional questions, feel free to ask! Below is the royal icing recipe – enjoy!
- white vinegar (to clean bowls & utensils)
- 4 cups (500 g) icing sugar
- 3 Tablespoons + 1 teaspoon meringue powder
- 1/2 cup water + more as needed
Using a clean paper towel, thoroughly wipe down the inside of a stand mixer bowl, as well as the paddle attachment and any spoons or piping tips you’ll be using with the white vinegar.
In the prepared stand mixer bowl, combine the icing sugar and the meringue powder and mix together on low speed using the paddle attachment. Add the water, a little at a time, until the mixture is moist, but not too thick, and mix on low speed for about 10-12 minutes. During this time, the mixture will thicken and should hold a stiff peak. Add more water, a little at a time, until the icing reaches soft peak consistency. When piped, it should hold it’s shape without running.
Use immediately or store in a bowl in the refrigerator, covered with a damp tea towel and a small cutting board or plate, for up to 2 days. When you’re read to use it again, mix on low speed until the consistency is just right.