Holiday Cookie Decorating

Holiday Cookie Decorating

Around the holiday season, intricately decorated sugar cookies have become a staple. Special cookie shapes, intense colors, and maybe even candy pieces are frequently used to create the best-looking holiday cookies. Though you can use buttercream frosting as well, royal icing is typically used to decorate sugar cookies around the holidays, and there are lots of different ways to use it!

Royal icing is what you normally use for gingerbread houses and what bakeries typically use for hard-setting icing. This icing is made from a combination of egg whites (usually raw) and lots of powdered sugar, and it has a thick glaze consistency. You can also add a dash of salt, vanilla extract, or a bit of lemon juice to add a bit of flavor to it. The benefits to royal icing are that it sets quickly, becomes rock-hard, and is a great canvas for whatever coloring you add to it. However, it runs a relatively minor risk of salmonella from using the egg whites.

One alternative to this is using meringue powder, a shelf-stable powder you can buy at the grocery store or online. You can mix some of it with a bit of water, let it sit for a few minutes, and it’ll work the exact same as egg whites!

Royal Icing

Royal icing can be piped out onto cookies, which is particularly useful for precise lines such as a border or details, or you can use the “flooding” method where you spoon on some icing and spread it into the border of set icing. Alternatively, to cover the surface of a cookie, you can carefully dip the surface of your cookie into a bowl of icing for a thin layer of icing across the top. As a general rule of thumb, you want the icing stiff enough to hold its shape enough so that it won’t slide off the cookie, but loose enough that it settles into a smooth surface when on the cookie. However, for a border you want your icing slightly thicker and for flooding slightly thinner. Depending on the consistency you want, you can add a few drops of water or a few spoonfuls of powdered sugar to adjust.

When decorating your cookies with royal icing, however, be mindful of how quickly it sets. If you leave a bowl of icing uncovered, it may set and you might have to add a few drops of water to it, thinning it out. Covering the surface of the icing with plastic wrap or something similar can help avoid this along with occasionally stirring.

If you want to add pieces of candy or other decorations onto your icing, make sure to do it while it’s still liquid. This is particularly important if you want to cover the surface, for example with sugar or sprinkles. However, you can also add dots of icing onto the cookie again to stick on smaller pieces. For example, when decorating a reindeer cookie, you can add a small dot of frosting right before adding a small red candy for the nose!

It’s also possible to achieve a stiffer, fluffier consistency with royal icing, which is sometimes preferable depending on what you’re decorating. You can whip the egg whites until they hit soft peaks before adding the sugar to make it into the thicker frosting-like consistency. Though this isn’t frequently used for individual cookies due to its heavy-duty consistency, it can be used as “cement” when constructing gingerbread houses.

If you want to use something less fussy than royal icing, you can also just make a simple glaze: take some powdered sugar and add just enough water to make it whatever consistency you want. It’s easier to make, in big and small amounts, and it’s easy to use for flooding. It also sets up as pretty shiny! The downsides are that it isn’t as good at holding its shape/staying in the borders, showing color, or setting as hard as royal icing. It can also be rather sticky. This kind of glaze is best for one layer, though you could also dollop on multiple colors and swirl them for a marbled effect.

Whichever method you choose to use, cookie decorating is always fun—and you get to eat treats at the end! Depending on your preferences, there are lots of ways you could customize your cookies based on what you want.