Learn how to make royal icing two-ways: using fresh egg whites and meringue powder. You can use these easy recipes to decorate your favorite treats. Perfect for cookie exchanges or as edible gifts.
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The holidays are always a fun time to combine simple baking with creative arts. Royal icing uses four common ingredients to create a glossy smooth, yet pipeable mixture. And once it dries, your artistic designs harden into place. But don’t worry, it’s still easily edible.
The main ingredient is egg whites, and you can use either fresh raw or dried products. The proteins capture air during the whipping process to create a cloud-like consistency that holds the shape and design. You can easily adjust the thickness with water. In this article, I also include outlining and flooding decoration tips for professional results!
What is royal icing?
Royal icing is a sugar mixture used for piping designs on baked goods that eventually harden. The recipe consists of whipped egg whites (raw or dried), powdered sugar, vanilla extract, or other flavors. The sugar adds sweetness and helps to stabilize the icing. A small amount of cream of tartar provides extra insurance to prevent the weeping of moisture in the eggs.
The mixture is whipped in a stand mixer or by hand to aerate the egg proteins to create a stable foam with a pipeable consistency. It shouldn’t be big and billowy like lemon meringue pie topping, but thick enough to use for piping decorations. It’s easy to adjust the texture by mixing in a little bit of water.
Using raw egg whites
Traditional royal icing uses raw egg whites. I find it provides the best texture since fresh whipped egg proteins have the maximum foaming capability, providing a thick, shiny, and smooth texture. I recommend using pasteurized egg whites. The kind sold cartons in the refrigerated section of the grocery store. They are usually treated with heat to destroy any harmful salmonella bacteria that could cause foodborne illness.
The recipe includes raw pasteurized egg whites, powdered sugar, a pinch of cream of tartar, and vanilla extract. Whip on medium speed until glossy thick medium-stiff peaks form. This mixture yields the ideal consistency for icing a gingerbread house, but if decorating cookies, you’ll need to dilute it a bit to make it more spreadable.
Using meringue powder
If you’re concerned with eating raw eggs, then using meringue powder is a great alternative. It’s a stable shelf product, so you can grab a canister and use it any time. The powder is made from dried egg whites that have been heat-treated to kill any bacteria. It also contains sugar and stabilizers like cream of tartar and citric acid so you don’t have to add more.
All you need is warm water between 100 to 110-degrees to rehydrate the meringue powder. Then combine it with powdered sugar on low speed for 7 minutes to let it fully dissolve. Incorporate until it thickness to the consistency of glue. If you need a sturdier icing, whip it an additional 30 to 60 seconds on medium-high speed (setting 8 on a stand mixer).
To change the icing color
You can use gel colors like Wilton to add vibrant hues to the icing if you want to switch up the designs. The concentrated coloring is suspended in a thick transparent paste that doesn’t alter the consistency when mixed. I use a toothpick to grab some color. A little goes a long way!
Alternatively, those little food coloring bottles used to dye easter eggs work too, but I think you have fewer color options. Also, if you use too much, it will thin out the icing. If going this route, add the color first before any additional water to adjust consistency for piping.
Make border icing
Border icing is a variation of royal icing for creating a thin outline along the cookie edge. It’s a thicker consistency, similar to peanut butter, but light enough to press through a piping bag or squeeze bottle. Once you make the base batch of icing, take a small amount and gradually dilute it with 1/2 teaspoon of water at a time until the proper consistency is reached.
To test, drizzle some from a spoon. The icing should hold for a few seconds before combining back into the icing. As it sets, it helps keep the filling icing on top of the cookie instead of flowing over the edges. You can also use it to create another layer on top of the flood icing or make textured designs.
Make flood icing
Flood icing is a variation of royal icing for filling in the design inside the border icing. It has a thinner consistency, similar to school glue, that’s more fluid to spread across the surface. Add ¼ teaspoon of water at a time to the base icing, gradually increasing as needed.
To test, pour some icing from a spoon back into the bowl. It should take about 10 to 15 seconds and sink immediately back in. If the consistency gets too runny, just add some powdered sugar until it thickens. Add into piping bags or squeeze bottles and fill in the interior of the cookie. Toothpicks or a small offset spatula helps to spread the icing to the edges.
Keep it covered when not using
The egg whites’ proteins harden as it dries, and this happens quickly when exposed to air. It’s important to keep the icing covered, directly touching, with a damp paper towel, and/or plastic wrap. You can also wrap the tips of piping bags with wet pieces of paper towels to prevent crusting when not decorating.
Drying iced cookies
Your decorated treats need to dry completely before eating or storing. Let them sit uncovered on a parchment paper lined sheet pan or wire rack for 6 to 8 hours, depending on the icing thickness. The dried surface should look shiny, feel firm, but not too hard.
Switch up the flavors
- Lemon juice for tanginess
- Peppermint, almond, or anise extract
- Spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, or cardamom
Ways to use it
- Decorate sugar cookies
- Add the finishing touches to gingerbread cookies
- Make a stunning gingerbread house that stays together!
- Spread on vanilla shortbread cookies
Pasteurized eggs are safer
Commercially processed egg products are required to be pasteurized. This destroys salmonella by rapidly heating them. For example, the approved method for pasteurizing fresh egg whites using heat alone is at 56.7°C (134.06ºF) for 3.5 minutes or 55.6°C (132.08ºF) for 6.2 minutes [source]. This process destroys harmful bacteria and lowers the chance of foodborne illness when consuming raw eggs.
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Royal Icing (2 Ways!)
Royal Icing with Fresh Egg Whites (makes 2 cups)
- ⅓ cup pasteurized liquid egg whites, carton
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/16 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 4 ¼ cups powdered sugar, dip and sweep measurement (do not pack)
- water, for adjusting consistency
Royal Icing with Meringue Powder (makes 3 cups)
- 4 cups powdered sugar
- 3 tablespoons meringue powder
- 9 tablespoons warm water, 100 to 110°F (38 to 43°C)
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Royal Icing with Fresh Egg Whites
- In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, add egg whites, vanilla extract, and cream of tartar. Mix on medium-high speed (setting 8) until frothy, about 30 to 35 seconds.
- Slowly add the powdered sugar to the mixer. Pulse on and off 8 times to prevent the sugar from going over the bowl. Mix on low speed (setting 2) until combined, about 35 seconds. Scrape down the sides as necessary.
- Mix on medium speed (setting 6) until thick and shiny, and it holds a stiff peak, about 4 to 5 minutes. This texture is ideal for making gingerbread houses.
Royal Icing with Meringue Powder
- In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, add the powdered sugar, meringue powder, 9 tablespoons warm water, and vanilla extract. Mix on low speed (setting 2) 7 minutes.
- Increase the speed to medium-low (setting 4) and mix until a thick glue-like consistency is reached, about 2 to 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
- For a thicker consistency to use for gingerbread houses, whisk on medium-high (setting 8) for an additional 30 to 60 seconds.
- Creating Colors: Divide the royal icing into small bowls. Place a piece of plastic wrap directly on top to prevent it from drying out. Add the gel or liquid colors to each bowl, mix well with a spoon. Cover with plastic wrap.
- Make Border Icing (for outlining cookies): The consistency should be similar to peanut butter but pipeable. If you drizzle a little from your spoon, the ribbon should hold for a few seconds before combining back into the icing. Add ½ teaspoon of water to the royal icing and mix. Gradually add more as needed.Add the border icing to a small squeeze bottle or piping bag fitted with a round tip. Pipe an outline around the edge of the cookies. Allow it to dry until just beginning to set. Once done, if you have leftover, add it back to the bowl with the corresponding color. Keep the bag or bottle for the flood icing.
- Make Flood Icing (for filling cookies): The consistency should be similar to glue and not runny that it falls off the cookie when piped. When drizzled from a spoon the icing should sink immediately back into the icing. If it gets too runny, you can add more powdered sugar, 1 teaspoon at a time. Add ¼ teaspoon of water to the icing and mix. Gradually add more as needed.Add the flood icing to the piping bag or bottle used to make the borders, or a new bag or bottle. Fill in the interior of the cookie with flood icing, pushing the icing into the corners and against the edges. If needed, use a small offset spatula or toothpick to spread the icing closer to the outline.
- Adding Decorations: Add sprinkles, nonpareils, or other decorations while the icing is still wet for making lines with a toothpick, or soft and sticky for sprinkles. Use border icing or edible writing pens to write messages on the dried cookies if desired.
- Drying the Cookies: Place iced cookies on a parchment paper lined sheet pan or on top of wire racks until completely dried on the surface before stacking or eating, at least 6 to 8 hours. Depending on the thickness of your icing it may take longer. When the cookies are dry, the surface should be smooth and resistant to nicks or smudges.
- Serving size: 1 tablespoon
- If Not Using Immediately: Cover the icing with a damp piece of paper towel, directly touching the surface to prevent it from drying out. Place a piece of plastic wrap over the mixing bowl or piping bag tip.
- Storing Icing: Transfer any unused icing into an airtight container. Place a piece of plastic wrap directly on top. Store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Allow it to come to room temperature before using. Mix on low speed in a stand mixer or by hand with a spoon before using to smooth out the consistency.
- Storing Iced Cookies: Store in an air-tight container for up to one week.
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