This tasty sugar cookie frosting recipe yields a thick and smooth vanilla-flavored spread. You can easily customize the look with festive colors, and it’s fun to top with sprinkles to elevate your creations.
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This homemade frosting quickly comes together with everyday pantry items. All you need is butter, powdered sugar, vanilla, and milk – that’s it! It’s so much better than the store-bought stuff, consisting of oil, syrups, and additives.
To make a thick and spreadable consistency, I use softened butter and whip until fluffy. I add just a hint of vanilla to flavor the frosting, but you can always switch up. Are you feeling festive? Portion out the base, add different colors for decorating and then top with sprinkles.
I use a stand mixer with the paddle attachment to bring this sugar cookie frosting together. However, if you have a hand mixer, that works too. It just takes 5 minutes to create a smooth texture.
Softened butter works best
Use softened butter slightly below room temperature, between 64 to 67ºF (17 to 19ºC). This makes it much easier to mix into a smooth consistency. If used straight from the refrigerator, the texture will be lumpy.
Leave the butter at room temperature for about 30 minutes, or you can cut it into slices to speed up the process. Some microwaves have a soften butter setting, which works well too. To test if it’s ready to use, poke it. It should only indent slightly.
Use powdered sugar
Powdered sugar (aka confectioners sugar) has finely ground sugar crystals combined with a small amount of cornstarch to prevent clumping during storage. The tiny particles create a smoother texture instead of crunchy granules. The sugar also helps create a sturdy and thick consistency in the frosting.
After decorating the cookies, as the icing dries at room temperature, it will set. The sugar is hygroscopic and attracts moisture from the frosting surface, so it’s not so sticky. However, it will not harden entirely like royal icing.
Use milk to adjust consistency
A small amount of whole milk hydrates the powdered sugar and ensures the sugar and butter combine easily. Don’t add it all at once because then it’s harder to incorporate air into the mixture. Adding in the final tablespoon of liquid right at the end helps to smooth out the frosting consistency while still staying fluffy.
Whip, but not too much
First, the butter mixes by itself to break down the stick and lightly aerate the fat. You then mix the powdered sugar, milk, and vanilla extract on low speed until just combined. If you keep the agitation minimal, like only using a spatula, the consistency will be very dense and fudge-like. Whipping a few minutes on medium-high speed dissolves most of the sugar and incorporates just enough air so that the frosting becomes light and fluffy.
If you over whip the mixture, you will see large air pockets develop, which becomes a better product for decorating cakes than cookies. However, it’s easy to adjust the consistency to be thinner by gradually adding small amounts of milk or thicker with more powdered sugar.
Changing the frosting color
I recommend using gel food colorings to mix into the frosting. They are concentrated, so you only need a small amount, and I like that they don’t dilute the consistency. You can use liquid food colorings, but I find the color won’t be as vibrant. Portion the frosting into small bowls, then gradually mix in the color. Make sure to cover the bowl with plastic wrap so the surface doesn’t dry out.
Customizing the flavor
Vanilla is a traditional flavor to use in frostings. However, you can also use peppermint, anise, maple, honey, or almond. Start with ¼ teaspoon, and gradually add more. Flavors have different concentrations, so use a small amount at first. I recommend adding alternative flavors at the end so that it’s easier to adjust.
Decorating your cookies
You can keep it simple and use a small offset spatula or butter knife to spread the frosting on each sugar cookie. Alternatively, you can add it to a piping bag to make detailed designs using tips like round and star. Make sure to add sprinkles before the frosting dries.
Make sure that any unused frosting is stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator. It contains milk, so it needs to be kept below 40ºF (4ºC) after being at room temperature for 2 hours. Let it come to just below room temperature, or until spreadable, and stir before using.
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Butter temperature creates a spreadable frosting
Use butter softened to between 64 to 67ºF (17 to 19ºC). This temperature range ensures that the needle-like beta prime fat crystals hold their shape. This is important because it helps create air pockets in the butter, making the frosting easy to spread. If the butter is too warm, it won’t whip properly and be too soft and dense.
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Sugar Cookie Frosting
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened to 64 to 67ºF (17 to 19ºC)
- 3 cups powdered sugar
- 3 tablespoons milk, divided
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the softened butter on medium-high speed (setting 8) until smooth, about 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
- Add the powdered sugar, 2 tablespoons of milk, and vanilla extract. Mix on the lowest speed (stir setting) until combined, 15 seconds.
- Mix on medium-high speed (setting 8) until fluffy, 2 minutes. Scrape down the bowl halfway through mixing.
- Add 1 tablespoon of milk, mix on medium-high speed (setting 8) until smooth and fluffy, 15 to 30 seconds.
- For a thinner frosting: add an additional 1 teaspoon of milk, mix on medium-high speed for 15 seconds. Add more milk until the desired consistency is reached.For a thicker frosting: add in 1 tablespoon of powdered sugar, mix on medium-high speed (setting 8) until smooth, about 15 seconds. Add more powdered sugar until the desired consistency is reached.
- Use the frosting as is, or add gel coloring or food coloring and mix until combined. Use immediately or cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate if not using right away.
- Yield: About 2 cups of frosting
- Serving Size: 1 tablespoon
- Storing: In an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
- Make ahead: Leave on the countertop until spreadable, just under room temperature, about 1 hour. Stir before using.
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