Royal icing is hands down my favorite icing for cookie decorating. The egg whites in royal icing make it faster drying than confectioner’s icing, where the liquid content is usually milk or cream, and better for fine detail work, as it’s less prone to spreading. Use this thick formulation as edible glue for adhering sugar dragées and fondant appliqués to cookie tops, or for piecing together 3-D structures. For outlining, flooding (aka topcoating), marbling, and other cookie decorating techniques, just thin with water per my consistency adjustments until the desired consistency is reached.
About 4 1/2 cups (2 1/4 lb/1.0 kg), enough to topcoat/flood 4 to 5 dozen (3-in/7.6-cm) cookies
- It’s extremely important to use a very fine powdered sugar (i.e., 10X, which is commonly found in grocery stores in the United States, but sometimes harder to find in other countries). The sugar should not be at all gritty, or it will plug pastry tips when doing fine piping work.
- As always, it’s best to weigh all ingredients for most accuracy and consistency, and to add the egg whites gradually. The icing should be very stiff coming off the mixer, at what I refer to as my “glue” consistency.
- To guard against salmonella poisoning associated with some raw eggs, it’s best to use pasteurized whites (or hydrated meringue or albumen powder) especially when serving the very young or old, or those with compromised immune systems. Pasteurized whites are found in cartons, or pasteurized in the shell, in the refrigerated section of most grocery stores. If using pasteurized eggs in the shell, you may find the eggs harder to separate than normal, so you may need to use an additional egg white. If using meringue powder, it’s best to follow the package instructions for reconstituting an egg white. In the absence of them, use 2 teaspoons meringue powder hydrated in 2 tablespoons warm water for each large egg white called for in this recipe. Be sure to hydrate with warm water to completely dissolve the powder; otherwise, your icing may end up gritty.
- 2 pounds (907 g) powdered sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon (2 g) cream of tartar
- 5 large egg whites (5.0 oz/142 g)
- Flavoring, to taste
- Liqua-gel food coloring of your choice, to desired shade
1 | Mix the powdered sugar and cream of tartar together in the bowl of an electric mixer. Stir in the egg whites by hand to moisten the sugar. Fit the electric mixer with a paddle attachment, and beat the mixture on low speed to evenly distribute the egg whites. Turn the mixer to high speed, and continue to beat about 1 to 2 minutes just until the icing is silky and very white. (The icing will lighten and thicken as you beat it.)
Take care not to beat the icing any longer than is needed to turn it crisp white, and to only beat it at high speed at this very thick consistency. Extended beating, especially of looser icing, can pump a lot of air into it, creating tiny (or not so tiny) bubbles that can be difficult to eradicate once incorporated.
The icing, at this point, should be quite thick, at what I call my “glue” consistency. It should be so thick that it clings, nearly indefinitely, to a spoon, or plops off with a few aggressive shakes. (For a visual guide, see photo 1 in the gallery below.)
2 | Beat in flavoring and/or coloring, as desired. Again, take care not to overbeat for the reasons noted in Step 1.
The following consistency adjustments are approximate guidelines for 1 cup (11 oz/312 g) of thick, un-tinted royal icing, aka “glue”, as mixed per the recipe above. The addition of food coloring or flavoring, beating time, and normal variations in egg size can all affect the end-consistency of your icing.
If after making these adjustments, you think your icing is too thin or too thick for your application, don’t worry. The icing consistency can be adjusted at any stage of the decorating process simply by stirring in sifted powdered sugar to thicken, or water to thin. Remember, at this stage, it is important to gently stir in (not whip on the mixer) any additional water. As the icing loosens, you’re much more likely to kick air bubbles into it even with modest stirring.
For putty: “Putty” is a term I coined to convey super thick royal icing that can be shaped and modeled, much like fondant (though putty is less flexible). To make royal icing putty, simply add enough powdered sugar to my thick royal icing “glue” until it becomes a thick paste that doesn’t stick to your hands (or only sticks minimally).
For roses: I prefer a very thick icing, thicker than the “glue” consistency coming off the mixer, but a fair bit thinner than “putty”. It should take some work to stir the icing at this consistency.
For outlining aka piping: Add 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon water to 1 cup icing “glue”. For crisp, well-defined outlines, start with 1/2 teaspoon water. If the icing is too thick to easily pipe through a small (1/8-in/3-mm or less) hole in a parchment cone, gradually add more water. When piped, the icing should hold a thin line with no – or minimal – spreading (photo 2).
For stenciling: Generally, 1/2 to 1 teaspoon water (per 1 cup icing “glue”) works best, though the exact quantity will vary with the size of stencil openings, the distance between stencil openings, the degree of stencil coverage, and other factors. The icing must be thin enough to easily spread into the stencil openings without leaving tracks or peaks when the spatula or stencil is lifted. At the same time, it must be sufficiently thick to keep from creeping under the stencil into areas where it is not wanted. It is better to err on the thicker side, especially with very fine and closely spaced stencil openings.
For marbling aka pull-through work: A consistency thicker than flooding consistency (i.e., about 3/4 to 1 1/2 teaspoons water per cup of icing “glue”) usually works best, as long as all of the icings you’re using still marble fluidly without the appearance of “tracks.” The smoothest, sharpest marbling effect is also achieved when all icings are as close to the same consistency as possible.
For flooding aka topcoating: To avoid icing run-off on cookies under 2 in/5.1 cm, start by adding 1 1/2 teaspoons water to 1 cup icing “glue”. Gradually increase to 2 to 2 1/2 teaspoons, as needed, to improve spread-ability on larger cookies. The icing should flow gradually off a spoon (photo 3) when at the proper consistency.
For dipping: Generally, an additional 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons water (per 1 cup icing “glue”) works well, with the larger quantity needed on larger (greater than 2- to 3-inch/5.1-cm to 7.6-cm) pieces to ensure smooth coverage. When at the proper consistency, the icing should run gradually off the dipped piece and coat it relatively thickly (so you can’t see through it) without being so thick as to leave tracks.
For beadwork: About 2 to 3 teaspoons water (per 1 cup icing “glue”) works best, though, again, the exact quantity will vary. At the proper consistency, the icing will flow steadily off a spoon (photo 4), and a smooth, well-rounded dot will form when the icing is piped through a small (1/8-in/3-mm or less) opening in a parchment pastry cone (photo 5). If the icing forms a peak, it is too thick. Conversely, if it spreads a great deal, it is too loose.
Again, for a visual guide to proper consistency, see the photos in the gallery below or check out the following video (one of my very first YouTube tutorials), which goes into the above recipe and consistency adjustments in greater detail:
Lastly, for an explanation of the outlining and flooding techniques also shown in the gallery (photos 6 and 7), look no further than this YouTube video:
Thank you for all your help.
Can you please tell me how to store the flowers after they have dried? does it have to be in an airtight container?
do I place them in the fridge?
Have a pleasant day.
Hi, Sharihan! You want to air-dry royal icing (be it flowers or on top of a cookie, or anything else) at room temperature. Royal icing is mostly sugar (which is hygroscopic, meaning it attracts moisture), so if you refrigerate it, it will never dry or it will sweat and get wet if it was once dry. Once pieces are dry, store them at room temperature in an airtight container.
Hi, how long will this recipe store in air tight container and at room temp?
Hi, Mary, I like to use this icing the day it’s made, especially if tinted, as the color always sets more consistently for some reason when the icing is very fresh. I’ve stored it overnight at a very cool room temperature, but for longer storage than this, it’s best (for food safety reasons) to refrigerate the icing (it is perishable) and then bring it back to room temperature before using it. I also typically re-beat it (just for a minute or two) to bring it back together if any separation has occurred.
If I were to use meringue powder with your recipe instead of egg whites, how many teaspoon would I use in place of the egg whites?
Hi, Diane, If you look in the “Prep Talk” section at the top of the recipe, I give instructions for this substitution, namely: “If using meringue powder, it’s best to follow the package instructions for reconstituting an egg white. In the absence of them, use 2 teaspoons meringue powder hydrated in 2 tablespoons warm water for each large egg white called for in this recipe. Be sure to hydrate with warm water to completely dissolve the powder; otherwise, your icing may end up gritty.” I hope this helps. Happy decorating!
Hello from Greece,
I really love your work and all the help you give us with your tips and guidance. I have only one question concerning the maintenance conditions. How long can the iced cookies be maintained and be safe for consumption?
Hi, Christine. Thanks for the kind words! The shelf life of royal icing-iced cookies is determined by the cookie dough and how quickly it stales, as, once royal icing dries, it lasts a very long time. So, typically, I store my fully dry cookies in airtight containers for 1-2 weeks, depending on how quickly the particular dough stales. If royal icing is made with meringue powder and you have not cross-contaminated it with something else, it dries overnight so there is little to no risk of spoilage or food-borne illness (if made and handled as noted). Hope this helps.
Thank you for sharing with such a detailed explanation. A small doubt, will royal icing with egg and meringue powder one taste the same? Or does one taste better that the other? Thank u once again
Hi, Jabs! I prefer the taste of all-natural royal icing made from scratch, which is partly why I make it. Meringue powder taste can vary from brand to brand and always tastes a bit artificial to me depending on the additives used. But taste preferences are so subjective; the best test would be to try both types and decide what you like best.
I’m curious why you would use meringue powder instead of egg white powder? Are the two interchangeable?
Hi, Kim. I usually make my royal icing with raw eggs, but, if you are concerned about salmonella and serving those at risk, then both meringue powder and egg white powder eliminate that risk because the whites are dehydrated and any salmonella present is killed in the process. I suggest meringue powder because it is more readily available here in the US. Meringue powder has some additives that egg white powder does not, but the two should be relatively interchangeable. Truth be told, I have rarely used egg white powder in this recipe because I can’t get it easily here, so I can’t say with 100-percent certainty how different the results might be, but I suspect it might dry a bit faster and be a bit more shiny since more highly concentrated with egg whites. (I used it a few times, as I recall now, in my international travels.)
I order in bulk here in the USA. I’ll give it a try and let you know if it’s unusable. 🤣
I’m sure it will be fine; it may just dry more quickly and more shiny (my guess based on limited use) because it is pure egg whites with fewer additives. I’ve used it a few times when traveling to teach internationally; I just don’t use it here in the US and therefore supplied no substitutions using it.
Hi Julia. I think your amazing! Your why I do sugar cookies and bake. Thank you.
The only thing I wondered is what powdered sugar brand you use, and egg beaters.
Hi, Debbie! Thanks so much for the super kind remarks. I use C&H powdered sugar, though most name brands (like Domino) here in the US are suitably fine (not coarse). I’ve really only encountered coarseness issues when working with powdered sugar in other countries. I most often use raw, unpasteurized egg whites, as I don’t serve most of my cookies (I use them for teaching). When I want to use pasteurized whites, I either use those in the shell (which you can find in some markets) or any liquid egg whites in the refrigerated section. I haven’t used the latter enough to have a strong brand preference, and, since they’re essentially pure whites with no additives, I don’t expect much difference from brand to brand. Meringue powder is also a good substitute for liquid pasteurized whites if you want to eliminate all risk of salmonella. (See the recipe above for that substitution.) I hope I’ve helped a bit. Happy New Year too!
Hi Julia. I really love your work. I’ve made your royal icing recipe. I was wondering if I could freeze it after one or two days in the fridge and then use it after a week or so.
Hi, Ourania! Thanks so much for your kind words. I don’t see why you couldn’t; many people do freeze their royal icing. I will say, however, that I never do because I have found that tinted icing always sets more stably for me (less/no mottling or spotting of color) if I use it the day I mix it. I also tend to mix the quantity I know I need so I rarely have leftovers. Of course, if you do freeze it, you will need to bring it back to room temperature, re-beat it, and possibly add some water to restore it to whatever consistency you need. It is likely to dehydrate the longer it is stored. I wish I could be of more help, but I just don’t have enough freezing experience to offer more tips.
Love your work. I have all your decorating videos in my favorites. some royal icing recipes call for corn syrup instead of egg whites. Apparently they make the icing shinier. What is your take on this?
Hi, Viva! Thanks for your kind words and loyal watching of my videos – much appreciated! Royal icing without egg whites is not royal icing (it’s glaze or confectioner’s icing, sort of, but these two icings usually use something other than just corn syrup as the liquid ingredient). As for royal icing, it’s the egg whites that make this icing dry quickly and hard. If you substitute all corn syrup for the egg whites, the icing will be extremely sweet and VERY slow-drying, and maybe never dry at all depending on your ambient humidity. What I think you heard is that some people add a couple teaspoons (or so) of corn syrup to royal icing made with whites (or meringue powder) to enhance sheen and flow-ability. Yes, some corn syrup will make the icing a bit shinier depending on how much you use, but, as noted, corn syrup delays drying time and can sometimes impede the icing from drying all the way through. Some people like the softer icing, but I don’t because it’s difficult to apply certain techniques (i.e., stamping, stenciling, etc.) to soft icing, and I find I get enough sheen on my icing just by drying the icing under dry ambient conditions (i.e., by setting the cookies in front of my open dehydrator to dry). I hope I’ve answered your question.
Hi Julia, yes you answered my question. Being an engineer myself love your detailed yet precise answers. Quick separate question: I know this answer depends on the shelf life of the cookie recipe. However have you ever frozen completely iced cookies? Does the icing stay well even after thawing them back? How do you thaw them?
Thanks for the sweet words, my fellow engineer! 🙂 I don’t freeze my iced cookies, as I’d rather not run the risk of anything happening to them (sweating and moisture-related issues) after I’ve spent so much time decorating them. Plus, they take up a ton of freezer space, and freezing always alters flavor, IMO. So I prefer to make to order so people are eating the freshest possible cookies that look exactly how I originally decorated them. Others swear by freezing iced cookies, however, and say they thaw in a sealed container (that they were frozen in) at room temp, and all works well. But I just don’t do this, so I have no direct experience to corroborate theirs.