This three-ingredient frosting is so easy to make and opens up a world of creative (and delicious) opportunities.

By Kelly Vaughan
December 07, 2020
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Think of a perfectly decorated sugar cookie and what makes it stand out. One thing that takes a basic sugar cookie to the next level is royal icing, a hard white icing made from just three ingredients. It's stiffer and glossier than frosting or glaze for cookies, which means that you can create finer details because it holds its shape. While it was originally just used by professional bakers, it's now beloved by home bakers, too. Ahead, we're explaining how to make royal icing as well as how to decorate with it.

holiday sugar cookie varieties
Credit: Johnny Miller

Ingredients for Royal Icing

The key ingredient in royal icing is whipped egg whites. To make royal icing, beat two egg whites until they're stiff, then add four cups of confectioner's sugar, two teaspoons of lemon juice, and three drops of glycerin (this is optional, but makes the icing extra glossy). Whisk all of the ingredients together until a stiff, but workable icing comes together.

If you're worried about using raw eggs to make royal icing, you may use meringue powder instead. Meringue powder, which is dried egg whites mixed with a little bit of sugar and vanilla, creates a pure white base for royal icing and helps the icing to harden. You can find meringue powder in specialty baking store and craft stores. The powder is whipped with water until it forms soft peaks; confectioners' sugar and flavorings such as vanilla extract or lemon juice are slowly added to the mixture until the consistency resembles Elmer's glue.

What You Need to Make Royal Icing

Aside from a mixing bowl, hand mixer or whisk, and measuring cups, there are a few other tools that will help you to easily decorate with royal icing. First, our food editors recommend using either a small pastry bag ($7.99, amazon.com) or plastic squeeze bottle ($2.99, amazon.com) for piping the icing onto cookies, cakes, or cupcakes. This helps the baker to be more precise when decorating and put the icing exactly where you want it. The other tool that is useful is either a long toothpick or metal cake tester ($4.32, amazon.com), which helps to get the royal icing in every nook and cranny within a designated area.

How to Decorate with Royal Icing

For over a century, royal icing has been used to decorate sugar cookies, cakes, cupcakes, and even gingerbread houses. It's particularly magical for gingerbread because it hardens quickly, acting as a glue as you piece together four sides and a roof to make an edible cottage or castle. When decorating cookies with royal icing, use either a squeeze bottle (our test kitchen editors' preference) or a pastry bag fitted with a fine tip. Pipe a border around your cookie shape with the icing; this technique is known as a "dam." Next, fill in the border (a method known as "flooding") and use a toothpick to blend in any spaces and smooth out the icing. Embellish the cookies using sanding sugar, candied citrus, pearls, and other sugary decorations.

You can use royal icing sparingly—bring gingerbread girls and boys to life by adding eyes, a scarf, and buttons using royal icing. Or turn frosted cupcakes into festive Christmas ornaments using this recipe.

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