How to Make Royal Icing Two Ways to Decorate Cakes and Cookies

Learn how to make bakery-quality royal icing in two foolproof, delicious ways—plus how to make shiny royal icing and how to get your icing to dry faster.

The icing on the cake—literally—of some of our favorite cookie recipes and best cake recipes: royal icing. Before we dive into how to make royal icing without meringue powder and with meringue powder, plus answer "can you make royal icing ahead of time?" we want to address this dessert recipe's unique name.

What makes royal icing so regal, exactly? The fact that it's the classic frosting recipe used to coat wedding cakes served at celebrations hosted by the British royal family. Earlier mentions of an egg white-based royal icing recipe appear as early as the 17th century, but the concept of "how to make royal icing" with that moniker was never a question in bakers' minds until 1840. That's when "royal icing" graced Queen Victoria's wedding cake. From that point forward, making royal icing decorations became the dessert trend, as others tried to mimic the chic style. (Think of royal icing as a centuries-old food trend.)

Read on to discover more about how to make royal icing for cookies and cakes that are just as stunning as those fancy bakeries and Instagram dessert artists.

What is Royal Icing—and How is It Different from Other Frostings?

Unlike other frosting recipes, royal icing dries to a shiny, flat surface that resembles a frozen lake (aka ice). Typical icing recipes include just water or milk and powdered sugar. Royal icing recipes, however, include some thickening agent to make it dry harder and sturdier. Since royal icing hardens as it dries, you can stack cookies without smudging the designs.

Today, royal icing is our go-to for decorating cookies, especially Sugar Cookie Cutouts and Gingerbread Cutouts. But once you master how to make royal icing (and how to make royal icing dry faster, because really, who wants to wait?!), you can use it for cookies, cakes, or even turn them into homemade sprinkles a la BH&G contributor Molly Yeh if you're feeling really ambitious.

Citrus Sugar Cookie Eggs
Carson Downing

How to Make Royal Icing From Scratch

Powdered sugar and vanilla are the base of most royal icing recipes. From there, you can choose your stabilizer: meringue powder or egg whites.

How to Make Royal Icing with Meringue Powder

In a large bowl, stir together powdered sugar, meringue powder, and cream of tartar. Add warm water and vanilla, then beat with an electric mixer on low speed until combined. Beat on high speed for 7 to 10 minutes or until mixture is very stiff.

Test Kitchen Tip: Meringue powder can be found in the cake decorating aisle of most hobby and crafts stores.

How to Make Royal Icing with Egg Whites

Some bakers swear by royal icing recipes that call for whipped egg whites instead of meringue powder. While our preferred royal icing recipe method features meringue powder, It's absolutely possible to master how to make royal icing with egg whites. Just be sure to buy pasteurized eggs (available at most major supermarkets), which are partially sterilized and less likely to cause food-borne illnesses.

To make royal icing with egg whites, use the whisk attachment on a hand mixer or stand mixer to beat 3 ounces of egg whites and 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract until they begin to foam up. Slow the speed of the mixer, then sprinkle in 4 cups of powdered sugar until it's just evenly incorporated. The royal icing should begin to shine. Turn the mixer up to high and whip for 5 minutes or so, or until stiff peaks form and the icing appears glossy.

Tips For Royal Icing

Now that you know how to make royal icing, let's put that pretty product to great use.

How to Decorate with Royal Icing

There are two main techniques for making royal icing decorations:

  • Piping. Royal icing starts out thick; perfect for piping outlines and accents. Pipe the outline, then let it dry before filling in the cookie.

  • Flooding. To thin the icing for filling in large areas, stir in additional warm water, about 1/2 teaspoon at a time, until the icing is a thick, spoonable glaze. Fill in outlined cookies with the spreadable royal icing. (Our Santa's Reindeer Sugar Cookies offer a terrific training ground for these approaches!)

How to Color Royal Icing

Food coloring can be found in different forms.

  • Paste: There's a lovely range of colors available, but coloring pastes can be thick and hard to blend into frosting. Find them online or at hobby or kitchen supply stores.

  • Gel: The smooth consistency of gel coloring makes it easy to stir into frosting. This can be found online and in some hobby stores and supermarkets.

  • Liquid food coloring: Available at most grocery stores and online, liquid food coloring usually comes in four color options: red, yellow, green, and blue. It takes some experimenting, but the colors can be combined to create new colors like pink, orange, and purple, too.

If you're seeking a food dye-free option, check out our guide to all-natural food coloring.

Traditional Snowflake Sugar Cookies
Jason Donnelly

Royal Icing Tips and Troubleshooting

  • Be patient. If you're curious about how to make royal icing dry faster, there's no real secret; it's just a matter of time. Depending on the thickness, royal icing usually takes 4 to 8 hours to fully set on cookies. Even if the icing feels dry before then, it might still be slightly soft below the surface. We recommend waiting until at least the 8-hour mark to stack, just to be safe. For cakes, you can feel free to cover them loosely after about 4 hours.

  • Loosen up. If your royal icing feels too thick to use or spread nicely, add 1 teaspoon of water at a time until it's pipable and easier to work with.

  • Stand firm. Conversely, if your royal icing is too thin, add 2 tablespoons more of powdered sugar at a time, beating on high with a hand mixer or stand mixer. Keep adding sugar at 2-tablespoon increments until the royal icing reaches your desired consistency.

  • Protect your product. Royal icing tends to set in the bowl quicker than you might expect. If you're not using a piping bag (which can help keep air out) cover your icing bowl with a piece of plastic wrap pressed down to sit right on top of the icing between each time you dip into the bowl.

  • Decorate quickly. Since the icing begins to set so speedily, have your sprinkles or other decorations handy before you pipe. Apply these immediately, otherwise they might just bounce off due to the firmer surface.

  • Save for later. Transfer any extra royal icing to a zip-top bag, press out all the air, seal, and store in the refrigerator. Use within three days.
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