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How to Make Christmas Cookie Icing (AKA Royal Icing)

Intimidated by all those gorgeous cookies decorated with Christmas cookie icing that you see posted online?

How to make Christmas cookie icing with The Cookie Elf

Me, too. Until I started making my own.

I experimented with a few royal icing recipes, made some mistakes, and then decided it was really fun when I didn’t expect myself to decorate magazine-worthy cookies.

In other words, enjoy yourself! These tips will help.

What’s So Special about Christmas Cookie Icing?

AKA as Royal Icing, it’s a hard, white frosting used to decorate Christmas cookies, gingerbread houses, ginger bread cookies, wedding cakes, decorative flowers and figures, and other desserts. Royal icing is distinctive because it dries as it hardens. It’s like using edible glue!

Recipe for Christmas Cookie Icing

3 -5 tablespoons (1/4 cup – 1/3 cup) meringue powder

1 pound (4 cups) powdered sugar

6 tablespoons (1/2 cup) warm water

Food coloring gel as desired

Place ingredients in a medium bowl. Use an electric mixer on low speed to beat ingredients together, no more than 5 minutes.

Why Should I Use Meringue Powder to Make the Icing?

Traditionally, the icing was made with fresh egg whites – an approach still preferred by some. Food safety proponents encourage using meringue powder, dried egg whites, or ready-to-use, pasteurized, refrigerated egg whites. Which should you use? It’s your choice. Personally, I’ve found meringue powder to work great. And it’s less messy.

How much should you use? The Elf’s recipe calls for 3-5 tablespoons and I lean towards about 4 tablespoons, which gives you time to decorate Christmas cookies but allows the icing to harden within about an hour. 

How to Check for Icing Consistency

Cookie art pros subscribe to three icing consistencies: thick, medium, and thin (“flood”- see box below). For you and me, medium consistency works great. When you mix the ingredients together, the icing forms a very soft peak. It’s easy to spread, although it doesn’t ooze around or lose its shape on its own.  The consistency is like soft serve ice cream. 

Try these tips:

  • Check consistency with the 10-second rule:  Drag a butter knife through the surface of your royal icing and count to 10.  
  • If the surface smooths on its own within 5-10 seconds, then your icing is ready to use. 
  • If the smoothing takes longer than 10 seconds, the icing is too stiff, often thick like cream cheese or purchased frosting-in-a-tub. Add a few drops of warm water at a time and mix to thin it a bit. Be careful. Too many drops can thin out the icing quickly.  
  • If your icing surface smooths over in less than 5-6 it is too thin.  Beat the icing longer or slowly thicken it by adding one tablespoon of powdered sugar at a time until it is the right consistency.

How to Color the Icing

Use gel food coloring. Add a bit of coloring at a time with a toothpick until the icing is a color that satisfies you. (See more food coloring tips for cookies.) 

How to Pipe Icing onto Cookies

  • Use disposable or reusable piping bags and appropriate piping tips. Or fill a zip-top sandwich bag with icing, cut 1/4 inch off corner, and pipe decorations onto cookies as desired (my preferred approach when decorating cookies with kids.)
  • Use a separate bag for each color.
  • Allow icing to dry for 1 hour.

How to Store Extra Royal Icing

  • Make plenty of icing so you have leftovers, especially when decorating cookies with kids. It’s better to have too much icing than not enough! 
  • Transfer extra icing to airtight containers to store overnight.
  • Store royal icing in the fridge (in an airtight container) for up to 10 days.
  • Store royal icing in the freezer (in an airtight freezer-proof container) for up to a month.
  • To reuse royal icing, bring it to room temperature. Give it a quick stir to reincorporate ingredients that may have separated.

Extra Baking Tip: What is “Flood” Consistency?

Christmas cookie icing at its thinnest is often called “flood consistency” because it allows you to pipe an outline around the edges of the cookie and then “flood” the middle to cover the cookie surface. The edging acts like a dam and holds in the center.

More Cookie Baking How-Tos

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Traditional Christmas Sugar Cookie recipe ...

Easiest Sugar Cookie Recipe ever ...

Ginger Bread Cookies: a classic ...

How to spread cookie dough for bar cookies and layer cookies ...

Why chill cookie dough?

Creaming butter and sugar: practical tips anyone can use ...

How to scoop cookie dough: 3 ways to try ...

More tips on our How to Decorate Cookies Pinterest board ...

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