I absolutely LOVE baking.

It’s a huge deal in my family and an integral part of my personal history. I love it so much that I even wrote a book about it, “A Gift of Cookies: Recipes to Share with Family & Friends.” In fact, when I used to practice medicine one of my favorite things to do with patients was to swap recipes and baking techniques.

I’ve developed expertise that I’d like to share with you so that you can master a few simple techniques that can help you decorate your sugar cookies like a pro for any holiday cookie. I’m talkin’ Christmas Snowflake Cookies, Shamrocks Cookies, Valentine’s Day Cookies—you name it, it’s possible! Mastering these simple royal icing techniques will help you decorate any cookie you like!

Mary Decorating Cookies
Sometimes I’ll listen to music (thank you, John Mayer) and bake into the night. It’s so relaxing to me, especially with a few simple decorating techniques!

Prefer to watch?

Sit back and relax as I walk you through some basic decorating techniques, including how to check for the right consistency, getting those thin decorative frosting lines nice and straight, flooding royal icing, and a simple royal icing recipe.

Start with a delicious royal icing and sugar cookie recipe—a must-have!

First and foremost, it’s got to taste good! If you need an easy and delicious royal icing recipe, you can use mine. I’ve got a small- and large-batch version that you can use for your sugar cookies.

Royal Icing Lingo: Tips and Techniques

Before we begin decorating the sugar cookies, here’s your chance to learn the lingo before you start decorating cookies.

A few things to remember:

  • Royal icing can be used for piping, outlining, or flooding.
  • Each technique uses the same icing recipe—just the consistency (thickness) changes.
  • Royal icing can be flavored! Just make sure to use an oil-free extract or flavoring. My favorites are vanilla and almond extract. 

Different consistencies for different techniques

You might notice that the humidity in the room affects the consistency of the icing. Your recipe should be adjusted accordingly. It might be tricky at first, but don’t get discouraged! Once you get the hang of it, you’ll even develop your own preferences for thicker or thinner icing.

For example, you’ll probably want thicker icing for outlining. For flooding (filling in the entire cookie), you’ll want your icing on the thinner side. This allows it to blend in seamlessly on top of your cookie—it looks so nice and professional! A good rule of thumb is that one tablespoon of water will thin one cup of icing to flooding consistency. Remember to cover your icing with plastic wrap when you’re not actively using it so it doesn’t get crusty!

How to Add Color Your Royal Icing: Gel vs. Liquid Food Coloring

Personally, I recommend dividing your icing into several “work bowls” so you can color them individually. Work with one container at a time, keeping the others tightly covered with plastic wrap so they don’t dry out. Using a toothpick, add food coloring a little at a time, mixing well after each addition. I love using gel food coloring as opposed to liquid coloring—you’ll get more vibrant colors and it’s easier to control the consistency. Remember to mix it really well, or you might see streaks of color on top of your cookies later.

Preparing Your Pastry Bags for Icing

I prefer to use disposable pastry bags when working with royal icing. They are easy to use and cleanup is a snap. Using a coupler attachment with your piping bag (Williams and Sonoma has a nice pastry bag set) allows you to change tips if needed. You can also use squeeze bottles when working with larger amounts of icing—these work great, especially for flooding cookies.

Getting the Right Royal Icing Consistency For Decorating Your Cookies

Outlining with Royal Icing

Icing at this consistency is used to outline the edge of a cookie. The outline creates a border or dam so that the rest of the cookie can be easily flooded (filled) with a thinner icing. This step keeps the flooding icing from flowing over the edge of the cookie and making a big mess!

Outlining-consistency icing should squeeze easily out of a #2 pastry tip, stay in place, and hold its shape on the cookie when it lands. If the icing is too stiff, it will be hard to squeeze. If it is too loose, it will spread a little when it lands on the cookie—this won’t help when you start flooding. 

Outlining  Cookie with Royal Icing

You can use a spray bottle filled with water to fine-tune your icing consistency. With your icing in a bowl, spray water a little at a time, mixing thoroughly after each addition, until you get the consistency you are looking for. The icing needs to flow smoothly through a tube and curve without breakage, but it should still be stiff enough to hold its shape. 

Test the icing before you put it on a cookie! Put a little bit of icing into a pastry tip and push it through with your thumb. Make a few practice loops on some waxed paper. The loops should stay intact, not run together.

Flooding with Royal Icing

After a cookie is outlined, a thinner version of the same icing is used to fill in the outlined area. The icing should flow until it fills the entire cookie. When you squeeze the icing on the cookie, it should immediately flow toward the piped borders. If it is too thin, coverage will be too transparent and you’ll need a thicker consistency.

Flooding with Royal Icing

Piping with Royal Icing

Piping icing should be thick enough to hold its shape when it lands on the cookie, similar to outlining icing. This thicker royal icing is perfect for the final decorations that sit on top of a cookie and make it so much fun. 

Remember that each flooded cookie should be completely dry before you start to decorate with piping icing. If it’s not dry, your piped decorations will bleed into the thinner icing.

Now it’s time to play! Here’s how to decorate a sugar cookie with royal icing.

Now that you’ve got the lingo down, you can create some one-of-a-kind cookie art. Did I mention it’s delicious? So grab your various colored icings and any edible decorations you’re going to use—it’s time to decorate your sugar cookies!

1. Outline the cookie to create a dam.

Try to pipe around the shape of the cookie in one unbroken line. Get the icing as close to the edge as possible without it falling off. When the end of your outline meets the spot where you started, lift the bag to end your line. Make sure the ends meet and the outline is closed!

2. Now you are ready to flood the cookie with icing. 

Squeeze the flood icing from a pastry bag or squeeze bottle into the middle of the shape. It should flow toward the outline dam. Use a small offset spatula or a toothpick to coax the icing into the corners and edges of the shape. If you see any air bubbles on the surface of the cookie, use the tip of a toothpick to puncture them.

3. Fill in the gaps!

I like to pipe my flooding icing about ¼-inch in from the edge of the cookie. While I flood my cookies, I hold my scribe tool (you can find plenty of options on Amazon) or a toothpick like a pencil. Using a swirling motion, I push the icing toward the edge of the cookie, filling in any gaps along the way. Continue pushing the icing out until you have about 1/8-inch of space all the way around the edge of the cookies. Keep in mind that the icing will start to crust over within about 5 minutes so work quickly. Tap the cookie on the table a few times to smooth out any bubbles or bumps and move the flooded icing to the edge.

4. Now it’s time to decorate with colorful sugars, candy, and nuts!

These all stick readily to wet, flooded icing. Sanding sugar can be sprinkled directly onto the wet icing, too. I recommend using tweezers to place dragées and nonpareils precisely on the cookie. You can still attach decorations after the flood icing has dried—just use a dab of the same color icing to affix the decoration.

Adding Sprinkles to Wet Icing
Add your sprinkles, sanding sugar, and nonpareils BEFORE your royal icing dries!
Piping Details
You can add finishing touches after the icing dries on your first coat.

5. Dry and store your decorated cookies.

After flooding, cookies need to dry for about 4 hours and a full 24 hours before storing. Do not cover the cookies while they are drying. Once they are completely dried, I like to place each cookie in a zip-lock bag and then store them in an airtight container.