How To Decorate Sugar Cookies like a Professional
Much like cake decorating, cookie decorating is a form of edible art. The canvas may be quite small, but the results are often breathtaking. You've likely seen examples of delicately piped cookies in bakery windows or as personalized favors at birthday parties or weddings. They're a favorite choice amongst party hosts because they're highly customizable and detailed; decorated cookies can be tailored to any occasion or holiday (like these Marbled Heart Cookies), with an endless palate of festive shapes and colors.
With so much potential for customization, cookie decorating is an art worth mastering. I worked as the head cookie decorator at a bakery for three years, and I'm here to help you learn the basics of cookie decorating, from the techniques to the vocabulary. Soon enough, you'll be making cookies like a pro in your own home. Cookie decorating begins with two elements: sugar cookies and royal icing.
Making Sugar Cookies
Sugar cookies are a favorite medium for decorating because they're solid and hold their shape well when baked. For decorated cookies, you'll want to use a sugar cookie recipe that more resembles a shortbread than a soft, chewy cookie. The dough shouldn't be so short that it crumbles and easily falls apart, but it should be solid enough to hold its shape. Our Easy Sugar Cookies recipe uses equal parts sugar and butter at its base.
Once you've made your dough, let it chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. You'll want to keep the dough as cold as possible throughout the rolling process to keep the butter inside the dough from melting, which would result in the cookies spreading and losing their shape in the oven. When you roll out the dough, the thickness should be even all around (we recommend rolling to 1/4-inch thickness—don't be afraid to use a ruler). If your dough's thickness is uneven, the cookies' bake times will vary and the surfaces will slope, causing difficulty when piping.
Not only do these simple, buttery cookies taste great, but they also can be cut into circles, hearts, stars, snowflakes, or pumpkins—the opportunities are endless. We always recommend using cookie cutters, as they help you achieve a sharp edge and even thickness. But if you don't have a cutter in the shape you want to bake, you can also cut cookies using homemade stencils and a small paring knife. To make your own cookie cutters, cut a stencil of the desired cookie shape out of thick paper, then use a paring knife to cut the shape out of the sugar cookie dough. Use your fingers to smooth any rough edges of the dough. This process is more time-consuming than using cookie cutters but works in a pinch.
Ensure that your sugar cookies are completely cool before decorating, or else the royal icing will simply melt off the cookies.
Making Royal Icing
As a general rule of thumb, the core of our royal icing recipe is 3 parts powdered sugar to 1 part meringue powder. Powdered sugar forms the base of the icing while meringue powder adds structure and shine. If you remember this ratio, it's easy to scale up depending on the size of your cookie batch. Then, splashes of vanilla and almond extracts add flavor to the icing, and warm water thins the icing to its desired texture.
WATCH: How To Make Royal Icing
Although the recipe itself may be straightforward, there are lots of ways to go wrong with royal icing. It's important to sift the powdered sugar to prevent lumps in your icing that will clog up your piping bags. The most common mistake is adding too much water, which results in an icing that's too loose to pipe. It's crucial to add the water slowly and let it fully incorporate before adding more. If you add too much water, you can thicken the icing by adding more powdered sugar and meringue powder in the appropriate ratios.
Our basic Royal Icing recipe calls for 1/2 cup of water, but this amount will likely vary each time you make the icing—instead of sticking closely to the water measurement, focus on achieving the desired texture.
Types of Royal Icing
There are two types of royal icing that you can use to decorate cookies: piping-consistency icing and flooding-consistency icing. You'll use piping-consistency icing to outline the cookies and add intricate details, while you'll use the looser flooding-consistency icing to fill the surface of the cookie and cover large areas. The only difference between the two icings is the amount of water added. Piping-consistency icing will require less water (about 1/2 cup). Flooding-consistency icing will require an additional 2 to 3 tablespoons of water.
- For Piping-Consistency Icing: Look for a glossy icing that pulls back in soft peaks from the mixer attachment. If you run a knife through the center of the icing to form a line, it should return to its shape in approximately 20-30 seconds.
- For Flooding-Consistency Icing: Look for a more liquid icing that falls quickly from the spoon (looser than soft peaks, but still able to hold its shape). If you run a knife through the center of the icing to form a line, it should return to its shape in approximately 10 seconds.
WATCH: How To Flood Icing on Sugar Cookies
How to Prepare Piping Bags
It's good practice to prepare all of your desired icing colors and consistencies before starting to decorate. There are two types of piping bags that you can use: tipless piping bags or piping bags with metal tips. With tipless piping bags, you simply need to snip the tip to the size you want and pipe away. These come in handy when you want to get super-small lines, but piping bags with metal tips are helpful in standardizing your piping size. For cookie decorating, you'll likely use round tips that range in size from #1 (the smallest opening, which creates the thinnest lines) to #5 (a larger opening, creating thicker lines). Metal tips also come in a variety of shapes (the open star shape is useful in making flowers, while others make designs like basket-weave or leaves); while some shapes can be helpful for decorative flair, for cookie decorating, you'll use a round tip the majority of the time. We recommend using a size 1 or 2 tip for most piping to achieve the cleanest thin lines.
For flooding, there's no need to use a metal tip, as you're concerned with covering a larger surface and not the detail of the lines. Simply snip the end of the disposable piping bag to create a small opening, approximately 1/8-inch, and pipe directly onto the cookie.
How to Decorate Cookies
Once your cookies are cooled and your piping bags are loaded, it's time to decorate. For most standard cookie designs, you'll start with a base outline and flood, then let it dry for 2-3 hours before piping additional decorations on top. (The exception to this rule is the wet-on-wet icing technique, which I discuss below.)
When it comes to decorating cookies, it's important to let the elements dry completely before stacking colors or layers of decoration. This helps prevent the colors from bleeding into each other and creates the appearance of distinct layers or sections. For example, if you're making our Friendly Ghost Cookies, you want to pipe and flood the white base layer, then wait for that to dry before adding the black face details. It may take some time, but it's worth it to achieve clean lines and a layered, three-dimensional design.
WATCH: How To Frost Holiday Sugar Cookies
Start by outlining the cookie with piping-consistency icing in any color you choose. Then, use flooding-consistency icing to fill the outlined area, starting by flooding around the edges and working your way towards the center. If the flooding is inconsistent in thickness, redistribute the wet icing with a toothpick. This forms a base flooded layer for your cookie design that, once dry, you can pipe details on top of.
Although you'll typically want to allow your flooded icing to dry completely before piping on top of it, there are times when you'll want to pipe immediately on top of the wet icing. This is called the wet-on-wet icing technique, and it's used when you want to create one single layer where the colors often bleed together. This technique is used to create a multi-color marbled base layer or running lines, like in our Spider Web Cookies.
WATCH: Wet-on-Wet Cookie Icing Technique
Once you've mastered the basic technique of cookie decorating, the possibilities are endless. Decorated cookies can be tailored to any and every occasion, from Halloween to Christmas to Easter.
Cookie Decorating Glossary
- Piping: drawing lines or shapes in icing, often for outlines or details
- Flooding: covering and filling large surfaces with looser icing
- Piping-Consistency Icing: Slightly thicker, glossy icing that pulls back in soft peaks from the mixer attachment; used for piping outlines or details
- Flooding-Consistency Icing: More liquid icing that is looser than soft peaks, but still able to hold its shape; used for filling larger surfaces or sections