We've all seen 'em: those unbelievably precise piped cookie decorations so gorgeous you can hardly believe they're real.
Turns out it's actually not that hard to achieve cookie perfection! All you need is a little attention to detail and (weirdly) a pair of pantyhose.
How to make royal icing for decorating cookies
- A pair of clean and unused pantyhose (optional)
- 14 ounces (400 g) sifted confectioner's sugar, plus additional to thicken if needed
- A large metal or glass bowl
- 1/2 cup (120 ml) egg whites
- 3 teaspoons of fresh lemon juice, plus additional for cleaning
- A clean spray bottled filled with water to thin your icing, if needed
- Gel food color (optional)
Step 1: Sift your sugar
Lumps will wreck your icing game, so you need to sift that confectioner's sugar. Really sift it, like you never have before!
Believe it or not, passing the sugar through the fabric of unused pantyhose is our favorite way to sift:
Cut the hose off at the knee. Stretch the toe-to-knee portion over the top of a clean metal or glass bowl and pass your sugar through. Repeat if necessary. (Why metal or glass? Plastic tends to hold in greasy or fatty residue, which is the enemy the egg white volume needed for successful royal icing.)
Note: If you don't want to fuss with this, just use a sieve. You'll be fine. But if you're going to be piping tiny, delicate lines, the pantyhose method is totally worth it.
Step 2: Clean your bowl (yes, really!)
Clean your mixing bowl with lemon juice. It'll guarantee that any leftover grease from previous projects is long gone. (For good measure, clean the whisk of your stand mixer right quick with some lemon juice too.)
Step 3: Whisk the whites
Now place your whites in the squeaky-clean bowl and get whisking. The whites need to be nice and frothy — think cappuccino foam.
Step 4: Add the sugar + whisk away
Add your sifted confectioner's sugar into the bowl with the egg whites. No need to sprinkle it in gently; we dump the whole lot in at once.
Start whisking the sugar and egg whites together on the slowest setting possible. Your goal is to mix the two without making a sugar mess everywhere. Once things are blended a bit, turn the mixer to high speed.
Step 5: Add lemon juice
When your icing looks glossy and can form soft peaks, it's time to add 3 teaspoons of lemon juice, along with some gel food color (if you want to tint it). The lemon juice adds some acidity to the royal icing, making it a little more pliable.
Whipping up white royal icing and then adding the lemon juice also seems to make it look a little brighter.
Step 6: Check the consistency
Time to do some test piping! Don't panic if you don't get this right on the first try, because there's a good chance you won't.
If your mix is too runny, add sifted confectioner's sugar a little at a time to help stiffen. To thin it down, use a handy spray bottle filled with water to add a spritz at a time.
It's too thick!
The piped icing to the left (first two lines) is way too dry and thick. It breaks and streaks when you try to pipe. Adding a little water to soften up your icing should do the trick.
Sugar clumps blocking your piping tip can also cause this type of breaking and streaking. If that's the issue, sorry to say that you might need to mix a new batch of icing. (Sift, sift, sift!)
The third line of piped royal icing is perfect for piping, so pat yourself on the back if you hit the mark. The lines are uniform and consistent with no breaks, air bubbles or thicker sections.
It's too thin!
The line on the far right is too watery and thin. Without enough structure, your icing is going to look sloppy when piped. Try adding a little sifted powdered sugar to thicken it up.
(Note, though, that a slightly looser icing could be just what you need if you're flooding large sections of your cookie with icing! For super fancy results it's normal to have to work with two different icing consistencies for different steps in your decorating process.)
Once you get it just where you want it, you're ready to decorate like a pro.