How To Decorate Your Holiday Cookies Like A Pro

Written by Katie Hintz-Zambrano
9:33 am
12/09/16

Photographed by James Kicinski-McCoy

Have a holiday cookie party on the horizon? Or at least a reason (or three) to make a few batches for the feasts and festivities that await? We thought so. Honestly, there’s close to nothing that beats baking sugar cookies and letting the entire family get creative when it comes to dressing them up with icing. To make your creations extra beautiful this season, we’ve tapped Jen Musty of San Francisco’s delectable Batter Bakery (you might recall these beautiful cakes she made for us) for some ace cookie decorating tips that are sure to up your game.

1. Forget the runny stuff, ‘royal icing’ is where it’s at. “To make basic royal icing, combine 4 cups powdered sugar and 3 tablespoons meringue powder in a medium bowl. Whisk to distribute the meringue powder. Begin to stream water in a few tablespoons at a time, whisking to incorporate as powder begins to turn into a thick paste. Vigorously stir until the icing is thick, smooth, and free of lumps. The ideal royal icing consistency will vary depending on the task at hand. For ‘edging’ a cookie (drawing a line around the perimeter), the icing should be very thick, workable with a spoon but able to hold its shape when a line is drawn on parchment paper. If you are using tips (a star, etc.) to create a textured pattern, the icing should be an even thicker paste. For filling/flooding the inside of a cookie, icing should be thin enough to drip easily from a spoon held above your bowl, but not transparent. For detailing the cookie, icing should be the same consistency as that used for edging, so make extra when edging and hold onto it for later!”

2. Think beyond the sugar cookie. “The best cookies to decorate with royal icing have a sharp edge and flat surface, such as shortbread and gingerbread.”

3. Get your color on. “Divide the thick icing into smaller bowls and tint as desired. Add food coloring sparingly! We recommend using gel food coloring found at specialty baking stores or online. If you’re using liquid food coloring, make sure to have some confectioner’s sugar on hand, because liquid food coloring will change the consistency of the icing. To create a richer color, add more food coloring or a touch of a darker color (i.e. a bit of burgundy or brown to red to create a warm, rustic red). Always add food coloring while the icing is thick. While it may seem like more effort to incorporate, you will avoid pockets of food coloring that may result in thinner icing.”

4. Prep your edging icing. “Fold the sides of your piping bag down. With one hand, hold the bag open and with the other hand spoon about a quarter of the edging icing into the bag. Unfold the sides of the bag and set aside. This is the icing you will use to outline and decorate your cookies. If you are using a piping tip, cut the tip of the plastic piping bag first, drop in the tip, and fit securely into place before filling with icing. Ziploc bags are a great home-substitute for disposable piping bags.”

5. Prep your inside icing. “Add water, no more than a few drops at a time, to your original icing bowls to begin to thin the icing. Once the icing reaches desired ‘flood’ consistency, cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap (so skin does not form) and set aside.”

6. Edging time! “Cut a small hole at the tip of the royal icing piping bag. Be very careful not to cut too much off—you can always cut more, but if the starting hole is too large, your edge will be sloppy and you will need to transfer to a new bag. With your cookie in front of you, use your bag of icing to pipe the outline of the shape onto your cookie, approximately ¼ to ½ inch from the edge. To achieve a smooth line, hover the tip of the icing bag just over your cookies, applying firm but even pressure as you draw your lines. At this point you may edge your entire batch of cookies and allow them all to dry so you can fill later, or you can edge then immediately fill each cookie if you prefer. If you choose the latter route, be careful not to smudge the edge as you fill, or your flood icing may run over the lines.”

7. Here comes the flood. “After you’ve edged the cookie, use a small teaspoon to spoon enough flood icing in the middle of your cookie so that it stays within your piped outline. Begin at the center of the cookie, and work your way out toward the edges. It’s always better to add a small amount of icing at a time, rather than overfill and need to scoop thin icing off the cookie.”

8. Jazz ‘em up. “Once filled with icing, allow your cookie to rest undisturbed until the base coat is set. If you want to decorate your cookie with sprinkles or sanding sugar, allow to set for a minute or two, then sprinkle them on. Sanding sugar in particular has a tendency to sink in and lose its sparkle if the icing is too wet when applied. Mix any additional icing colors as desired and spoon each color of icing into its own piping bag. Before decorating your cookie, practice piping your name and a few basic lines and shapes on a piece of parchment paper. When adding lines, dots, and patterns to your cookie, use the same technique as you did while edging, hovering the tip just above the cookie surface. Note that royal icing takes a minimum of 12 hours to dry completely. While you can detail cookies that are not entirely dry, dark colors may bleed into white icing. For sharp results, plan your cookie decorating process to allow 2 days to complete your cookies: day one for baking and base coating, day two for detailing and finishing touches. Happy baking!”

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