Learn the ingredients of royal icing and find out how to use, store and decorate cookies with royal icing.

By Amy Zavatto
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Be it a smooth swathe of bright cheery color across a cute cookie cutout; the piping used to outline everything from holiday cookie shapes to stars, hearts and more; or intricate cake and cupcake toppers, royal icing is the key to creating stunning cookies and confections. What is royal icing? Quite simply, it’s icing that's made from confectioners’ sugar, egg whites and flavorings, and used in many ways to decorate cookies and cakes. Whether you’re looking to create fun confections with the kids, or craft a show-stopping cookie, cake or even gingerbread house, we’ll show you the right steps for making and using fool-proof royal icing every time!

Royal Icing Ingredients

What is royal icing and how is it different than other icings or frostings? The biggest difference between, say, buttercream frosting and royal icing is texture: buttercream is creamy and soft; royal icing hardens to a candy-like texture. It creates such a smooth, even and blemish-free surface, it might make you wonder: Is it edible? Indeed it is! Royal icing is as edible as the cookies and cakes it can cover.

While the origins and regal name of this icing are up for debate, it’s ability to prettify cakes and other confections has made it the cake-embellishment choice for England’s Royal Family since the nineteenth century. (It adorned Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, and Prince William’s gorgeous eight-tiered wedding cake!) But aristocracy isn’t required to make and use royal icing. All you need is few simple ingredients.

How to Make Royal Icing

If you’ve wondered how to make royal icing, it’s actually a very simple recipe that employs common ingredients you likely have on hand—egg whites, confectioners’ sugar, and a bit of water or lemon juice—plus a little stirring action with a wooden spoon or electric mixer. And when you want to get fancy, a few drops of food coloring will saturate your royal icing with any color of the rainbow. Just remember that a little coloring goes a long way—if the color isn’t as dark or saturated as you want, keep in mind that it will darken as the icing dries.

While there are multiple versions of royal icing recipes—some use real egg whites, some prefer meringue powder, while others opt for egg-white powder—we love this simple royal icing recipe because the royal icing ingredients are so easy to find.

If you prefer to buy royal icing rather than make your own, you can order it from baking companies like Wilton.

Is Royal Icing Hard to Use?

Royal icing isn’t hard to use, you just need a little know-how. First and foremost: when royal icing dries, it becomes hard—which is great for the final icing and piping results, but can be tricky if it happens mid-use. To avoid any problems, keep your icing covered with a damp cloth while you work, and give it a good stir every so often (especially if you’ve taken a little break). If necessary, add a drop or two of water to regain the desired consistency.

Speaking of which, royal icing consistency is yours to control. You’ll use thinner, spreadable royal icing for “flooding” cookies for background work, and thicker royal icing for “piping” lines and making rosettes. Royal icing can be thinned simply by adding water (or lemon juice), or thickened by adding confectioners’ sugar. Add liquid or confectioners’ sugar in small increments, such as half teaspoon at a time, and mix thoroughly before deciding whether to add more. For flooding you’ll want a honey-like consistency that’s thin enough to spread to all boundaries of your cookie but not so thin that it will run off the sides. For piping, the consistency should be like toothpaste.

When adding liquid to royal icing, you may create air bubbles which you’ll want to eliminate or they will carry over onto your cookies. To do so, cover your icing with a damp cloth and let it stand at room temperature for a few minutes, or, after flooding a cookie, shake it from side to side and gently tap it on the countertop. The bubbles will rise to the surface and can then be popped with the tip of a toothpick.

How long does royal icing take to dry? Once you flood, spread, or pipe it onto your cookies, let them stand at room temperature. It takes royal icing 6 to 8 hours to dry.

How to Store Royal Icing

If you’ve used fresh or dried egg whites, you'll want to store your royal icing in the refrigerator where it'll keep best for up to three days. Royal icing made from meringue powder can be stored at room temperature. Make sure the utensil you use to transfer the icing from your mixing bowl to a storage container is clean and dry. Glass or ceramic containers are the best sorts to use. Avoid plastic, which can hold oil or grease that will break down the icing. Once transferred, gently press a piece of wax paper, parchment, plastic wrap, or damp paper towel over the surface of your icing to completely cover it, then tightly cover the container with a lid. When you’re ready to use the royal icing again, simply let it come to room temperature (still covered), then give it a good stir. You may need to thin or thicken it again before using. 

You can also freeze royal icing in clean resealable freezer bags with the air pressed out for up to a month. Thaw at room temperature when ready to use.