Learn what royal icing is, plus how to use, store, and decorate cookies with royal icing.

By Amy Zavatto
Updated October 09, 2020
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Be it a smooth swath 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. Chances are, you’ve heard of royal icing, but you might not know what it is, how to use it, or how to store it.

We’ve got a royal icing recipe all ready for you—here, we’ll discuss the differences between royal icing and other frostings (and here’s the frosting vs. icing difference, if you’re curious), how to store royal icing, how long it lasts, and more. Read on for the answers to all your questions about this sweet decoration.

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What is royal icing?

Royal icing is icing or frosting that’s made from confectioners’ sugar, egg whites, and flavorings, and used in many ways to decorate cookies and cakes. There are multiple versions of royal icing recipes—some use real egg whites, some prefer meringue powder, and others opt for egg-white powder. Whether you’re looking to create fun confections with the kids or craft a show-stopping cookie, cake, or even gingerbread house, royal icing can help your creation shine—and it tastes good, too.

While the origins and regal name of this icing are up for debate, its 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 it takes is a few simple ingredients.

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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. Royal icing made from meringue powder can be stored at room temperature.

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

When storing royal icing, glass or ceramic containers are the best kinds to use. Avoid plastic, which can hold oil or grease that will break down the icing. Make sure the utensil you use to transfer the icing from your mixing bowl to a storage container is clean and dry. Once transferred, gently press a piece of wax paper, parchment, plastic wrap, or a 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 with water before using.

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How long royal icing lasts

Royal icing can last for up to three days when refrigerated. Royal icing can last longer than three days when stored in the fridge, but for best results, try to use or eat it within those three days. If not, you may find an unpleasant texture change in your icing. Royal icing lasts in the freezer for up to one month, though you will have to thaw it completely before using it.

RELATED: The Ultimate Guide to Baking Substitutions

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How royal icing is different from 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.

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How to make royal icing colorful

If you want to get fancy with your decorated cookies or cakes, colorful royal icing will do the trick. 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.

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Where to buy royal icing

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

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How to use royal icing

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.

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How long royal icing takes to dry

It takes royal icing six to eight hours to dry. Once you flood, spread, or pipe it onto your cookies, let them stand at room temperature.