Don't let decorating sugar cookies feel daunting. Here's how the pros do it.
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How to Decorate Sugar Cookies
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Decorating sugar cookies always seems like a good idea, but they never quite turn out like the ones baked by the professionals. Even if you've mastered your sugar cookie dough, things can get tricky when the icing is ready to apply. Follow these tips—which span from icing to delivery—to decorate the best sugar cookies of all time, and get ready for Christmas cookie success.

What You'll Need:

How to Decorate Sugar Cookies:

Easy Royal Icing
Credit: Joseph De Leo

1 Customize Your Icing

Royal icing (a mixture of powdered sugar and egg whites) is what gives bakery-made cookies their professional sheen. The best part? You don't have to follow an exact recipe, says Chris Hanmer, chef and owner of CH Patisserie in Sioux Falls, S.D., and winner of Bravo's Top Chef Just Desserts: "The icing will tell you what it's doing. If it's too liquidy, add powdered sugar. If it's too thick, add milk or water." Add acid (in the form of lemon juice or cream of tartar) to help the icing dry more quickly, and experiment with different colors using gel paste coloring.

Ateco piping set
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2 Prep Your Piping Bag

Reusable pastry bags are a smart sustainable choice if you think you'll be decorating cookies for years to come. But you can also find disposable plastic pastry bags for easy cleanup (especially useful if you're tinting your icing in several different colors). Pastry tips and a coupler make the easiest work of decorating and give you pretty and precise results. If Instagram-worthy cookies are what you're after, make the investment in a set (we like this one from Ateco).

 
If you don't have a piping bag, use a squeeze bottle or create a "cornet," which involves rolling parchment paper into a cone and snipping the tip to the size of your liking. 

 
When it comes time to fill, don't be tempted to put your entire batch of icing in the pastry bag at once. You should be able to twist the back end of the bag so the icing stays securely inside and doesn't sneak out the back. You can always refill the bag.

Decorated Christmas cookies
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3 'Flood' Icing for Full Coverage

If you'd like an icing base for your cookies to either add sprinkles or a colorful design, The first step in decorating is to apply the icing, which involves piping the border with a piping bag, then filling in the center. Jen Yee, head of the pastry program at Lafayette in New York City, recommends making two consistencies of royal icing, one for each step. "You want a firm icing for the border, and a looser one to fill or 'flood' in the border, which can be done by adding a touch of water to your 'flooding' icing," she says. You can use a piping bag, an offset spatula, or a paring knife to frost the center, and toothpicks can help to make designs, spread icing into detailed corners, and pick up mistakes.

decorating sugar cookies
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4 Pipe Designs

For icing designs, keep the tip slightly above the cookie and let the icing fall into place, rather than drag it along the edge. Only pick up the tip when you want to change direction. But don't stress: simple dots and lines can be a chic addition to any cookie (and easier for beginners). 

And don't stress too much about achieving perfection, she says: "Be patient and have fun! They're cookies, so do yourself a favor and don't take the icing too seriously."

Simple Sugar Cookies
Credit: Levi Brown

5 Add Sprinkles

Quickly add the sprinkles while the icing is still wet and tacky—within two minutes of frosting. Though the surface of the icing will feel dry after about 10 minutes, it's important to let it fully harden for about four hours. 

Tips for Transporting Sugar Cookies

If you're planning on transporting or packing the finished cookies for shipping, choose to bake rounder, less complicated shapes. "Snowmen will ship a lot better than snowflakes," Hanmer says.

In terms of packing them up, place the cookies in flattened paper muffin cups to keep them separated, and use tissue or crinkle paper as padding, Yee suggests. And though it may seem counterintuitive, load in as many as you can. "The more you can carefully pack into a container and the less that they move, the better," Hanmer says.