Skip the royal icing. Skip the pastry bags and the piping tips. Embrace your lazy inner baker. If you covet those glossy, perfectly iced sugar cookies but never felt like your pastry skills were quite on par with doing it yourself, I think I can help. This is the simplest, most straight-forward way to decorate cookies with icing that I know.
The Easiest, Simplest Method for Icing
I am here to tell you that it's entirely possible and perfectly legit to decorate cookies with a simple icing of powdered sugar and milk using squeeze bottles in place of piping bags. There are some advantages to using the traditional royal icing, which I'll talk about below, but for most of us home bakers — those of us who just want some pretty cookies to share with our friends and family — plain old sugar icing works just fine.
This is a two-step process. First you make a slightly thicker icing, a.k.a. "border icing," and use this to trace the outline around your cookie. Then you make a slightly looser icing, a.k.a. "flood icing," and fill in the area in the middle of the cookie. The "border icing" will work as a barrier to hold in the more liquidy "flood icing," creating a completely smooth layer of icing over the cookie.
You can color your border and flood icing with food coloring. I like plain white borders and vibrant centers, but you could color the border and the flood icing with the same color or use contrasting colors. You can also draw designs inside the cookies using either the border icing or by dropping a contrasting color of flood icing over the the cookie after you've finished flooding it.
I find that squeeze bottles work just as well as piping bags for decorating and are easier for us non-pro bakers to work with and they're easy to clean. My favorite are little 8-ounce squeeze bottles that you can find at Michael's and other craft stores. A small funnel makes it easy to fill them. The thicker border icing sometimes needs a little coaxing to get into the bottle — squeezing the bottle creates some suction that will help pull the icing into the bottle (check out the photos in the slide show).
Royal icing is what professional bakers typically use for this kind of cookie decorating. It's made with either whipped egg whites or whipped meringue powder along with powdered sugar and water and tends to be a little more stable and thicker than straight powder sugar icing.
Royal icing great for fine-detailed decorating work and Martha Stewart aspirants, but for the most part, I'm just not that fancy. I am totally happy with a cookie simply flooded with a layer of crunchy, sugary icing. I also like the fact that straight powder sugar icing can be made with a fork and bowl in just a few seconds and doesn't require any disclaimers about raw eggs when sharing the resulting cookies.
These cookies might not be quite what the pros would go for, but for friends and family, these fuss-free, homemade, hand-iced, sugary sugar cookies are a credit to the cookie tray.
If you are curious about royal icing, here are a few recipes and tutorials about working with it:
Thin, flat cut-out cookies like sugar cookies and gingerbread cookies are the best candidates for decorating with icing. These cookies are sturdy enough that they won't crumble as you work with them and have large flat areas that are just begging for a bit of decoration.
Make sure your cookie are completely cool before you start decorating or the icing will melt as you decorate. I usually find it easiest to make the cookies on one day and decorate them the next. Since the decorating itself is fairly time consuming, I also sometimes set up a cookie-decorating station on my counter and decorate a handful of cookies at a time over the course of a day or two.
Iced cookies need at least 24 hours to dry, so clear a good amount of counterspace or tablespace where you can ice the cookies and leave them undisturbed. Cover the counter with parchment paper.
For the border icing: 1 cup powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla or other flavoring extract
2 to 2 1/2 tablespoons milk or water
Food coloring, optional
For the flood icing: 1 cup powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla or other flavoring extract
2 1/2 – 3 tablespoons milk or water
Food coloring, optional
Equipment Small mixing bowls
Squeeze bottles – 1 for the border icing and 1 for each color of flood icing
Clear some counterspace: Iced cookies need at least 24 hours to dry, so clear a good amount of counterspace or tablespace where you can ice the cookies and leave them undisturbed. Cover the counter with parchment paper.
Arrange cookies for icing: Allow fresh-baked cookies to cool completely, then arrange all your cookies over the parchment paper. You might find it helpful to leave a small workspace clear in front of you where you can move each cookie as you’re working on it.
Prepare the border icing: Mix together the powdered sugar, vanilla, and 2 tablespoons of milk or water for the border icing using a spoon or a fork. It should be quite thick, and if you drizzle a little from your spoon, the ribbon should hold for a few second before melting back into the icing. This border icing should be just thick enough to pour easily. If desired, add food coloring to this border icing now.
Transfer the border icing to a squeeze bottle: Insert the funnel in the mouth of one of the squeeze bottles. Spoon some of the border icing into the funnel and let it drip into the bottle. Since this icing is so thick, it can be difficult to get it to drop into the bottle — you can squeeze the bottle to suction the icing and start it flowing. If it still won’t start flowing, add more milk or water one teaspoon at a time until just barely thin enough to pour (be careful of adding too much or else the border icing will pool instead of maintaining a border). Once flowing, it can still take a few minutes for all the icing to funnel into the bottle. Prepare your flood icing while you wait.
Prepare flood icing: Mix together the powdered sugar, vanilla and 2 1/2 tablespoons of milk or water for the flood icing using a fork or a spoon. This icing should still be fairly thick, but it should drizzle easily and a bit of drizzled icing should sink immediately back into the icing. If desired add food coloring to the flood icing now.
Transfer the flood icing to a squeeze bottle: Clean your funnel and insert it into a clean squeeze bottle. Pour the border icing into the bottle; this icing should be thin enough to funnel easily into the bottle. If necessary, add milk or water 1 tablespoon at a time until a thin, pourable consistency is reached.
Prepare as many batches of flood icing as needed to decorate your cookies.
Draw the borders around the cookies with border icing: Begin with the border icing and trace the outline of each cookie with icing. Hold the bottle vertical with the tip of the bottle slightly above the cookie. Squeeze gently and with consistent pressure so the border is the same width all the way around. Think of this border icing like drawing lines with a pen. If desired, you can draw inside the cookie — thicker lines are better than thin lines for separating areas of flooded icing.
Allow border icing to dry slightly: The border icing doesn't need to be completely dry, but the next step (flooding the cookies with icing) works better if the borders are at least dry to the touch. If you draw the borders on all your cookies before moving onto flooding, the first cookies will be dry enough to start flooding once you finish drawing the borders.
Flood the interior of the cookie with flood icing: Using a bottle of the flood icing, begin filling the interior of the cookie with icing. Use the nose of the bottle to push the icing into the corners and against edges. Think of this flood icing like using a paintbrush.
Allow the cookies to dry: Leave the cookies undisturbed for at least 24 hours to fully dry. Depending on the thickness of your icing and the layers on the cookie, it may take longer. When the cookies are dry, the surface of the cookies will be completely smooth, dry, and resistant to nicks or smudges.
Store the dried cookies: Once dry, you can stack the cookies between sheets of parchment paper in an airtight container at room temperature for several weeks.
The icing will keep for several days in the squeeze bottles. It’s best to store unused icing in the fridge and let it warm to room temperature before using.
Since the icing keeps well, you can spread your cookie decorating over the course of a day or several days. I often create a station in my kitchen and ice a few cookies at a time over a day or two.
To make marbleized icing, flood the entire cookie with icing, then drop dots or draw a squiggle line over the top with a contrasting color. Run a toothpick through the contrast icing to "marbleize." For more details, check out this post: How to Create a Marbled Effect When Decorating Cookies.