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Credit: Photo: Brian Splawn | Food Stylist: Meghan Splawn | Design: The Kitchn

We Tried 6 Methods for Icing Sugar Cookies and Found a Fun New Trick for Beginners

published Dec 21, 2020
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Every December, I bake dozens of sugar cookie cut-outs, whip up a triple batch of royal icing, and invite friends over for a casual cookie-decorating party. Over the years I’ve watched my guests try lots of different icing techniques, but no matter the method, they still struggled to get a thin, even coating on the cookies. Because the world is what it is right now, I won’t be having a party this year, but I decided to use that extra time to get super nerdy about icing cookies (you have your pandemic obsessions, I have mine). My hope is that this sweet research will pay dividends next holiday season, when I can use my findings to help my guests turn out great-looking cookies.

To find the methods to test, I scoured the web and consulted other Kitchn editors for their best tricks. Then I spent a day mixing, rolling, cutting, baking, and icing. A classic technique won this showdown, but a new technique also came out near the top and is ideal for beginner cookie decorators and kids.

Credit: Photo: Brian Splawn | Food Stylist: Meghan Splawn | Design: The Kitchn

How I Tested These Cookie Icing Methods

To test the six methods, I made 2-dozen cut-out sugar cookies (a mix of rounds and stars). While the cookies baked and cooled, I made a double batch of royal icing. I divided the icing into seven portions — one method calls for two different thickness — and adjusted the consistency of each portion based on each technique. The cookies were iced on the same day and allowed to dry overnight before tasting to determine if the thinner icings would affect the cookies. The timing in the ratings includes the time needed to adjust the icing consistency, as well as the waiting time between steps. The final ratings are based on ease and the look of the finished cookies. Here are the results!

A Note About Icing Consistency

No matter which method you choose, your royal icing’s consistency will have the biggest impact on your success. You can easily thin the icing with a little water or lemon juice or thicken it with a little more powdered sugar. I like to roll the last little bit of my cookie dough out, cut it into 1-inch-thick strips, and bake. These strips can be used as testers for your icing. Dip them directly in the icing or drizzle a spoonful onto them to test the consistency before you fill your bags or bottles. Plus, these test cookies are a delight to snack on while you decorate your beautiful cookies.

Credit: Photo: Brian Splawn | Food Stylist: Megan Splawn

Icing method: Dip and swipe

  • Timing: 15 minutes
  • Rating: 4/10

Royal icing is thin enough to glaze cookies as you would donuts, but the icing can be uneven if you just dip the tops of the cookies and transfer them directly to a cooling rack. This technique, which I read about on Created-By Diane, starts with a dipping station — a bowl of icing with a skewer or rubber band arranged on top. The idea here is to dip the cookie, then swipe it over the rubber band or skewer, which will even out the icing.

This was my least favorite of all the methods I tried. You have to be incredibly precise when you swipe or you end up with icing that’s thick in spots and thin in others. A few cookies broke during the dipping or the swiping. Plus, despite the fact that swiping removed some of the excess icing, it still flowed over the sides of the cookies, leaving a pretty thin coating on the cookie. If you want to try this method, make sure you’ve got a pretty thick icing that won’t slide over the sides of the cookie, and be extra gentle when dipping and swiping. This technique isn’t for kids or impatient adults.

Credit: Photo: Brian Splawn | Food Stylist: Meghan Splawn

Icing method: Squeeze bottle

  • Timing: About 15 minutes
  • Rating: 5/10

Squeeze bottles are often touted as the easier, cleaner way to cover sugar cookies in royal icing without the mess of a piping bag. And it does make sense, in theory: Make a basic royal icing, fill your squeeze bottle, then squirt the icing right onto the cookies. The fine tip of the squeeze bottle should give you complete control.

In practice, this method was anything but easy, and success hinged on getting exactly the right icing consistency. Too thin and the icing oozes out of the tip of the bottle; too thick and you might pop off the lid of the bottle if you squeeze too hard, causing icing to explode all over your counter. (Ask me how I know this.) Plus, pouring the icing in and out of the bottle to adjust the consistency is almost as tedious as cleaning the tops of the squeeze bottles.

Credit: Photo: Brian Splawn | Food Stylist: Meghan Splawn

Icing method: Dip, drip, and flip

  • Timing: 10 minutes
  • Rating: 6/10

Similar to the dip-and-swipe method, this technique is called the “dip, drip, and flip.” As the name implies, each cookie is dipped in a relatively thin royal icing, held over the bowl until the dripping subsides, and then flipped over onto a cooling rack. If the consistency of the icing is just right, it will settle into a beautifully flat surface without sliding off the sides of the cookie.

Again, the key here is icing thickness. After a few test cookies, I found I needed to add a little more powdered sugar to get the best results. But don’t add too much: If the icing is too thick, your cookies may get stuck (or break) during dipping. I like this method for simple cookie shapes (rounds, hearts, stars) that will get topped with sprinkles, which can hide a multitude of icing sins. It’s a great method for decorating cookies with kids, but it does require a bit of fussing to get the icing just right.

Credit: Photo: Brian Splawn | Food Stylist: Meghan Splawn

Icing method: Cookie cutter

  • Timing: 15 minutes
  • Rating: 7/10

Kitchn’s resident cookie expert Jesse Szewczyk suggested this technique. I’ve yet to find another reference for this method, cementing Jesse’s reputation as a cookie maverick. This one’s easy to explain: Place your cookie cutter on top of your cookie and use it as a stencil. What’s more, you could use this same idea to make smaller, colorful shapes on basic cookies too. For example, use a small star-shaped cutter in the center of a round and pipe a yellow star. Then fill in the rest of the cookie with white or blue icing.

This method deserves an honorable mention. The cookie cutter acts like training wheels for newbie decorators, including kids, and you only need one consistency of icing. I got the best results when I piped a border inside the cookie cutter, then removed the cutter and let the border dry for a few minutes before filling it with icing. The results aren’t as perfect as the winning method, but your cookies will still be beautiful.

Credit: Photo: Brian Splawn | Food Stylist: Meghan Splawn

Icing method: Pipe (no flooding)

  • Timing: 10 minutes
  • Rating: 8/10

To get those super-detailed cookies you see in bake shops (and all over Instagram), pro decorators use two different consistencies of icing: border icing and flood icing. Border icing has a viscosity similar to tomato paste. Because it’s thick, it goes exactly where you pipe it and stays put. But if you thin border icing slightly (not as thing as flood icing, though) — like the consistency of pancake batter — you can use it to ice cookies with a piping bag.

This is the method I’ve used for years at my cookie-decorating parties, because one icing consistency in a rainbow of colors is the best choice for a crowd of families. I like that you can easily fill and refill small pipping bags for tiny hands and that you can do lot of patterns with the icing. This method isn’t great for fine details or making beautifully edged cookies with smooth icing, but it’s an easy way to make pretty cookies that aren’t perfect.

Credit: Photo: Brian Splawn | Food Stylist: Meghan Splawn

Icing method: Pipe and flood

  • Timing: 30 minutes
  • Rating: 10/10

    This is the classic, pro-cookie decorator method for icing cookies that requires two types of icing: thick border icing for creating borders, and thin flood icing for a smooth, even finish. Start by piping a relatively tall border of icing along the edge of the cookie. Let the border dry for a few minutes and then fill the border with the thinner flood icing. Want to add additional details? Let the flood icing dry, then use more border icing to add eyes, scarves, or buttons.

I know, I know, making two icings and waiting between steps takes more time, but the process isn’t difficult. Make a standard batch of royal icing, then thicken it with powdered sugar to get the border consistency you want and thin it with water or lemon juice to make the flood icing. And that extra work really does pay off. This method gives you flawless cut-out sugar cookies with beautiful icing. The border icing makes a neat edge that holds the icing in place, while the flood icing flows across the top to create a perfectly even layer.

A couple of tips that make this method easier: Remember that you don’t have to have both types of icing in every color you use. You can make a big batch of white border icing and fill it with tons of colorful flood icing. Use a toothpick to pop any air bubbles in the flood icing and to encourage the flood icing to flow all the way to the border for a smooth finish.

Key Takeaways

Icing cookies doesn’t have to be hard or messy. Use the piping method for making large batches of cookies with simple designs, or use a pipe and flood method for picture-perfect cookies with more detailed designs. Make sure your cookies are cooled completely before you start and use a few cookies or cookie scraps to test your icing before you begin.

Ready to bake your own?