Never would I have imagined that something as simple as decorating a cookie could come with so many challenges. Not many start off with decorating by reading everything that can go wrong and find out later on, icing all over their kitchen, not able to figure out why their red icing is still pink and wondering why they ever thought this was something they should try... but if you are a little crazy like me, you keep going and make it your mission to figure out this whole world of royal icing - the 8th wonder of the world.
My favourite is when someone asks me what I do and I tell them I decorate cookies... cue the blank stare / half smile / “that’s not really a job is it?” look. I usually have to pull out my phone to show them a picture of a cookie to prove that I’m not just spreading some icing on with a knife and their reaction tends to change very quickly.
The world of cookies had come a LONG way and especially lately, has exploded into an art form all of its own - royal icing being the medium and the blank sugar cookie the canvas. There are so many techniques and different ways to do things, but there are trouble spots along the way to look out for. If you are new to this blog, take a minute and read up on my royal icing and baking tips to cover the basics.
Although this has turned out to be a long post, I’ve tried to make it as straight forward as possible with the problems and solutions. You’ll notice I have bold fonts for key subjects - more so for easy reference if referring back to this in the future. Now as everything that I talk about, this is 90% my personal experiences and 10% word on the street. If I haven’t experienced it, I’ve read about it or heard of it and can tell you what’s worked for others. If you are looking for scientific backing, this isn't the place for that. I’m just your girlfriend giving you advice over coffee and hope that what I share can work for you!
To be brutally honest right off the bat, icing consistency is the SOLE factor that will make or break you as a decorator. There is absolutely no measurement I can give you to make your icing perfect. Everyone’s recipe and environments are different, and even a slight difference in measurement or humidity makes a huge impact on the outcome of your consistency. The general guidelines for consistency are as follow:
Piping and writing consistency is like that of toothpaste. When you apply it, it needs to stay in place and not spread. It’s should apply clean, with no breaks or cracks. I look for icing that when I hold it up from the bowl with my spatula, the peak bends but it doesn’t fall back into the bowl.
Flood consistency is achieved by mixing in small amounts of water to your piping consistency so that it glides nicely off of your spatula and settles back into the bowl within 8-20 seconds depending on how thick you want it. You never want to go too runny as it is leads to issues we’ll cover later. For a completely flat and smooth finish, you want to be at the 8-10 second mark. For a puffier look, you want to be at 20 seconds.
Floral / detail / stiff consistency is thicker than piping consistency, think just thicker than peanut butter. To create this, I take my piping consistency into a separate bowl and add powdered sugar to it to thicken it to the point that it holds a stiff peak when held up with a spatula. You want to still be able to pipe it with ease, and it should hold its form completely without any settling.
** if you find that any of your consistencies aren’t ideal when decorating, take them back to the mixing bowl and either add more powdered sugar to thicken, or water to thin. It takes more time, yes - but will make a world of difference when decorating.
Proper mixing of your initial icing is a KEY factor to success. Use a paddle attachment and not a whisk to reduce the amount of air that gets incorporated into the batch. Never mix over 3-5 minutes at high speed - overmixed icing can lead to it not drying and having a spongey texture once dry, along with more air bubbles, colour bleed and lack of body - factors I will talk more in detail about below.
Special note: this is all truly something that is mastered with patience and practise - and honestly if you lack the patience or desire to learn, this is just not the hobby or profession for you. Every single aspect of baking and decorating cookies requires a series of trial and error to get it right. It will not happen overnight and is a progression. Remember one thing if you take anything from this post - comparison is the thief of joy. Your cookies will not start off looking like the ones you see online. Every master decorator has gone through this to get to where they are skill wise. If your icing is not working for you, put it back into the bowl and remix it as mentioned above. Go back as many times as you need to, you will find what works for you.
Colouring icing , air bubbles, colour bleed & dry times:
Royal icing should always be coloured at the piping stage with food colour gel so that when you create your other consistencies, they are the same colour.
Achieving the colour you want is something that takes practise and in some instances, patience. You will notice that this is a common theme!
If you are like me and went into this knowing nothing about anything, you may have found yourself standing over a bowl of pink icing that should be red... it turns out that certain colours like red and black need time to deepen. To do so, you will mix in your colour until it gets to the point that it’s not really getting any darker (red will look like a dark salmon and black a charcoal colour). If it’s only a light pink or grey, no amount of time will allow it to develop to the colour you want, so you need to get it as close as you can. It also helps to divide large batches into 2-3 small ones, colour them individually and then combine.
Now as far as time to let it sit (covered and air tight), you’re looking at anywhere from an hour to overnight. I always recommend the latter, and making these colours the night before you need them. Keep in mind too that deep colours tend to dry darker once applied to the cookie so it doesn’t necessarily need to be perfect come time to decorate.
Added Jan 15 / 20: See the new line of Master Elite colours by The Sugar Art in my shop. These dusts are the most pigmented for achieving those hard to colour icings with very little product, much ease and no aftertaste. Problem solved!
If you are colouring icing and find that you’ve added too much food colour gel and it’s too dark, add a little bit of white to tone it down. And speaking of white food colouring, this guy is your best friend for another huge reason and that is COLOUR BLEED - always hot topic. Adding a little white to your plain white icing will help to combat other colours from bleeding into it.
More tips for colour bleed:
-use as little colour as possible to achieve your desired shades. Some colours need more and that’s fine, just be aware and only add as needed.
-keep your flood icing on the thick side (~15-20 seconds) as runny icing tends to bleed more.
-let dark sections crust over completely before icing the lighters section next to it (or vice versa). Wet to wet icing has a much higher chance of bleeding together. Use a table fan to speed up the crusting period so you can move onto the next sections sooner. Fan the entire cookie once complete for another 10 minutes - this also helps with shine which I’ll get to shortly.
-last and most importantly is adequate dry time. I can't stress this one enough you guys. Prematurely covering or packaging your cookies WILL lead to colour bleed. Many beginner decorators have a fear of their cookies drying out if left out for too long. Your icing needs between 10-12 hours to air dry before it can be covered or packaged. The cookies will not dry out as the icing acts as a sealant to keep the majority of the moisture in. This applies to sprinkle colours bleeding into your cookies as well - again adding white to your icing will combat this and there are certain brands you can find that don’t bleed. Gold is notorious and should be taken into consideration when using. Ask this girl who learned the hard way on a wedding order of 150 white and gold dresses... good memories!
** for dry times, details can be added to your base flood as soon as half an hour to an hour (once crusted over). This includes airbrushing as well. You want to be careful not to puncture the cookie or add too heavy of details. I prefer to detail cookies within the first few hours so that when the 10-12 hr dry time mark hits, they are fully complete and can be covered or packaged. If stencilling by scraping icing over the cookie with a stencil, wait till the 8 hr mark to do this. The thicker icing being used to stencil doesn’t need long to fully dry and will still line up with the final dry time.
Air bubbles in your icing is another common problem that can be greatly reduced by simply letting your prepared flood icing sit covered in the mixing bowl for at least 10 minutes. This allows the bubbles to rise to the top so you can pop them with a spatula prior to using. Freshly made icing is the worst for air bubbles since it’s freshly whipped, I always try to add older icing into my new batch when I can to make it denser and nicer to work with.
You will want either a scribe tool, toothpick or needle on hand when flooding to pop any air bubbles that make it through - they always have a way of doing so! When popping them, ensure you are not doing so by poking them downward into the cookie. The bubble will just resurface later. Instead, pull the bubble to the side to pop and do so while the icing is still wet. Popping bubbles on already crusted icing is going to leave a permanent mark.
**When I talk about "old icing" as mentioned above, I’m talking 2 weeks old or less. Royal icing doesn’t really “go bad”, it more so loses its body or separates beyond the point of remixing. If you personally wouldn’t test it, toss it. You can store your icing covered on the counter for a day or so before it starts to separate - or if you aren’t planning to use it too soon, pop it in the fridge (again, covered and airtight always) for up to 2 weeks and it won’t separate. You can also freeze royal icing no problem for months. One of the best ways to get great colours is to take your old ones and mix them up into something new, or take a mix of them all and use for black!
Spots, streaks, chunks, oily patches icing:
Ahhh so many fun topics, right!? If you’ve ever come back to your fully dried decorated cookies to find one of these problem areas, you know the frustration that accompanies it.
Little white spots and “chunkiness” can usually be attributed to the powdered sugar. Try sifting it prior to mixing to avoid this - or better yet, look at switching brands. Also ensure you are adequately mixing all ingredients.
Another reason for chunks could be dried out icing from the outside of your bag or bottle falling onto the cookie when decorating. Be sure to wipe down the outsides before using to avoid this.
Streaky icing can mean that you didn’t mix your gel colour thoroughly, or that your icing has been sitting unused for too long. A quick re-stir and you should be good to go.
Oily looking patches are usually a result of two things. The first is easy - DO NOT use a flavouring in your icing that contains any kind of oil. This can lead to greasy patches and even worse, your icing not drying completely.
The second possibility goes beyond the icing and to your cookie itself and is butter bleed, it’s in the more humid climates that this is an issue where the butter from your cookie actually bleeds out into your icing. Personally, I have never experienced this but have heard that the best way to avoid it is to let your cookies sit covered in a container for a day before decorating. Also ensure you are using a thick, 20 second flood icing as a thinner icing will absorb butter bleed much easier. If you have already decorated and have these spots on your icing, you can set the decorated cookies on a cookie sheet and put in the oven with the door cracked open at a low temp for a few minutes to try and even it out a bit. Often times the butter bleed does fade and isn’t noticeable to an untrained eye. Again - this is they word on the street thing I mentioned earlier. I don’t know this from personal experience and if this is an issue you are having, definitely do some more research on it and don’t send me any hate mail please!
Now back to the things I know for sure - Shiny icing!
One of the greatest investments you can make amongst all of the fancy cookie gear is a small table fan. Back to basics, folks. Some decorators use a dehydrator to dry their cookies faster, I can’t speak to that but can tell you that fanning my cookies right after flooding for about 10 minutes gives them a great glossy finish, and also helps them crust over fast so you can move onto details sooner.
Cookies that take too long to dry - I’m speaking especially to those who live in humid climates - tend to have a dull finish. Working with a fan and in an air conditioned room if possible will help you immensely.
Another factor with both shine and crusting is the use of light corn syrup in your icing recipe like I do - it makes your icing nicer to work with, gives added shine, and helps it to crust over faster giving it a softer bite than traditional royal while still maintaining the hard exterior.
Now if you have been following my work, you know I seem to have hit the holy grail when it comes to eliminating cratering and it’s helped so many other decorators already.
What is cratering? Cratering is the indentation of small flood areas that only appears once the icing has dried. It basically looks like a sink hole and ain’t nobody got time for that! Having struggled with this myself, it finally dawned on me that there needs to be some kind of support to keep it from sinking where it does. A dot of piping consistency icing in the middle of a circle, or a line down a narrow area will act as the support to keep your flood icing from caving inward to that area.
So to reiterate this, you want to take your piping consistency and fill the middle area that you know has a high chance of sinking in - let it crust over. Next you want to flood around and above that area with a thicker flood consistency, just to the point that it looks like it will spill over the edge of your exterior border - but doesn’t. Immediately place the cookie in front of a small table fan so that it crusts over right away and keeps the puffiness. This simples trick is all you need to get rid of the crater plague that many of us experience!
I really wanted to keep this post strictly about royal icing. If you are new here, please take the time to read my previous blogs on royal icing, baking sugar cookies, airbrushing and PYO cookies (stencilling included) which will address many, many more of your frequently asked questions. My collection of blog posts has been made as a resource for you to use and better your own decorating. I share because it brings me joy knowing that I can help others the way that others have helped me. This is my small mark on the world and hope it will be used for years to come. At the end of the day though, its you that has to take this information and teach yourself through PRACTISE & PATIENCE... you didn’t think I’d miss throwing that out again did you? Nothing ever comes easy, but I hope I’ve saved you some heartache along the way with this and my other posts... So happy decorating! Remember to tag me so I can see your creations :)