Cookies! Who doesn't love a cookie? And, who doesn't love a beautiful, glossy, pro-looking frosted cookie? I have an obsession for confections, and adore creating fun, frosted cookies for my friends. Not only is it an enjoyable DIY and hobby, but let's be real, it's super impressive to walk into any door with a plate of blinged-out biscuits. Look, I get it can be daunting—searching for "cookie decorating tutorials" on YouTube (which I have definitely done ... a lot) yields 154,000 results. Ain't nobody got time for that. Goodie for you, through a million tutorial videos, trial and error, and lots of grumbled swearing, I've learned the dos and don'ts of basic cookie decorating and am presenting them here to you today.
Ahead, find out how you, yes you, can turn your little 'ol homemade sugar cookies into tiny jewels of NSFW art. They're almost too pretty to eat. Almost.
Before We BeginBaking is an art, but it's a technical art. There are definitely a couple different ways to get beautifully frosted cookies, but, in my humble opinion, some ways are better than others.
For starters, you'll obviously need cookies. Google "cut out sugar cookie recipe" to find a top-rated one that suits your pantry. Make sure they're baked throughout (not soft in the middle, as crave-worthy as that is) and ensure they cool in a dry, non-humid environment. Taking these extra steps will ensure your icing does not get dark blotches, or "butter bleed" from the cookies.
Now on to the decor. Called "royal icing," this easy-peasy frosting is comprised of only three ingredients: merengue powder or egg whites, powdered sugar, and water, all whipped up together (recipe here). All you have to do is combine everything in a bowl and turn on the mixer—as all the tiny pockets of air start getting incorporated you'll watch it go from a gray sludge to glossy, sugary perfection in a matter of minutes. I prefer using merengue powder over egg whites for several reasons: it's safer, the measurements are more precise, and leftover frosting made with merengue powder can be stored in your cabinet and reused for up to a month!
As for dye, the four-pack of food coloring probably lying in the recesses of a forgotten shelf could work, but go the extra step and buy gels instead. They're not expensive (Wilton's 12-color pack clocks in at $12.51), and there's a few advantages: the color will be more intense, you need less of it, and because it's gel, you won't have to worry about the dye watering down and changing the consistency of your frosting.
Then there's the business of getting the icing on the cookies. A traditional icing bag will do just fine, or if you're in a pinch, you can make a temporary one out of parchment paper or even a Ziploc bag. However, I find icing bottles are the way to go. They not only ease the learning curve when it comes to decorating (they make you feel like a pro in no time!), but with caps that screw on, it's a cinch to store leftover icing. The set by Fox Run above includes three bottles and will only set you back $5.99. Can't wait for your order to come in the mail? Most of these tools can also be bought in craft stores like Michaels and Jo-Ann Fabrics.
Lastly, grab yourself some toothpicks. Trust.
Coloring Your IcingI wasn't joking about the gels. This is literally how much I used to make a little more than a quarter cup of baby blue icing. Gels are potent, so add a tiny bit at a time until it's exactly what you want. Never fear though, if you accidentally darken it too much, just add a dollop of white icing to bring the tint back up. Want to create a hue that doesn't come straight out of the box? Depending on what brand of gel you buy (Wilton, Americolor, and Chef Master are the three most popular brands), there are tons of color charts online to help you find the perfect shade. Wilton's is published right on their website. Go on, create a vibrant, sherbet rainbow of colors!
Icing ConsistencyThere are three consistencies of royal icing: stiff, medium, and flood. When you first whip up your icing, chances are it will have peaks that hold (when you stir it with a spoon, and then lift the spoon up, the "peak" will stay up). This is stiff consistency, and if you ever want to try some fancy-pants techniques, this is the stuff. About the consistency of cream cheese, this thickness is used for things like making roses, borders, and ruffles.
Medium consistency icing is, as cookie goddess SweetAmbs says, "similar to soft serve ice cream that's on the verge of melting. It holds a very soft peak, and doesn't spread on its own." Perfect for lettering, get this consistency by stirring in water a few drops at a time (seriously!) until you get the desired thickness.
Last is flood consistency, the part-the-heavens, holy grail of Cookie Land (it is a real place and no we did not make it up ... maybe). This is the stuff that, when piped onto a cookie, will spread ... or flood out on its own (get it?) within about 10 seconds of being piped on, but not so thin to run off the sides of the cookie. See how in the photo above, the drizzled icing is sitting on itself? Test your icing consistency this way. If the drizzle flattens out within 10-15 seconds, you're ready to slay some cookies.
For more pictures and in-depth descriptions of each icing consistency, visit SweetAmbs.com.
Piping Your OutlineOK, breathe, here we go. You got this. Fill up your containers with the lovely flood icing you just made and you're ready for some artistry. Make sure the tip you're using is what's called a No. 2—this has an opening about the size of a toothpick. (Check this guide to nozzle sizes here to see a size 2/2.5.) If this is your first time, go ahead and grab a cutting board or piece of wax/parchment paper to practice on. Get a feel for whatever tool you're using to pipe, how to hold it (I prefer two hands, one dominant with the second helping to guide), and how much pressure to use. Practice straight lines, curves, squares, and letters (remember, the last one only if you're using medium consistency) until you feel ready to tackle the cookies.
Once you start, it's best to work quickly—royal icing will start to form a crust within minutes. Hold your tool of choice slightly above the cookie and pipe the outline, never letting the tip actually make contact, and stop applying pressure just before you close the outline to interrupt the flow of icing.
Flooding the CookieOnce you've closed the outline, immediately start filling in the cookie. I've used the same small container here, but this can be hard on your hands after a while. For bigger batches, have the larger squeeze bottle with a bigger tip (filled with the same color icing) on standby and pipe the icing within the outline you created. This doesn't have to look perfect. Remember, it will flatten out on its own! Go to town as if you were putting ketchup over a plate of fries—check out this video of cookie flooding as an example.
Once you've piped in the frosting, here's where the toothpicks come into play. Swirl the toothpick in the icing, not letting it scrape the cookie, to push it towards any empty holes and to get rid of any tiny air bubbles. When the flooding is completed, go back with the toothpick to pop any remaining air bubbles that have risen to the surface.
Finally, grab the cookie by the edges (careful not to touch the icing!) and gently tap it on the table to settle the frosting and give it a final leveling out.
Ahhhh! Aren't they cute! Yes, you now have the tools to make your very own mean-girl cookies! If you're adding a second design layer on top, WAIT at least 30 minutes to make sure the base coat has dried before doing so. The lettering, sleepy faces and borders were done with medium consistency icing, and all the rest of the decorations were done with flood consistency icing.
A little bit of practice goes a long way and in no time you'll be a pro, whipping up tiny pieces of art. "Oh, no big deal," you'll say to your friends' astonished faces as you casually deliver bakery-worthy creations. Now if you'll excuse me ... that "creep" cookie is calling my name.