Upscale Holiday Sugar Cookie Designs: Mastering Royal Icing Techniques for Stunning Decorations

Learn the art of transforming simple sugar cookies into edible masterpieces with this ultimate guide on how to decorate sugar cookies. In this article, we will dive into the magical world of royal icing, unravel the secrets behind creating marbled designs, and unveil the techniques of flooding and thickening icing. Get ready to be captivated as we take you on a sweet journey, teaching you how to craft captivating snowflakes, adorable snowmen, delicate striped candy canes, and majestic Christmas trees. Whether you're a baking enthusiast or a beginner in the kitchen, this article is your passport to creating edible works of art that will leave everyone in awe.

How to Prepare Royal Icing

In a large bowl, combine powdered sugar and meringue powder and whisk them together. You can use a KitchenAid stand mixer with the whisk attachment, a paddle attachment, or a hand mixer for this step.

While the mixer is running at medium-low speed, add water and vanilla extract. Increase the speed to medium-high and continue mixing until the icing forms stiff peaks and loses some of its glossiness. This process takes about 5 minutes.

To maintain the best texture, I prefer not to use high speed as it tends to incorporate too much air into the royal icing.

Choosing Between Thick and Thin Royal Icing

I recommend starting with a thicker, more spreadable consistency for the royal icing, as it can easily be thinned out later to achieve a flood consistency by gradually adding small amounts of water. A thicker icing should be easy to spread and pipe, resembling the texture of toothpaste or soft cream cheese.

To add color to the icing, divide it into separate bowls for each desired color. Mix in gel food coloring (I prefer AmeriColor or Chefmaster colors) until you achieve your desired shade. You can begin with lighter colors and progressively build up to darker shades, minimizing the need for many individual bowls. Light pinks, blues, yellows, or greens can be followed by darker reds, purples, oranges, and so on.

Once the icing is colored, you can use the thick consistency for piping decorative borders on your cookies. Alternatively, you can thin it out to a flood consistency by gradually adding water and stirring well after each addition. For flood consistency, the icing should melt and blend in on itself within 10-15 seconds when a knife is run through it. Aim for a viscosity similar to honey or shampoo, where it melts in on itself in about 10 seconds but doesn't become so thin that it runs off the edges of the cookie.

If you accidentally add too much water and your flood icing becomes too thin, you can salvage it by incorporating a spoonful or two of the thicker consistency icing and mixing it in.

Only 7 ingredients: butter, sugar, egg, vanilla, flour, baking powder, and salt.

Each of these ingredients serves a vital purpose in producing delicious sugar cookies. Creaming together butter and sugar forms the base of the dough, creating a pleasant buttery flavor and introducing air for a lighter texture. The egg provides structure, while vanilla adds an extra layer of flavor. I personally recommend adding a touch of almond extract for a special taste. Flour is an obvious addition, while baking powder lifts the dough, and salt balances out the sweetness. These small ingredients work together to create a beautiful sugar cookie.

You can experiment with different extracts or spices, such as cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice. A pinch of cinnamon can be a great addition.

The dough itself is nothing out of the ordinary, but my method for using it is unique.


This technique appears more complex than it actually is, resulting in a stunning visual effect. Quick execution is key since the icing needs to be wet.

Start by flooding your cookie with icing. Then, using another color in a thinner consistency similar to the one used for flooding, pipe horizontal lines across the cookie. Using a toothpick or sugar cookie needle, start at the top of the cookie and drag it down through the icing. Repeat the process for the next line, starting from the bottom and dragging the toothpick up. Continue across the cookie, alternating between top and bottom dragging. You can adjust the spacing of the lines according to your preference. To ensure a clean design, wipe the toothpick between each line.

Using Flood Consistency Royal Icing

Alternatively, you can start by thinning out all of your icing to flood consistency from the beginning. This allows you to both outline and fill your cookies by piping the border with flood icing and immediately "flooding" the middle to fill it in. To ensure smooth edges, you can use a toothpick or scribe tool to fill in any gaps between the border and the flooded center, as well as to remove any air bubbles.

One advantage of this approach is that the border will blend seamlessly with the flooded center, becoming invisible. Additionally, you eliminate the need to create two consistencies for each icing color by using flood consistency for all your decorating. The main drawback is the possibility of the flood icing being too thin and running off the edge of the cookie. However, once you find the right flood consistency, this method should yield consistent results without any issues of thin icing.

Using Thick Royal Icing

When I first started working with royal icing, I found it easier to use thick icing for piping borders around the edges of my cookies and then filling them in with thinner flood icing. The thicker border acts as a barrier that contains the flood icing, which is beneficial if the flood icing is slightly thinner than intended. The thicker consistency royal icing is also well-suited for piping intricate details.

The primary downsides of this approach are the need for additional effort and planning, as well as the possibility of the thicker icing border being visible in the final cookie. This method may require more precision if you have a shaky hand, but it is a helpful approach for beginners working with royal icing for the first time.


This technique creates a smooth and seamless top for your sugar cookies. The royal icing used should be thinner than the icing used for outlining. You can achieve this by gradually thinning the thicker icing with water. Take care to add water slowly and observe the consistency. The thinner icing should easily run off a spoon and retain its shape for a brief moment before melting back into itself as it falls into the bowl. Avoid making the icing so thin that it loses its shape completely.

Once you achieve the right consistency, transfer the icing to a piping bag fitted with a small round tip. Follow the outline you previously piped around the entire cookie, working in a circular motion until the icing fills the entire surface. If you encounter any air bubbles or miss any spots, work quickly to pop the bubbles with a toothpick or move the icing to the desired location. After a few minutes, the icing on the cookies will begin to harden, and within an hour, it will fully set.


Using a round piping tip (such as tip #4 or #5), pipe a simple snowflake design on the cookie. To give the snowflake a snowy appearance, place a large blue sprinkle in the center and sprinkle white sparkling sugar on top.


Prepare three small bowls and scoop 1/4 cup of icing into each bowl. Keep the remaining icing white. Stir red food coloring into one bowl until you achieve the desired shade. Stir black food coloring into another bowl until you reach a dark gray hue (black tends to dry darker). Stir orange food coloring into the last bowl until you reach the desired shade. Outline and flood the snowman with white icing using piping tip #5, leaving room for the black hat. Allow the icing to set. Use the same piping tip to create a red scarf on top of the white icing. With piping tip #1, pipe the hat, eyes, and buttons using black icing. Use the same piping tip to pipe an orange nose.

Striped Candy Canes

Creating striped candy canes is easier than it may seem. Begin by tinting 1/3 of the icing with red food coloring until you achieve the desired shade, keeping in mind that red icing dries darker than it appears when wet. Outline and flood the entire candy cane with white icing using piping tip #5. Before allowing the icing to set, pipe diagonal red lines on top using piping tip #3. Use a toothpick to run around the edges of the white icing. As the toothpick drags through the icing, it creates a swirly pattern with the red lines.

Christmas Trees

To give the cookie dough a festive touch, add 1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon to the dry ingredients. Tint 3/4 of the icing with green food coloring until you achieve the desired shade. Then, divide the remaining 1/4 of the icing in half and tint one portion brown and the other red. Keep in mind that colors tend to dry darker than they appear when wet.

Pipe the center of the Christmas tree using piping tip #5 to create three "tiers." Allow the icing to set. Pipe the top and bottom of the Christmas tree with piping tip #5. If desired, place a star sprinkle at the top of the tree. Allow the icing to set. Pipe the tree trunk with brown icing using piping tip #5. Finally, use piping tip #3 to pipe red dots on the tree.

If you prefer not to create "tiers," you can simply outline and flood the entire tree with icing using piping tip #5. Allow the icing to set before piping the tree trunk and adding red dots on top.

With these simple techniques and creative ideas, you can turn ordinary sugar cookies into works of art that will impress your friends and family this holiday season. Whether you prefer the classic designs of snowflakes and candy canes or like to experiment with marbling and intricate tree patterns, royal icing is the key to achieving beautifully decorated cookies. So go ahead, get your apron on and let your imagination run wild as you embark on a delightful cookie decorating adventure. The only limit is your own creativity, so have fun and enjoy the sweet rewards of your efforts!

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