Royal Icing for Cookie Decorating - What It Is and How to Make It!

What is royal icing? How is royal icing made, stored, and used? Does it taste good? How do you use it? All your sugar cookie royal icing questions answered!!

Royal icing ingredients, mixer, whipped royal icing, royal icing on decorated cookies

What is royal icing?

Royal icing is a typically white icing made from egg whites and sugar that dries with a smooth surface and candy like crunch. This firmness makes it great for cookies that will be stacked or shipped. It's known for holding together gingerbread houses and for delicate decorations on cakes and sugar cookies.

Recipes for royal icing vary in proportions, additions, flavorings, and mixing methods, but at it's very basic level, it must contain egg whites of some kind and confectioner's sugar.

What does royal icing taste like? Does royal icing taste good?

Royal icing tastes like whatever you make it taste like. It's sugar and flavoring. If you pick a flavor blend that you love - you will LOVE the flavor of your royal icing! Most recipes call for vanilla flavoring...but it's easily switched out for the flavoring of YOUR choice!

ingredients to make royal icing for decorated sugar cookies

What ingredients are in royal icing?

Egg whites:

There are three different kinds of egg whites to choose from when making royal icing. They are-

*** Fresh Egg Whites: While traditionally royal icing was made with egg whites separated from whole eggs in a baker's kitchen, if you are going to use fresh egg whites - pasteurized egg whites are recommended to avoid the risk of salmonella.

Royal icing made with fresh egg whites tends be fluffier and have more height than royal icing made with powdered egg whites.

*** Dehydrated Egg Whites: These are simply egg whites that have been dried and powdered. Sometimes they are sold as albumen powder as well. Check the ingredient list to make sure it's just egg whites. Sometimes there will also be a foaming agent (like sodium lauryl sulfate) to help it whip to stiff peaks, but there shouldn't be more than two ingredients.

As a side note, because it contains dried egg whites and only dried egg whites... this powder STINKS. Trust me. Don't feel the need to prove me wrong or right. Just don't smell it. Once you mix your icing and add will all be okay.

Dehydrated egg whites should be reconstituted at the following egg white:water ratios --

1:3 by volume (Example - 1 tablespoon powdered egg white and 3 tablespoons water.)
1:7 by weight. (Example - 10 g dehydrated egg whites and 70 grams water)

*** Meringue powder:  Meringue powder contains dehydrated egg whites as a main ingredient. The added ingredients vary by brand, but may include one or more of the following: flavorings, cream of tartar, powdered sugar, corn starch, gum arabic and/or citric acid.

It is best to check the ingredients of a meringue powder before you purchase it.


Typically, the sugar used to make royal icing is confectioner's sugar. It's also known as powdered sugar or 10x sugar. Most commercial brands of powdered sugar also contain a small amount of corn starch or tricalcium phosphate as anti-caking agents. (Yeay for no sifting!)

Most confectioner's sugars are made from cane sugar. This is ideal for royal icing as powdered sugar from beet sugar can result in a slightly crunchier icing.

Additional Ingredients:

Flavorings -  The great part about royal icing is that YOU get to choose how it tastes. The flavorings are completely up to you. Most recipes call for vanilla flavoring, but you can switch that out for the same amount of any other flavoring. Or you can even mix and match.

Generally, add about 1 tablespoon of flavoring for every 2 pounds of powdered sugar in your recipe. YES. You can add a little more or a little less if you want to! You can add the flavoring with the water if your flavoring is water based. If the flavoring is oil based, add it at the very end of mixing. Oil based flavorings will interfere with the protein bond formation in the egg whites if you add it during mixing. But you are fine to add them at the end of the whole process! (I PROMISE.)

Corn Syrup - Corn syrup is an optional ingredient. It can keep the royal icing from drying brittle and hard. It also adds a little shine to the royal icing....which is especially ideal if you plan to paint (with food coloring) on the surface of the dried royal icing. A general guideline is about 1 tablespoon of corn syrup for every pound of powdered sugar. Add it at the same time you add flavoring to your icing.

Cream of Tartar or Lemon Juice -  An acidic ingredient is sometimes used in royal icing as a stabilizer to help prevent over mixing. They also help the icing from having that "over sweet" flavor of straight sugar.

Creamy white whipped royal icing in a standing mixer

How do you make royal icing?

Without getting too sciencey on you, I think it's important that you understand a little bit about egg whites and their protein structure. Stick with me. I'll try to keep it manageable.

There are proteins in egg whites. (So far, so good, right?) In their natural form, they are curled up. The outsides of them like water and the insides of them definitely do not. When you start mixing the egg whites in a mixing bowl, air bubbles get trapped inside the egg whites. The part that does not like water gets all excited because finally there is AIR in there. So the proteins start re-arranging themselves so that the part that likes water can stay in the water and the part that likes air can stay touching the air. They form new bonds that keep them from curling up again. This is what makes the egg whites get all foamy, and adds lightness and fluffiness to royal icing.

There is only a certain number of proteins in an egg white mixture. And after a certain point if you are still trying to add air and form new bonds (if you are still mixing your egg whites) basically turns into an edible Jenga tower. The proteins are pulled away from bonds and moved around to create different air spaces...but it weakens the structure and eventually the whole tower collapses.

In short, if you over mix your icing, the protein bonds that just formed will start collapsing. Your royal icing will look and feel like marshmallow fluff and it will NEVER EVER DRY. (Which means you will be sad. I don't want you to be sad.)

Acid (most often in the form of lemon juice or cream of tartar) stabilizes the protein bonds that are forming...slowing down the process of those new bonds. The acid acts kind of like a buffer, to give you more time before you've hit that point of no-return and sadness of over mixing.

Ideally, when you mix your royal icing, you want to get right up next to that point of no-return without crossing over it. This will give you the strongest possible royal icing (think -- NO CRATERING) you can get. But how do you know where that point is?

If you've been making royal icing for years -- you probably "just know" where it is. If you haven't -- you'll need to WATCH THE PROTEIN BONDS FORMING. That means... you might need to mix your icing a little differently.

If you are using fresh egg whites, pour them into the mixing bowl on their own.

If you are using dehydrated egg whites or meringue powder - place them in a mixing bowl with the water from your recipe. Gently whisk them together until they are a little frothy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl if necessary and let them sit for a couple of minutes. DO NOT SKIP THIS REST PERIOD.

Letting them sit there and think about what they've done for a couple of minutes softens the meringue powder or dehydrated egg whites enough that when you start whisking everything together - it's ALL going to mix together into a gorgeous, smooth foam. And there won't be tiny little clumps of meringue powder or dehydrated egg whites all through your icing.

Add cream of tartar or lemon juice if you want to. Most meringue powders contain cream of tartar already. (Guess what, though -- because you are going to actually WATCH the protein bonds forming...that acid isn't actually necessary. But personally, I like the way a little lemon juice cuts a bit of the straight sugar sweetness in royal icing.)

Using a whisk attachment, beat the egg whites on high speed. As the protein bonds form, you'll see the foam get thicker and higher in the bowl. If you are using fresh egg whites or dehydrated egg whites, you should be able to get all the way to a stiff peak stage. If you are using meringue powder, it probably won't get too far past a soft peak. Either way -- as long as it gets to a soft peak stage, your egg protein bonds are going to be at their best. Your icing will light and fluffy...but still dry completely. Your will have less cratering. Your icing will be puffy and tall.

(USING A WHISK ATTACHMENT: When you mix the egg whites or egg/meringue powder with water first...and whip to a soft/stiff peak -- you need to use a whisk attachment. I KNOW you've probably heard that using a whisk adds more air bubbles to the finished icing. This is NOT the case...when ingredients are mixed in this order. I promise. I've been doing this for over a decade and almost never have air bubbles in my icing. Air bubbles have more to do with the consistency of the icing than which attachment you use to make the icing.)

If your egg foam mixture starts to deflate or separate - you've gone too far. There's no saving it.

Once it's reached a soft peak or stiff peak, add the powdered sugar. Mix JUST until it is completely blended together. You definitely don't want to over mix at this point. (I usually mix on med-high for about 30-60 seconds.)

Add any flavorings and mix again on low speed just until combined. (This usually takes another 20-30 seconds for me.)

Watch this video to see how I make my royal icing.

How do I store royal icing? How long is royal icing good for?

Royal icing can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for 10-14 days. It can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 3-4 weeks. It can also be stored in an airtight container in the freezer for 4-6 months. Always bring to room temperature before checking consistency and decorating with the royal icing.

Once royal icing has dried, it lasts basically forever if kept dry.

Royal icing goes "bad" to decorate with before it goes "bad" to eat. After a couple of weeks at room temperature, the protein bonds have lost interest in each other. The icing will feel heavy and kind of goopy. If you decorate with this heavy icing, it will cave and crater more than usual. You will also have more color bleed problems.

If the icing SMELLS LIKE DIRT OR MOLD -- it's gone bad for eating. Also, obviously... if you SEE mold on the icing - it's also bad for eating. In general... it takes about 4-6 weeks at room temperature to get to that point.

Royal icing that is being stored at room or refrigerator temperature will separate after a couple of days. Icing that wasn't mixed as long will separate sooner. Thin consistency icing will also separate sooner. Just stir the icing back together again before using it. If it's been more than a couple of days, I like to use a hand mixer to blend it back together and give it a little more structure before using it. (This helps me avoid craters/color bleed with older icing.)

How do you dry royal icing? How long does it take to dry or harden?

The best way to dry royal icing is at room temperature. Royal icing does NOT dry well in a refrigerator. A moving air source of light heat can also speed the drying process. Some examples - a small fan, space heater, or dehydrator.

The amount of time it takes for the royal icing to dry completely varies depending on your local humidity and climate. In desert environments, the icing could be completely dry in 8 hours. In extremely humid places, it might take more than 24 hours for the icing to be fully dry.

Common royal icing drying problems:

Ridges/Wrinkles -- Royal icing needs air circulation to dry. If you crowd cookies in a rack or dehydrator or cover them before they are dry, you will end up with ridges and wrinkles in the surface of your cookies.

Hairline Cracks - These are usually a result of moving the cookie after the top surface of the icing has just started to set. To avoid this, place cookies on a baking sheet or drying tray before icing them. If you are using a  thin dehydrator tray, stack two trays on top of each other to help stabilize the trays while moving them to the dehydrator.

Dull icing -- There are two things you can do to increase the shine on your dry royal icing. You can add corn syrup to the icing during the mixing process. And/or you can place the cookies in front of a moving air source for at least the first 15 minutes of drying time.

Experiencing a royal icing problem not talked about here? Check out this post for royal icing issues troubleshooting help!

Is there such a thing as vegan royal icing?

Yes! Royal icing can also be made with aquafaba. Aquafaba is the leftover water from soaking or cooking beans...most commonly chickpeas... for an extended period of time. Most people use the goop (very technical term) from a can of chickpeas, but you can also make your own. (Here's a YouTube video showing you how!)

There are also vegan meringue powder mixes like this one over on Sweet Ambs!

There are always many ways to do something. And that is especially true with cookie decorating. Check out how Callye from Sweet Sugarbelle makes her royal icing here!


This is a short biography of the post author and you can replace it with your own biography.