I want to start an ongoing segment on my blog called “Things I Wish I’d Known.” As anyone who’s started something new knows, the hardest part about beginning something is getting all of the information you need to be successful. It can even be hard to know what to ask because you have to have some idea of what you’re doing in order to know what you need more information on/help with. This means that the beginning of any new endeavor is riddled with trial and error and a whole lot of “I wished I’d known that!” Today, I’d like to start with cookies and royal icing decorating. Although I am by no means an expert, I’ve been doing a lot more cookie decorating as of late and, consequently, have had quite a few “I wished I’d known that!” or “I wish I’d thought of that!” moments. For those of you just beginning your cookie decorating journey, I hope this post can take some of the mystery out of cookie decorating, and give you some tips and tricks to make it just a little easier.
#1. Always, ALWAYS make more royal icing of each color and consistency than you’ll need.
I made the mistake once, and ONLY once of not coloring enough royal icing for my cookies. If you’re working with uncolored royal icing, it’s not such a big deal. BUT, if you’re working with colored icing, it’s very hard to get the color just right, particularly as the color will darken as the icing dries.
#2. Dough thickness makes a difference.
When I first started making sugar cookies to decorate, I’d had a long history of making pastries but not so much cookie cutouts. My instinct was to make my cookies thinner so I could get more mileage out of the dough. Unfortunately, going too thin will cause your cookies to spread and lose their shape, as well as giving them an uneven surface. When rolling out your dough, you really don’t want it to be thinner than about 1/4″.
#3. Cutout your cookies and freeze them for about 5 minutes. This will help them retain their shape during baking.
I no longer remember where I read this, but I remember reading several bakers’ suggestions to cut out and refrigerate or freeze the unbaked cookies for about 5 minutes. The extra coolness will help your cookies retain their shape and keep from spreading in your hot oven.
#4. You can make just about any cookie shapes with the cutters you already have.
I was first introduced to this idea by Sugarbelle and Make Me Cake Me. It’s natural when you come up with a cookie you want to make to immediately go in search of a corresponding cutter. However, you can make a lot of different designs simply by turning your cutters in different directions or by combing cutters you already have. For an awesome example, check out this Christmas elf out of a snowman cutter by Make Me Cake Me or these grim reaper cookies by Semi Sweet Design. If you’re not sure where to start with your cookie cutter collection, Sugarbelle has a great post on the 20 cutters every cookie decorator should have.
Photo courtesy of Michelle from Make Me Cake Me
#5. You don’t need to pipe AND flood your base layer of royal icing.
I love cookie decorating, but I kind of hate mixing up two consistencies of every color of icing I’m going to use. And I have an awfully hard time getting my piping icing to blend with my flood icing when I’m giving my cookies a base coat. If you haven’t totally given up on this method, Sugarbelle has a good tutorial on how to achieve an invisible border. If you’re like me and you struggle to get that perfectly seamless border around your flood icing, you’re in luck! I recently switched to SweetAmbs method of giving cookies a base layer of royal icing. Instead of mixing up piping and flood icing, she makes icing with a 14-16 second consistency and floods the whole cookie with that. You can check out her video tutorial on the method here.
#6. Watch out for bleeding with royal icing transfers!
For those of you not familiar with royal icing transfers, they involve piping a design onto parchment paper with royal icing, letting it dry, and then applying it somewhere else (like to cookies). When I first started using royal icing transfers, I’d drop my transfer onto the wet surface of my royal icing. I quickly learned that if your royal icing transfer is a light color while the royal icing you’re dropping it onto is a dark color, your transfer may very well soak up the dark coloring. This doesn’t always happen, but to be on the safe side, I now “glue” my transfers onto the surface of the dried royal icing with a little white royal icing.
#7. You can stamp your cookies for some quick and easy decorating.
Whether you’re stamping your dough directly before baking or using food coloring to stamp a design on dried royal icing, stamps (clean, food only stamps) can be a great way to give your cookies some extra flair without too much extra time and work. Mike over at Semi Sweet Designs has a great tutorial on using food coloring and stamps to create beautiful chalkboard art cookies. I’ve even seen people use stuff like lace to emboss their cookies. Either way, the results are pretty stunning!
Picture courtesy of Mike at Semi Sweet Design
#8. You don’t need a fancy projector to transfer designs to your cookies.
Admittedly, I definitely would not say no if someone offered me a kopykake and it’s definitely on my list of “things I’d buy if I opened my imaginary bakery.” Ok, kopykake projectors aren’t that expensive, but they do start around $200 a piece, which may not be in everyone’s budget (it’s certainly not in mine right now). That being said, there are tons of workarounds you can use in the meantime! For one thing, you can use royal icing transfers. Mike over at Semi Sweet Designs has a great post where he does a side-by-side comparison of a design using royal icing transfers, and the same design using a kopykake. Of course, royal icing transfers don’t work for everything. Sometimes the design has details that are simply too small, and other times you may not want to do the design entirely in royal icing. I wrote a post a while back about how I transfer a basic design outline using tissue paper, an edible pen, and a small needle/pushpin. Although it involves a little extra time and work, it can definitely help give you a place to start.
#9. Invest in some edible food markers.
There are SO many uses for edible food markers. I seriously cannot stress their versatility enough! They’re fantastic for drawing on your cookies to outline where you’re going to put your icing, you can make hand drawn designs on your royal icing with them, they’re perfect for adding small details… Moral: go buy yourself some food markers! I would suggest at least investing in some black markers with fine and thick tips. Personally, I use Rainbow Dust’s double end pen in Jet Black.
#10. There’s cookie inspiration everywhere!
Just ask a cookier about where they find their inspiration and they’ll probably tell you everywhere. Seriously, it’s true! I try not to Google cookie designs when I’m in need of inspiration. It just gets my mind stuck in things that have already been done. Instead, I’ll look around my house, go to the store, take a walk… And I always have my phone or camera with me so I can snap a picture if I find something I want to cookie. I also keep a small spiral binder for drawing my designs, or at the very least, writing a description of how I see the designs. Once you start finding your inspiration, being inspired probably won’t be a problem. The problem will be having enough time to make all the designs that are in your head.
Still have questions? Check out these great resources:
The Simple, Sweet Life: Royal Icing Basics
Sweet Sugarbelle: How to Bake the Perfect Sugar Cookie
Semi Sweet Designs: A Beginner’s Guide to Cookie Decorating Supplies
Arty McGoo: Painting on Cookies
Sweet Sugarbelle: Using Stencils
Sweet Ambs: Brush Embroidery
Make Me Cake Me: 6 Common Cookie-Decorating Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
The Bearfoot Baker: Beginner’s Guide to Cookie Decorating