The Basics of Sugar Cookies and Royal Icing

Just in case some of you missed my four-part cookie workshop on Crazy Domestic, I am posting a summary of my cookie basics here today!  I hope this will be easy to reference when you are baking.

Let me start with the dough recipe that I use.  I've tried several, and I always come back to this one that a good friend gave me because it makes a nice, soft cookie.  This does however, make them a little more fragile.  I find the royal icing only makes them sturdier, but still... handle with care.  A little cookie TLC, if you will.

Sugar Cookie Recipe:
2 cups of butter (room temp, set it out before you make)
2 cups sugar
3 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. almond extract
1 tsp. lemon extract
6 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
Cream the butter and sugar first, add the rest of the wet ingredients.  Mix the dry ingredients in separate bowl, then add dry ingredients as you mix.

This is about as much as one kitchen aid mixer can handle.  It's the equivilent of a double recipe and makes plenty of dough.  The amount that you get out of it will depend on the size and thickness of your cookies.

I like to turn the dough onto a long piece of saran wrap and make it into a nice bundle like this:

Now chill the dough for at least 4 hours in the fridge.  Overnight is best.

Now that it's chilled, take it out and set it on the counter for about 5 min before you work with it.  (Two steps forward, one step back, I know.  But it works).  Now we are going to roll it out.  I cut off a nice chunk of my chilled, yet workable dough.

Generously flour your surface, then roll and cut as you please.

I love my straight rolling pin because of how wide an area it covers.
I also love my rolling pin bands that keep my cookies the same thickness all the way across.

Now I'm a firm believer in sil-pat, non-stick baking sheets, and cookies just slide right off of them.  Is your birthday coming up?  I'm just saying... husbands, get on top of this!

Bake in a (preheated) 375 degree oven for about hmmmm.  Cook time varies a ton with size, thickness and if you use a sil-pat (cuts baking time).  I say, start small.  For most cookies, I set the timer for 6 min, and add more time if needed.  You don't even really want them to be brown.  Maybe just touches of golden on a few corners, yet you do want them cooked all the way through.  Otherwise, they turn a dough-ey gray-ish color in the middle.

Question:  Should you use the scraps?

Answer:  For sure!  Recession or not, I just can't waste that much...BUT... Be aware that each time you roll it out, you are working more flour into the dough.  More flour will make it stiffer, less tender (less tasty) and a little less smooth looking.  The first roll out also spreads/puffs a little more, while the last holds to the exact size that you cut it.  Therefore you will notice a considerable size difference between  the first and last roll out.  If your goal is for each cookie to be exactly the same size, you need to roll out from the same roll out number.  When you get a new chunk of dough, I consider it roll out one again.  Here is an example of the same cookie cutter, the same thickness of dough, but done in the first, through fifth roll-out.  Do you see the difference in how they look?  Slight, but noticeable to a cookie nerd, like myself.  I like to use the first and second roll-outs if I'm giving them/selling them.  I set the other scraps aside for making the "kids decorate pile."  It's a little mean, but they'll get through it.

Tip:  If you want to put your cookies on a stick, roll them out nice and thick, cut them out, then put them on your pan.  Chill them on the pan for about 20 min or so.  Take them out and insert the stick, centered in the thickness of the cookie.  Chilling them will keep them from distorting when you put the stick in.  (Notice the sil-pats in this picture).
Tip:  Don't forget that you don't necessarily have to have a cookie cutter shape, for everything you want to make.  There are a million cookies you can make out of simple shapes.  

I like to use royal icing because of it looks great!  It looks smooth and dries hard, so I can stack them and bag them. There are many different recipes and techniques that I've read about, but I'm going to share what works for me!

Recipe for Royal Icing
1 cup water
6 Tbsp. meringue powder
1 tsp. vanilla extract (use clear vanilla if you want white icing)
1/2 tsp. lemon extract
2 lb. bag of powdered sugar

I start by mixing the water and meringue powder in my mixer until it is incorporated and slightly foamy. (1)  Then I add the extracts and mix for a second.  Then I add the whole bag of powdered sugar.  I mix on low until it is all incorporated.  Then on high for a few minutes.  It will become fairly stiff.  (2)

Now here is tricky thing about royal icing.  For different types of techniques, you need different consistencies of icing.  For piping words and details, you want to stick with the stiff consistency that you have just made in your big bowl.  But, for other decorating, we need to thin it out a little.  You do this by adding more water, a teaspoon at a time.  I can explain this best by referring to the frosting as a #4, or #8 or #15 for instance.  The number is referring to how many seconds it takes for the icing to get smooth.  Add water, until you think it's right.  To test it, make a blemish in your bowl, and count how long it takes for it to become (essentially) smooth.  {If you've thinned it too much, you can add a little more powdered sugar}

I will refer to the # of seconds your frosting consistency should be as I walk you through the decorating.
But first, a few things on coloring your icing.  I like to use the soft gel paste coloring.  These three brands have worked well for me, but my favorite is Americolor.  It comes in a wonderful variety of colors too!

Separate the amount of frosting you want in another bowl.  Now is a good time to thin that portion out.  You want to cover your main bowl with a damp dishtowel.  It will dry out really quickly if you don't.  With most colors, you want to stay very conservative when tinting.  You can always add more color, but you can't take it away.  (You can add more white icing to it to tone it down, but then you end up with more than you need).  Start by getting a little on a toothpick and testing your color out from there.  If it is red or black, or you know you want the color very bold and dark, you can add it drop by drop.

Now be sure to mix it thoroughly!  It will end up streaky/marble-y if you don't and this has happened to me so many times when I'm in a rush.  One solid color is prettiest!

Many decorators use piping bags and tips, but I prefer to use my squeezie bottles.  They are just easy to work with, for me.  They can wash up when you're done and I have thrown a few away as they have gotten older.  I still think it is cheaper than buying several piping bags every time I do cookies.

I have several different types, and my favorites are the ones that you can attach a decorating tip to.  The basic squeezies are about the equivalent to a size 3/4 decorating tip.  They are very useful too!  They range from about $0.75 to a few dollars each.  You can get them where cake supplies are sold, even at Michael's.

I fill them by spooning the icing in, then tapping the bottle on the counter.

As I go to prepare the other colors, it is important to cover the top with the little lid, or if you've lost them in the disposal (like me), then just put a toothpick in it.  Remember how fast royal icing dries out.   No one likes a clogged and crusty squeezie bottle.  :)

Now we must talk about bubbles.  They are the enemy to smooth cookies.  After you fill a cookie with royal icing, you will notice slight bumps.  Take a toothpick and pop em!  But do this right away!  As it starts to dry, it will leave a mark that won't smooth over, and that's worse than a bubble!

To show you how important this is, I spooned out some frosting onto some parchment.  I left the one on the left, untouched.  To the one on the right, I went through and quickly popped the bubbles before it dried.  It looks wayyyyyy better, huh!

Whew, we made it through all of the nitty gritty.  Now that we know how to prepare the royal icing, lets use it on a cookie!   {I can hear your cheers.  We are to the fun part!}  There are a zillion different ways of decorating and it all depends on how you want the end result to look.  I'm going to show you a few ways of decorating this cute turtle cookie.  

Typically, you frost by piping a border (20 seconds or above on the consistency).   This icing is too stiff to get really flat and smooth, but if you used the thinner stuff, it would just slide right off the cookie and wouldn't look good at all.  So piping the edge keeps the edges looking neat and tidy.  Then you will fill the border with the thinner stuff (a 5-7 second consistency).

You can decide if you want the outline to pop, or not be noticed at all.  But first I will show you how to make the first turtle with the black outline.

Step 1- Outline all of the areas you want to be defined.  Use a 20 second or above consistency.
Let it dry for at least about 10 minutes.  By the time you do all of your cookies, the first one will be ready to fill.  

Step 2 and 3-  Fill with a 5-9 second consistency.  The higher the number, the more coaxing you have to do to get it flat.  Use a toothpick, or shake the cookie a little to flatten it out.  Also, don't forget to pop those bubbles!   The higher # consistencies will make the frosting look a little fuller.  As you fill and smooth it out with the tip of your squeezie bottles, they will get a little messy.  I keep a damp paper towel by me and wipe it off as I go.  Otherwise, the crusty pieces can fall off into your wet icing.  Also, It keeps your decorating more precise. 

Step 4- After your first layer is dry, add detail and fun to your cookie!  

Now if you don't want the black outline, you can simply follow the same steps, by making the same color icing, in two different consistencies.  You will outline first.

You can let this dry as you go through and outline all of the cookies.  If you do this, you will end up seeing the outline.

If you fill it right away, without letting the outline dry, it will meld together and you won't end up seeing the outline.

So depending on how you want it to look choose which "step 2" you want to do.

Even though royal icing starts to dry really fast, it takes several hours to dry completely.  I don't attempt to stack them, or put them in bags until they've dried overnight.  Leave plenty of extra time in your planning.  Each step is a bit time consuming as you are learning.  The best advice I can give you is to practice!  I know I am still getting a little better every time I practice!  

Planning your Cookie:
When attempting to decorate a more complicated cookie, it is a good idea to sketch it out and have a plan.  This is an example of ideas I was thinking of for some "Alice in Wonderland" cookies.  I traced the actual cookie cutter (called the topsy turvy cake) onto paper a few times.

From these sketches I decided what I thought looked best.  You also have to keep in mind, what is realistic to accomplish with a decorating tip!  But once you have a plan, you'll know how many stripes to plan for, which colors go first, etc.  When you make a lot and you want them to look the same, it's good to have a plan.

Raised vs. Flat Frosting:
If you want your cookie to be totally flat, it is all about timing.  If you decorate right away, your frosting will meld into your base layer and you will have a smooth frosting.  If you want your frosting to sit on top of your base layer, you have to wait until it is dry.  Not all the way (8-10 hrs) dry.  But at least wait a few hours if you want a new layer.  In these present cookies, the polka dots were done right away and then I let them dry.  After a few hours, I did the bows.

Sprinkles, Sugars and Candies:
Adding sprinkles can make a cookie way cuter and save you time piping out some polka dots or decorations.  In the ice cream cookie photo, I made mint chip by using chocolate jimmies and made bubblegum ice cream by using chocolate coated candies.  These cupcakes were plain jane until I got out the sprinkles!

Sugar pearls really jazzed up these snowflake cookies. They make them look a little more "specialty."

Now in order to make these sprinkles and candies stick, they need to be applied right away (wet).  But keep in mind, if you are doing a sanding sugar, or something you pour on, you need to let the part you don't want to get decorated dry 8-10 hrs.  Then you need to come back with wet frosting and pour the sugar on.  This way it will stick exactly where you want it.

Disco Dust:
Here's a tip for disco dust, which I learned the hard way.  You need to wait a full 24 hours for your base layer to dry.  After about 10 hours, it looked dry and felt dry, so I sprinkled my disco dust.  It was a crazy mess.  But when I waited a full day, it brushed off fine.  You need to pipe your wet frosting and pour the disco dust on like sanding sugar, then it sit for several minutes, then shake it off.  All of the fine glitter won't come off, so you need to use a clean, dry paint brush to brush it off the areas you don't want it.  

Marbling is a technique that I used to make these spider web cookies.  You can simply frost your cookie and while it's still wet, you drag a toothpick through your icing.  It will heal itself and become flat if you do it right away.  You can make some wonderful swirls and designs this way.  You can turn polka dots into hearts by simply dragging a toothpick through them.  So grab your toothpick and experiment away!

Using a projector:
My favorite cookie tool is my kopykake projector.  I can print out any design on paper and put it into my projector.  It shines right onto my cookie as a guide as I frost.  It's tracing at it's very best!  With this tool and a steady hand, anyone can have precise frosting.  It's an investment, but I have loved using it to make exact designs or fonts that I want.  I made this ballet logo on a cookie for my girls' dance director.  There is no way I could've gotten it perfectly right without my kopykake.

I would drive myself crazy if I tried to make this many cookies look the same.  But it was simple with my projector.  It takes some of the OCD stress off my brain!

So, don't stop having fun when you're done with the cookies.  A beautifully decorated and packaged cookie can make a thoughtful and creative gift!

Most of the time I stick with my tried and true cellophane bags.  I stock up and buy them in packs of 100.  I think it's a good investment if you plan on making cookies often.  I stand by my philosophy that everything looks great with a cellophane bag, ribbon and a tag!  

My sister and I also use the old bag topper technique.  Just fold over a piece of cardstock and staple.  

Pastry and candy boxes are also great!  They come in all shapes and sizes.  I love the clear boxes because it allows you to show off your cookie even more!  These wedding ring cookies (with fabulous disco dust) make great shower favors.  Just put the tulle underneath to keep it from shaking and breaking.

Then a put the lid and a bow on.  But you can still see the cookie!  

If you want to make a cookie bouquet, put the sticks in them in before you bake them. These mustaches are much more fun on a stick!

Just walk the aisles of your local craft store and you will find fun things to put your cookies in.  Like paint cans:

How about a cookie in a party invitation?  That will get the kids really excited to come!  It's like an advanced party favor!  What a deal!  Kathryn (my sis) designed this darling invitation:

With this cookie inside:

Then just untie to get the cookie!  I love it! 

So there is the cookie wrap up for you!  There are Easter cookies on the way, so stay tuned!


  1. Proof you are the queen of cookies. Wow.

  2. Wait maybe you should make me some first so I can make sure I really want this a tricky one

  3. It's amazing that you posted this today of all days! I just attended a cookie decorating class last night and due to unforseen circumstances, the instructor wasn't able to really demo royal icing. Thanks so much for the tips and the recipes.

  4. I have always wondered how to do the frosting. This post was so informative! Thank you! Beautiful cookies by the way :)



  5. Holy cow!!! You are amazing! Thanks for the great lesson on cookie making. Makes my store bought icing seem so cheap. (But I do make the cookies from scrath!) I guess I'll have to step up my game now that I'v had this lesson! :)

  6. those are amazing! I only WISH I could do that!

  7. Okay,
    this is like PERFECT timing!!!
    Thank you for sharing your cookie tips and ideas and recipes!!
    I am going to read and reread and try this out for my daughters Strawberry Shortcake party coming up in May.

  8. Ok, these are all perfect. You are amazing.

  9. I made these after your post on Crazy Domestic and I got so many compliments and some even asked where I had bought them. HAHA I am so excited to make mine for Easter. Bought new cookie cutters and all. Thanks.

  10. Perfect timing Ashleigh!!

    I meant to talk to you on Wednesday and ask you for your sugar cookie recipe and how you do the icing. Lily wants a puppy party and I bought the dog and bone cookie cutters, but that's as far as I got. hahaha

    Thanks for sharing all of this info with all of us. Now I'm willing to give it a try.

    Take care!

  11. Wow, this was so, so helpful. Thank you for sharing.

  12. WOW- you thought of everything. Best cookie how-to every. I'm loving your blog so much. I came for the amazing wedding how-tos- those cake stands? AMAZING!- and stayed for all the rest. I would love to link to some of your tutorials if you didn't mind.

  13. wow, that is amazing, i am definitley going to try it, i heard you mention bakerella, does she have a blog as well? i would love to learne to make those chicky pops, thanks

  14. I love you so much for this post! I am fixing to (try to) tackle cookie pops for my son's birthday

    Your cookies are actually too gorgeous to eat!

  15. You are a life saver!!!! This couldn't be better!! Thank you so much for posting it!! You are definitely the COOKIE QUEEN!!

  16. How long have you been decorating cookies? I want to try, but am a little nervous. I'm going shopping for find me some squeezy bottles tomorrow. How long with the icing keep in the bottle before it hardens? I worry I won't be fast enough. Thanks for your wonderful blog!

  17. I took the plunge and made cookies and a batch of royal icing using your recipes this weekend... yay! I mixed up batches of white to outline, then red and green to flood and put them in the fridge... where they all separated... boo! If I remix and use them on the cookies will the colors separate again before they dry? Or should I toss it all and start a new batch? I followed the recipe to a T...

  18. I love this post. It is so filled with helpful tips that. I'm going to try to get creative and attempt some of your ideas.


  19. I made these cookies. Haven't tried royal icing yet, but the cookies were fabulous!

  20. Ok, I just read all this, and I am repeating the mantra, "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can . . ." I am going to try to make some karate cookies for a thank you for the boys' sensei. Their last day is Tue. If I can't make these work, let me know if you happen to be doing cookies this weekend. . . I may need you to walk me through it! (If you don't mind!) I don't have a cookie cutter in the shape I need, can I draw it on paper and cut the outline with a knife? (See?! I already don't know what I'm doing!)

  21. I just found your blog and was very impressed with these detailed instructions!!! I have just started decorating cookies and appreciate any information from "seasoned" decorators!!!

    FYI here is one helpful tip I learned from another cookie decorator that will save you a lot of time and aggrevation. Put the tinted icing into a ziplock bag, cuts off the corner and squeeze the bag forcing the frosting into squeeze bottle. This is SO MUCH EASIER & FASTER than using a spoon to fill those narrow bottles.

  22. Thank you! Thank You! THANK YOU! I'm a new SAHM, and very new to the crafty world... I am LOVING your blog and all the super friendly detailed tutorials you fine ladies are posting. This new journey into the "don't just buy it" world is way more fun than I ever imagined, and much easier, and less painful, thanks to you! :D

  23. Enjoyed your blog, not sure how I even got here, probably had something to do with "How Sweet It Is!" Anyway, as I read your tips for making sugar cookies, I couldn't help but want to share one of my newest and most favoritest (is that a word?) tips with you. It took 46 years for me to figure this one out, and I read it on one of the many blogs I read, so it's not even my own idea (but I'm claiming it!) OK, here it goes... instead of using flour to roll out your cut-out cookies, try using 2 pieces of parchment paper! The only flour I use is in the actual cookie recipe. I roll out the dough between two pieces of parchnent paper and it doesn't stick a bit! No need for flour on the countertops anymore, and talk about EASY CLEANUP! Without adding extra flour to each batch, the first cookie will look and taste like the last one, promise! It's the best tip ever, well... besides the rolling pin bands to get your cookies all the same thickness (which is something else I just learned!) Try my tip next time you make cut-out cookies and you will be pleasantly surprised! No more flour and no more mess! :)

  24. Great post. You can never learn enough about the art of cookie decorating! And to Sherrie B's Bizz - I do the same thing when it comes to rolling out my cookie dough. I tried chilling the dough, flouring the counter, etc. Two sheets of parchment is the way to go!

  25. I just found your site and I love it. Thanks for the tips, I've always been afraid to make royal icing, but now I think I want to try!

  26. quick question--I would love to to the spider web cookies for a youth activity I am in charge of. Each kid would only make 1-2 cookies, but we would only have about an hour of drying time. If we just put them on a plate would that be long enough for the icing to set?

  27. This is such a great post! I think I can do it. I featured this post on my blog. Stop by and check it out.

  28. After I just made 20 dozen hand decorated cookies, I wish I had read this beforehand. I am thankful to finally get some concrete tips on how to make my really good cookies much, much better! Thank you!

  29. you are amazing! and thank you for your generousity in sharing such an wealth of knowledge and experience! (:

  30. I LOVE your fabulous tutorial! Thank you pinterest for finding you :)

  31. HOw early in advance can you make these for a party? I want them to be fresh, but I also want to try them before the party. Love your blog!

  32. @hntchavis- You can make these a few days, or even up to a week in advance. Once they are dry, just store them in an airtight container. That being said, I prefer to do them as fresh as can be, so I usually bake them 2 or 3 days before I need them and decorate 1 or 2 days before I need them. I hope that helps.

  33. Thank you for this tutorial... my boyfriend loves sugar cookies but I've not been able to do it. Hopefully I can now attempt it again!

  34. Decorating cookies overwhelm me. Always. But your directions are super clear and step by step. I'm going to try it. Probably next week. I'm scared. Do you end up wasting a lot of your royal icing? It seems like a ton you make but do you find it is the correct amount (or close) for how many cookies your recipe makes? I mean the ingredients are cheap, so I'm not too worried, just curious.

  35. @Erin- Yes, the amount of royal icing closely matches what is needed to frost this recipe of sugar cookies. There will be a bit left over if you are using all the same color icing. But if you are dying it, you will end up with a little extra of each color. I usually overestimate how much I should color. If you do have left over, you can store it in an airtight container in the fridge for a couple of weeks!

  36. I looove your post and have so much fun making them! Quick question..
    How do you store your cookies overnight? Can you leave them out? How long does the dough stay fresh in the frig? Thanks a bunch!!!

  37. This comment has been removed by the author.

  38. I did a pintrest search for 'ladybug birthday party' and your super cute party came up . . . 30 minutes later I am STILL on your blog looking around!! You guys are amazing. Such great ideas and excellent advice and tutorials! I LOVE sugar cookie cuteness and this tutorial is awesome. I just made a ton of Mickey cookies, and really wished I would have seen this post BEFORE I started. . . .kid #2's birthday is in a few weeks. . .yay for another reason to practice! Anyway, thanks for a great site!!

  39. How do you store your cookies while they are drying and before you gift them? What is the magic number of days you can prepare ahead of time?

    My last experience with royal icing was not so great, but you have inspired me to give it another go! Thanks!

  40. This has to be the best post on cookies ever! Thank you so much!

    Hope you're having a great weekend! ;D


  41. Hi,

    how to get those clear cookie boxes. I can not get it here in Germany. Thank you for supporting.


  42. I just love your cookie decorating style! All of your cookies are so cute, but I especially love the rings, mustaches, and ice cream cones! Presentation/packaging is the "icing on the cake" with cookies!

  43. Thank you!!! You answered all my questions about this that I've had for years!!

  44. Thank you!!! You answered all my questions about this that I've had for years!!

  45. This comment has been removed by the author.

  46. this was the most informative blog post i've ever read!!! if only i could leave work and run home to make cookies right now! thank you for all of these amazing tips... especially the royal icing and the seconds, that's going to change my cookie-decorating life!!!

  47. Brittany- So happy I could help! I hope enjoy some cookie making in your near future!

  48. I read somewhere - I wish I could remember so credit would go to them - anyhoo - an easy way to get your royal icing in a squeeze bottle is to do it the same way you would fill a pastry bag. Place a zip lock baggy inside a tall glass with the top of the baggy overlapping the lip of the glass, fill the bag with the icing, seal the baggy, cut off a corner of the baggy with sissors, and squeeze the icing into your squeeze bottle. I use this technique all the time!

    1. Thanks for sharing your technique. I'll have to try that one out sometime!

  49. Just found out where I learned the zip lock bag technique. The Bearfoot Baker!

  50. Thank you so much for this invaluable tutorial.
    I am just starting out and I can't believe how helpful the women of the "Cookie Kingdom" are. They are like a big giant hug of women who are all eager to share good things with everyone.

  51. I made tool cookies for my son's 1st birthday and they were a huge hit! So yummy! I now have a whole board of designs I want to try! Where did you get your squeeze bottles that you can attach the tips? I had to hold the tip on last time which was hard!

    1. Hi Julia! So I guess you've caught the cookie bug! :) I get my squeeze bottles at a local specialty cake store but I also found the same ones on amazon. I put them in the amazon box on my sidebar. There is a direct link to order from there. They will make all the difference in the world for you! You won't regret the small investment. :)

  52. Your tutorial is wonderful, but I urge you to reconsider the use of disco dust, as it is a finely ground plastic. While it is labeled "non-toxic," it is NOT edible. As clearly stated on the jar, it is meant for decorative items only...not items meant to be consumed. :)

  53. Amazing! Thanks so much for sharing this. It's very helpful! I think I will pick up those bottles from Amazon.

  54. Thank you so much for sharing your techniques. I will definitely be using your tips on my next order.

  55. Great tips, one think id like to know is how to keep the cookies crisp when you have to leave them out to dry for so long, esp when need to leave them to dry overnight?

  56. Please could you tell me where you got that rolling pin and measuring bands?

  57. Nice recipes of sugar cookies. You prove that you are a cookie master.
    image manipulation

  58. Wonderful!!!!! Thanks for sharing. Excellent tutorial.

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