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How To Make Royal Icing

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Have you ever decorated cookies with royal icing? Royal icing and butter icing are both naturally gluten free but they aren’t the same. Royal icing is stiff and hardens onto the cookie or acts as glue to hold cookie pieces together. It is used for special projects like decorating gingerbread houses, wedding cakes or fancy cookies.

Decorating cookies is a creative process, the kind of project I can get excited about. I hadn’t had a serious cookie decorating session for quite a while but my inspiration came when I saw these beautifully decorated cookies on Instagram. I love all things Asian and these cookies, decorated for Chinese New Year, were done by someone I know through my work as a health educator. What I didn’t know is that @ladybugnclover is a passionate cake and cookie decorator. I immediately called her and set up a cookie decorating date.

Gorgeous cookies by my friend @ladybugnclover posted on Instagram.
Gorgeous cookies made by my friend @ladybugnclover posted on Instagram.

For our cookie decorating afternoon I met Dagmar in her kitchen. I brought two kinds of gluten free sugar cookies and she supplied a selection of coloured icing as well as some cookies she made. We spent hours decorating and she taught me a few tricks for working with royal icing. 

Coloured icing ready to pipe onto cookies
Coloured icing ready to pipe onto cookies

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Tips and Tricks

  • -Use clear vanilla extract to flavour your icing.
  • -If icing is too hard it can be softened with shortening or glycerine.
  • -Store in air tight containers when not using (overnight).
  • -Place a damp piece of paper towel in the bottom of each glass to prevent the icing at the tip end from going hard.
  • -To make a vibrant red colour Dagmar uses lots of gel colouring, combines Christmas Red and red, plus she colours only a small amount of icing to get the desired colour. Colour several small batches if needed, then combine them all if you want a larger amount to work with.

Egg Whites vs Meringue Powder for Royal Icing

I have always made royal icing using egg whites. Raw eggs have a small risk of infection from salmonella, especially for people with a weakened immune system. You can use egg whites in a carton which are pasteurized but some people prefer to avoid raw eggs altogether.

Meringue powder is the modern solution and it is available in various sizes at specialty baking supply stores. Meringue powder is dried raw egg white but it is a product with an ingredient list. Some labels include cornstarch, gums and even sugar but many sources confirm they are safe for a gluten free diet. Wilton brand is popular and their website has a list of gluten free decorating supplies. Their meringue powder and gel food colouring are all listed as gluten free.

Iced cookies for spring
Iced cookies for spring

Organize for Success – Cookie Decorating

Bake your cookies in advance if you can. Whether it is a day or a week before you decorate, you’ll be glad you did it. Cookie decorating is supposed to be a fun project so there is no need to create stress by baking cookies on the same day.

The icing can be made a day or two in advance too but it’s not necessary. Making the icing, deciding what colours to make and putting them into piping bags gets the creative juices flowing so I prefer to do that just as I am about to decorate.

Dagmar and I showing trays and trays of cookies we iced
Dagmar and I showing trays and trays of iced cookies

The Tools – Royal Icing

If you are serious about decorating there is no end to the variety of baking supplies you can acquire. If you just want to try it for fun this is a list of what you need to get started.

Host A Cookie Decorating Party

Sometimes it takes a challenge to get inspired to try something new, something you haven’t done before. So if making and decorating gluten free cookies is a challenge that appeals to you I encourage you to go for it.  I wrote a blog post with ideas for organization and work flow titled Cookie Decorating Party. I think this is a fun idea for a birthday party.

My favourite cookies to decorate are basic Sugar Cookies and Gingerbread Cookies. Let me know in the comments below if you hosted a cookie party.

Cookie Decorating Party to make a Canada 150 flag.
Kids from the Calgary Celiac Kids Meetup at a Cookie Decorating Party -photo credit Jim Little

A Canadian Celiac Podcast

I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Sue Jennett of A Canadian Celiac Podcast specifically about cookies. Listen to the podcast here Episode 43 Tips For Baking Gluten Free Cookies. If you haven’t started listening to podcasts yet I suggest you give it a try. It’s the modern version of radio and you get to listen to what you want when you want. Listen while you workout, drive or bake cookies. You’ll probably learn something too.

Stay up to date in the gluten free space by listening to A Canadian Celiac Podcast.


ROYAL ICING with egg whites
3 egg whites
4 cups icing sugar
water or lemon juice if desired
ROYAL ICING with meringue powder
3 Tbsp meringue powder
4 cups icing sugar
5 Tbsp water
SMALL BATCH with meringue powder
2 tsp meringue powder
1 cup icing sugar
2 Tbsp water
COLOURING ICING - Gel paste food colouring gives vibrant colours but liquid works too.


ROYAL ICING with egg whites
Beat egg whites in a stand mixer at high speed until frothy. Turn speed to low and gradually add icing sugar. Beat at high speed until smooth and stiff, about 7 minutes. Add 1/2 tsp water at a time to get a thinner consistency.
ROYAL ICING with meringue powder
Beat icing sugar and meringue powder in a stand mixer to ensure there are no lumps. Add water and beat on low speed for 5 minutes until icing is smooth. Increase to medium speed and beat another few minutes until the icing is very stiff. Add 1/2 tsp water at a time to get a thinner consistency.
Divide icing into separate bowls. Using a toothpick add a tiny amount of gel food colouring (or a few drops of liquid) and mix icing thoroughly. Adjust until you have the colours you like. Transfer icing to piping bags with a coupling and round tip. Secure the open end with twist tie or elastic. Place each decorating bag in a clear glass with the tip down to prevent the end from getting hard.
OUTLINING/DECORATING – A stiff icing is desirable to go around the outside edge of your cookie and keep the softer icing from dripping off the cookie. Start by piping an outline around the entire cookie.
FLOODING – A slightly thinner icing is needed to flood into the middle of the cookies and spread to the edges. Squeeze a generous amount of icing inside the outline. To help smooth the icing gently tap the cookie on the counter until all bubbles or lines blend into one.
TIP – 2 icing bags for every colour is a lot of bags, nibs and work. With patience and practice you can achieve the right consistency that will do both jobs. We followed the above process but made only one consistency of icing. Draw the outline first and let it set. Flood the cookie. Using a toothpick and moving quickly in a circular motion, mix the icing to evenly cover the cookie. Tap on the counter if needed.
SETTING – The icing will slowly set as you continue outlining, flooding and decorating other cookies. When the icing is dry you can come back and add a design with the same colour or another colour. Do this as many times as you like. Experiment and have fun.


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