Decorating sugar cookies like a pro takes a lot of practice, but even novices can feel like they nailed it with a few insider tips gathered from some of the top cookiers in the country. (Find more tips in our guide to making sugar cookies.)
1. Master Icing Consistency
The biggest decorating mistake is icing consistency. Beginners should start with two batches of royal icing. One should be thick like toothpaste to pipe around the cookie and another should be thinner like honey to fill in the surface (a process called flooding). Georganne Bell, who teaches cookie-decorating classes and offers online tutorials on her website, lilaloa.com, says she prefers to use just one icing, with a consistency that is right in the middle. To determine whether your icing is medium consistency, follow Ms. Bell’s method: She stirs the icing in a bowl and then bangs the dish it on the counter. It should take five hits to make the surface smooth. Less than that, and it’s too thin (add more powdered sugar to thicken). If it’s too thick, add just a touch of water to thin to start and go from there.
CreditRyan Liebe for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Liza Jernow.
2. Keep the Equipment Simple
Don’t buy a lot of equipment right away. Too many cookie cutters and pastry bags can be overwhelming. One set of holiday cutters supplemented by a heart, a star and a circle cutter or two will do. For piping icing, fill a zipper-top bag or a thin, disposable decorating bag with icing, and cut a very small piece off a corner to make the tip.
3. Find a Recipe That Works for You
Use a good cookie recipe, and make sure the butter is dentable but not completely soft. Cream the butter with the sugar just long enough to incorporate the two. Always bake cookies on a silicone mat or parchment.
Recipes: Basic Sugar Cookies | The Fluffiest Royal Icing | How to Make Sugar Cookies
4. Roll the Dough to a Quarter Inch
Take the time to roll cookie to the right thickness. Many cookiers prefer cookies a quarter inch thick, which you can achieve with special rings for the end of your rolling pin or by rolling the dough between two rulers or other special pastry rails that are a quarter-inch high.
5. Switch to Gel Food Coloring
Use gel-based food coloring to mix colors. It’s easier to control hue consistency with a gel coloring than a liquid one.
6. Practice Piping and Make a Plan
Practice piping straight lines and curves and corners on a piece of paper before you outline your first cookie. Have a design in mind before you begin.
7. Pipe Straight Lines First
Start with the tip of the decorating bag on a straight edge of the cookie. (Beginning at a corner or an angle will make it harder to achieve good line.) Squeeze the bag very gently and then pull the tip up about an inch, imagining that you are laying a piece of yarn around the cookie.
8. Learn to Turn
When you get to a corner or an angle, drop the tip back down to the surface of the cookie to make the turn, then bring it back up again about an inch to continue piping.
9. Flood Quickly
Once the cookie is outlined, squeeze the bag with a little more pressure to begin flooding the cookie. The idea is push pillows of icing out in front of the tip. Fill the cookie without stopping. The icing will dry quickly — stopping and starting can prevent a perfectly smooth surface.
10. Make Fixes With a Toothpick
Use a toothpick to fix any holes or rough spots, tap the cookie on the counter a few times to assure a smooth surface and then add any candies or other decorations. If you are making a more intricate design, let the cookie dry completely before adding more royal icing.
11. Store Your Decorated Cookies Like Books
Cookies can be stored flat, but it’s safer to stack them on their sides like library books. They can be frozen, but do not open the container until the cookies have thawed to avoid the ravages of condensation on your icing.
12. Don’t Take It Too Seriously
Remember that they’re just cookies. If your design fails, just eat it and move on to the next one, or sprinkle it with sanding sugar and call it a day.