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10 Tips [for Successful Sugar Cookie Decorating]

December 12, 2011 in cookies, misc. - 29 Comments - 5 min read

It’s holiday baking time!  And if you’re like many Americans, it’s that time of year to bake cookies for cookie swaps, Christmas parties, and fun get-togethers.  I attended a cookie swap at a co-worker/friend’s house Saturday night, and I’m a little embarrassed to say that this was my first one.  (I know, I know, where have I been?)   There were a few new winter cookie cutters I got last year and was really excited to try them out.  Like snow globes…

Peppermint candies…

Mittens and snowflakes…

And using my KopyKake to create penguins.  (More on that later.)

As I was decorating my cookies, and mulling over which ones I liked and which ones I wish turned out better, I got to thinking–how many people have thought about decorating sugar cookies but were too intimidated to try?  I have only been seriously decorating cookies since last year, and I will tell you that I am by no means an expert, but I hope to give you some tips and tricks that will either convince you to try it or if you already do decorate, make it easier for you.

When I first started decorating cookies, I had no idea where to begin.  Before I read anything about decorating, I just made a batch of cookies and some royal icing, and decorated using a squeeze bottle.  They turned out less than stellar, I’ll say that.  But I really enjoyed decorating and decided if I was going to continue, then I needed to do a little research.  (The teacher in me was coming out!)  So, I checked out some books from the library and read many blogs on the internet.  And I practiced.  And then I read some more.  And I repeated the process.

If you read the interview I did with Hani, you’ll see some of the cookie artists she mentions.  I too follow them and they offer great tutorials, posts, and ideas.  Check them out.  You’ll be hooked!  So, here’s my tips that have helped me and I hope they help you.

1. Design your cookies before you begin.  Outline the cookie stencil(s) on a blank sheet of paper and using a colored pencil, color in your design.  Figure out how many colors you’ll need and jot that info down as well.

2.  Take your time. It’s a LONG day if you do it all in less than 24 hours.  I usually prep and bake my dough, along with making and coloring my icing in 1-2 days, then decorate the 2nd – 3rd day.  I usually decorate in one day, because I haven’t had luck decorating the first layer one day and then adding the details the next day.  (My icing separates.)  If you do decorate in one day, allow a few hours between layers—unless you want the wet-on-wet look.  Sweetopia has a great chart for decorating in 6 and 3 days.

3. It’s very important that your dough is even.  It’s very difficult to decorate cookies when you don’t have a flat surface.  For awhile I was just trying to eyeball it, but then I found this amazing rolling pin on Karen’s website.  I just love it—and it’s adjustable, so it works for everything.

4. Make sure you have enough piping bags, tips, and squeeze bottles for all the colors you’re using.  Different cookie artists do different things, but for me, I use this recipe for both the piping and flooding.  (I add a little bit of water to thin it out for the flooding.)  BE SURE you add the colors BEFORE you add the water.

5. When tinting icing, I like to use the Americolor brand.  The colors are so vibrant and I don’t need to use the whole bottle for reds or blacks.

6.  Piping and flooding—I use this trick for filling my piping bag.  It allows me to re-use my plastic piping bag and saves me time trying to clean out the bags.  I wish I knew about it sooner!  For flooding, it should be the consistency of toothpaste.  If it’s too stiff, it won’t “run” to the edge of the piping, and if it’s too thin, you’ll get craters or water marks once it dries.  

I like to portion out my icing, once it’s mixed, into plastic containers.  I look at my cookie designs to see how much of each color I need and portion appropriately.  I then color/tint the icing.  (And yes, I do have the color white and love it!)  Once I have the color correct, I put some plastic wrap directly on the icing, (press down to make sure the air bubbles are out—otherwise your icing will dry out), and place the plastic lid on top.  I let it sit overnight before preparing the piping bags and squeeze bottles.  Sweetopia has a great video on the consistency of flood icing.

7. Prepare your work space.  Have everything you need right next to you.  It’ll save you time and a headache.

8. My favorite tools are toothpicks and paper towels.  Toothpicks help with possible air bubbles and some minor adjustments, (like OOPS! I messed up!).  Paper towels help with cleaning off the tips of the squeeze bottles or any practice piping you want to do before applying to the cookie.

9. Because royal icing acts like a preservative, your cookies are good for about a week.  However, I like to package my cookies in food safe cello bags and tie off with a coordinating ribbon.  It’s fun to open a little package!

10. It’s a labor of love—practice, practice, practice.  I heard that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill, and while I doubt you’ll put in that much time (I know I certainly haven’t!), even practicing a little bit will make you a better cookie artist.  It will not always be smooth sailing, nor will it always work out the first time you try it, but with each cookie and design, you’ll get better and better.  As the saying goes, practice makes perfect.  (And as I said earlier in the post, I have only spent a few times using my new KopyKake, and these penguins were an idea after seeing some scrapbook paper.  They didn’t turn out as great as I had hoped, but I need to practice more.)

Please let me know, in the comment section, if this was helpful to you, or if you have any other questions about sugar cookie decorating.  I’ll help you as best I can.  Good luck and happy decorating! xoxo


Thanks for stopping by! I love baking and hope these recipes inspire you to create something wonderful in your kitchen. xoxo

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    When I make my icing with powdered sugar, water, vanilla. The next day it starts getting white spots. What can I do to avoid this?

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      Hi Sheri,
      I am thinking it’s probably due to too much water. I have had this happen before, but they looked a little more like moon craters. Without watching you make the icing or seeing a picture, it’s hard to determine for sure, but that would be my best guess. Maybe try a royal icing recipe without water next time and see if you have the same problem. Let me know what happens!

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  • Georganne (LilaLoa) January 11, 2012 at 8:16 am

    Okay, so the little trees on the snowglobes are SO CUTE! And…can you believe that I’ve never been to a cookie exchange either? Some day, I tell myself…. some day.

    • holly January 11, 2012 at 4:31 pm

      Thanks! Maybe, someday, we can host a virtual cookie exchange. That could be fun! Happy New Year. :)

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  • Breann December 19, 2011 at 5:57 am

    What recipes do you use for the cookies and the icing?

    • holly December 19, 2011 at 6:54 am

      Hi Breann–Good question. The icing recipe is from Antonia74 and if you click on the word “here” by where it says royal icing recipe, you can print it out. The sugar cookie recipe I use from the book called Cookie Craft, and if you like decorating sugar cookies, or are getting interested, I highly recommend reading it. Good luck!

      • Breann December 20, 2011 at 9:08 pm

        Thank you, This article is so helpful!

  • sarahmryberg December 15, 2011 at 11:33 pm

    What beautiful cookies! Great job!

    • holly December 19, 2011 at 6:59 am

      Thank you!

  • Noelle December 14, 2011 at 4:41 pm

    The penguins are cute!

    • holly December 14, 2011 at 11:42 pm

      Thanks! They were a lot of work.

  • Katie Case December 12, 2011 at 8:19 am

    Holly! You are such an artist! Your cookies are beautiful! Good job with your photography, too. Everything you do is so lovely! Thanks for sharing!

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