Have you 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.
Butter icing doesn’t harden the same way making royal icing the preferred choice for what you might call serious decorating or fancy projects.
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 (on Instagram), is a passionate cake and cookie decorator. I immediately called her and set up a cookie decorating date.
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.
PIN for later…
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Tips and Tricks for Working with Royal Icing
- Using clear vanilla extract to flavour your icing won’t change the colour.
- 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 but their website now provides this ‘may contains’ statement on their gel food colours and meringue powder, “made on equipment that also processes milk, soy, wheat, peanuts…” (Thanks to JAMcD for bringing this to my attention.)
Understanding A May Contains Statement
There’s nothing easy about navigating the ever changing food labelling laws but this is part of living gluten free. If you’re still learning how to interpret labels here are a few tips.
- Bookmark the Canadian Celiac Association on your tablet or computer. Even if you most often visit from your phone I find that research on a larger screen feels more calming than scrolling on your phone in a grocery store aisle.
- Download their latest document on this topic. October 2021 – Food Labelling: Guidelines for Individuals with Celiac Disease Following a Gluten-Free Diet.
- Spend a bit of time thinking about how you learn and set yourself up to do more of that. Some people find too much conflicting information in support groups or on social media. Have fun but pay attention to where you’re getting your health information.
- Feel free to bookmark, follow and save documents from other large organizations dedicated to helping people manage celiac disease and the gluten free diet.
I also found this 2022 post over at ‘Find This Best’, a U.S. based website with plenty of options for gluten free food colouring. Best-food-coloring/gluten-free
Ideas for Decorating Cookies
Tips To Organize for Decorating Cookies
Bake your cookies in advance. Whether it’s 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.
Best Tools for 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.
- Icing sugar
- Egg whites or meringue powder
- Disposable piping bags in a 50 pack box or a smaller 12 bag package. Or a reusable option which is still inexpensive, complete set of silicone icing bags in 3 sizes with all the tips and ties. For under $20 I think this is a good investment even if you only do this once a year.
- Set of decorating supplies or just a few #2 and #3 decorating nibs with a coupler to hold the nib in the bag.
- Gel food colouring , 3 colours is a great start.
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 decorating party and what you did.
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More Help and Fun with Gluten Free Cookies
A Canadian Celiac Podcast
Sue Jennett of A Canadian Celiac Podcast interviewed me about cookies. Listen 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.
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
- Gel paste or liquid food colouring
READ ALL THE INSTRUCTIONS BEFORE YOU START. Best advice ever!
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.
COLOURING AND DECORATING INSTRUCTIONS
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Thanks for the info – FYI that Wilton gel colors state “made on equipment that also processes milk, soy, wheat, peanuts…”
If someone is extra sensitive this may be a problem.
Thanks for letting me know, I’ll update this post to say that. It is disappointing but at the same time it’s nice to see that more companies are providing this information about their practises. On the American website ‘Find This Best’, I found this current article (2022) about gluten free food colouring. https://www.findthisbest.com/best-food-coloring/gluten-free