An Illustrated Guide to Royal Icing Consistencies
So you made your batch of royal icing. Now what?
Well, what comes next is the hard part.
Achieving the right royal icing consistencies is the hardest yet the most important part of cookie decorating. It's also quite difficult to describe in words how royal icing consistency should be. That's probably the main reason I've put off writing about it for so long.
Nailing the correct royal icing consistency isn't an exact science. It's more of a "feel" and becoming more familiar with how royal icing behaves under different thicknesses.
That being said, I'm going to do my best to describe how to achieve the right royal icing consistency for the job. You might want to sit down and get comfortable, because this post is going to be a long one.
Making Different Royal Icing Consistencies
Before jumping right into the different types of royal icing consistencies, I want to mention how to first alter them from one another. Decorating cookies is the process of making stiff royal icing, then thinning it down with water, or thickening it up again with powdered sugar, to achieve the right "effect" on the cookie, which I'll get into in a bit.
Thinning Royal Icing
To thin down royal icing, the most effective way is to use a spray bottle filled with water. This genius spray bottle tip was first thought up by Gail of One Tough Cookie NYC and is practically now the preferred method of choice by every cookier to thin down their icing.
Using a spray bottle to add water allows you to better control the amount of water you add to your icing. It's really easy to add just a few drops or a few tablespoons with just a squeeze of the trigger.
Thickening Royal Icing
Often times as I decorate cookies, I need to convert medium or flood consistency icing back to piping consistency for the final line details. To do this, I add a small amount of powdered sugar to the flood icing. I will keep adding and mixing powdered sugar by the teaspoonful until I get the desired thickness.
Confused? Hopefully, this will all make sense as you read on.
Determining the Correct Consistency
There is a trick to determine if you have the right consistency for the job. When preparing the icing, thin down the icing with a spray of water from the spray bottle. Then, test the consistency by cutting or "drawing" a line through the icing.
Once the line is drawn, count how many seconds it takes for the line to disappear into the rest of the icing. That number is what we call the "count" for the icing. Each type of icing I use has a particular "icing count" which I will detail below.
That's pretty much it. Now let's get into the specific types of consistencies.
Stiff Royal Icing Consistency
Common Consistency Comparison: Cake Frosting, Buttercream
Uses: Leaves, Flowers, Ruffles, Stenciling Icing
Icing count: Infinity
Stiff royal icing is the consistency you get right out of the mixer. Lisa of the Bearfoot Baker likes to call this consistency "fancy" icing, with good reason. The icing holds its shape very well and doesn't lose any details when it is piped out of all those "fancy" icing tips. Think of the consistency of frosting when topping off a cupcake. If you draw a line in the icing with a knife the line will remain there with no chance to disappear within itself over time.
Often times, to prevent overmixing the icing, I stop the mixer when I get soft peaks. If I need stiff icing for florals or leaf details, I'll just add a little more powdered sugar to the mix.
Piping Royal Icing Consistency
Common Consistency Comparison: Toothpaste, Pudding, Soft Serve Ice Cream
Uses: Outlining, Lettering, Detail Work
Icing count: 25 second
Piping consistency royal icing is stiff icing that has been thinned down with a couple spritzes of water from the spray bottle. The icing still forms peaks, but the peaks are softer and fall after forming. When piping with this consistency, the icing should flow nice and smooth out of the tip. If you find the icing forms peaks as you pipe or the line breaks a lot during mid squeeze, the consistency is too thick. If the line doesn't hold its shape after it is piped then the icing is too thin.
Medium Royal Icing Consistency
Common Consistency Comparison: Ketchup, Ranch Dressing
Uses: Outlining and Flooding with One Consistency, Creating Puffy Areas
Icing count: 12 seconds to 20 seconds
Medium royal is slightly thinner that piping icing. Medium icing is such a gray area in the consistency spectrum. The proper icing count for this consistency is really up to personal preference, so take some time experimenting to determine what's right to you.
The icing count I listed above is just a guideline. Sugarbelle uses 20-second icing, The Bearfoot Baker uses 15-second icing, and Sweetopia uses 10-second icing. Everyone's preference is different. I prefer 15-second icing when I need this consistency.
Medium icing is great for quickly outlining and flooding backgrounds of cookies when precision isn't really necessary. Using only one consistency to fill a cookie really saves on the prep time instead of having to make both a piping and a flood consistency.
Flood Royal Icing Consistency
Common Consistency Comparison: Honey, Shampoo
Uses: Filling Large Areas, Wet-on-Wet Effects, Marbling
Icing count: 5 to 8 seconds
The thinnest of all the icing consistencies is flood icing. Flood icing is used to fill in the areas you make after outlining. Flood icing takes the longest to dry. However, once an area is filled with flood icing, it dries into a nice flat and smooth surface.
One thing to keep in mind for flood icing is to not make it too thin. If the flood is too thin, it doesn't quite dry properly and you'll have a mess on your hands (literally). Try to keep your flood icing no less than 5-seconds
Royal Icing Tips & Tricks
Use a Fan or Dehydrator
I recommend always using a table top fan or dehydrator on your wet cookies. The added airflow will help speed up the icing's dry time and leave the icing smooth and shiny.
Add White Food Coloring
Adding white food coloring to your icing in the beginning will make your icing whiter in color. Also, it's been known to help prevent color bleed.
Easy on Food Coloring Gels
Start with adding small amounts of food coloring gel, then let the color develop and deepen over an hour or two. Adding too much coloring gel can saturate your icing and cause colors to bleed onto one another. Also, too much coloring gel can have a negative affect on how well the icing dries.
Add Corn Syrup and/or Glycerin
Adding any one or both of these ingredients can help soften the bite of dried royal icing. The icing remains hard enough to pack and handle, but leaves a pleasant bite.
I add about two tablespoons of corn syrup and a teaspoon of glycerin to my royal icing recipe now.
An Illustrated Guide to Royal Icing Consistencies
The infographic below summarizes all the many details I mentioned above.
My hope was to create quick-reference guide of the entire royal icing consistency process. Think of it as a top-down overview that flows from the initial recipe (top) to the final desired effect (bottom).
Printer Friendly Version
For the printable version of this infographic, click here.
I hope you found this guide helpful.
Achieving the right royal icing consistency takes practice. Over time and over many cookie batches, you'll find the consistency that works best for you. I know it's not easy at first, so if you have any questions let me know. I'll do my best to help get you where you need to be.