Now that you have a perfect sugar cookie recipe that holds its shape impeccably, you'll need a few tips on how to decorate them. There's no need to start out too complicated. These key techniques are all you need to decorate holiday cookies pretty much however you desire. For each of these, you'll want to make a batch of our favorite royal icing. It sounds fancy, but it's super easy to throw together and is ideal for decorating because it not only looks beautiful, but also dries hard while staying puffy. Grab your piping bags and tips and let's get started.
This is the very first step to basically all cookie decorating. By outlining the edges of your cookie with royal icing, you'll be able to fill in the whole cookie without the risk of the icing spilling out over the edges. You want to make sure the icing is thick enough that it holds its shape, but not so thick that you can't easily spread it around.
How to achieve this? It should squeeze out of your piping bag easily. Use a small round tip and simply pipe around the edge of your cookie, making sure you allow the icing to fall into every corner—it's all about the details ;) Start releasing pressure on the piping bag just before you get to where you started and allow the two ends to meet with a very slight overlap. This will dry and set in just a few minutes.
This technique is how you fill in a sugar cookie with a smooth, seamless top. The royal icing used for this should be thinner than what you use for outlining. Simply thin the thicker icing you make with a little bit of water–go slow; you can always add more! The thinner icing should run off your spoon easily and hold its shape for just a second or two and then melt back into itself as it falls into the bowl. You don't want it to be so watery that it doesn't hold its shape at all.
Once your consistency is right, add it to a piping bag with a small round tip and then follow the outline you've piped around the entire cookie, continuing in a circle until the whole thing is filled. If you have any air bubbles or miss any spots, work quickly and use a toothpick to pop the air bubbles or push the icing around to where you want it to go. After just a few minutes the tops of the cookies will begin to harden and after about an hour the icing will completely set.
This technique is always so pretty and much less complicated than it looks. You just have to work quickly while the icing is still wet. First flood your cookie. Then, using another color in the same thinner icing consistency you used for flooding, pipe horizontal lines across the cookie. Using a toothpick (or sugar cookie needle) and starting at the top of the cookie, drag it down through the icing. Start the next line at the bottom of the cookie and drag your toothpick up through the icing. Continue across the cookie, alternating dragging from top and bottom. The lines can be as close together or spread out as you prefer. Pro tip: Wipe the tip of your toothpick between each line for an even cleaner design.
Adding in simple little details can really up your sugar cookie game. I love dotting cookies with polka dots; they're easy to do and always look cute. For dots that really stand out, use the thicker icing and top the flooded cookie after it has set for a few minutes. For dots that are flush with the icing, use the thinner icing and add them immediately after flooding your cookie before it has a chance to dry.
You can also skip flooding the sugar cookies and use the thicker consistency to simply squiggle icing on top. This is an easy way to decorate snow on trees and add a lot of texture to the cookies while using way less icing.
Makinze is currently Food Editor for Delish, where she develops recipes, creates and hosts recipe videos and is our current baking queen.. Reigning from Oklahoma, she's also our go-to for all things regarding Midwestern cuisine. She's also our expert pie crimper.