If you’ve ever admired those glossy, intricately-patterned cookies that look like a tiny piece of art, or watched a video in Instagram of meticulous decorating, you’re familiar with royal icing. It’s beyond simple to make, and once you have the icing, you can adjust the consistency and dye it all kinds of colors to create infinite designs. Your design will set completely overnight (or sometimes after a few hours) so you can stack the cookies without fear of messing up the cookies, a drawback with regular icing or buttercream. It’s also the glue of confections—royal icing is responsible for the structural integrity of gingerbread houses. However, the issue with royal icing is that it relies on egg whites to give it these properties. A few years ago, aquafaba (the liquid from a can of chickpeas) became popularized as a substitute for egg whites in some applications like meringue. Aquafaba replaces egg whites in this recipe for vegan royal icing so vegans and people with egg allergies can enjoy it!
First off, you need some cookies to hold the icing! My sugar cookies are so easy to make. They’re soft, chewy, and delicious, and make the perfect canvas for icing. You can also use royal icing for decorating gingerbread cookies.
To begin making royal icing, you’ll need a stand mixer, handheld beaters, or a strong whisk. We’ll only need to whip it until it’s foamy, so you can get away with making it by hand if you prefer, or don’t have a mixer. There’s just a few ingredients—you’ll whip the aquafaba until it’s foamy, add powdered sugar, add vanilla for flavor, and then adjust the consistency with water or lemon juice. The idea is to make it thick, smooth, and glossy so that you can transfer it to a pastry bag to pipe it.
A good test is to lift up your whisk and make sure the icing holds its shape when you turn it around and upside down. If you need to adjust the consistency, add more powdered sugar or water. It’s difficult to mess up royal icing while actually making it, but there are some techniques to using it.
Royal Icing 101
To make some basic designs, you’ll need to create vegan royal icing in two different consistencies: thick for outlining, and pourable for flooding. You can also create different colors. My go-to food coloring is Wilton gel food coloring, which comes in so many colors, and happens to be vegan. The color is concentrated, so you’ll only need a small amount and it won’t change the texture of the icing.
Icing for outlining
This is what we’ll use to outline the design on the cookies before filling it in with a watered-down icing. It’s the consistency that we’re aiming for when initially making the icing (the texture that holds its shape on the whisk). Once you have your prepared icing, transfer it to a pastry bag equipped with a writing tip, or a ziptop bag with the corner snipped off.
Thin icing for flooding
In royal icing, flooding means to fill in the outline of your design with a thin, pourable icing. To get this consistency, simply add water or lemon juice to your icing until it’s at a pourable consistency. Not too thin or the extra moisture will seep into the cookies, and it will take forever to dry. You can also transfer this icing to a pastry bag, or pour it on the cookies with a spoon, whichever you prefer. A pastry bag will be neater, but a spoon is fine as well.
Royal Icing Tips and Techniques
Outlining and flooding
Outline your cookie design with thick royal icing in a pastry bag, then “flood” the design with your thinner icing. Use a toothpick to help the icing reach smaller areas of the design and blend with the outline.
Flood your cookies right after outlining
Royal icing dries fast. You’ll want to flood your cookie right after outlining it so that the liquid icing has a change to meld with the outline and create a uniform design before the outline dries. You can see in the photos that I did not follow this rule very well and the icing didn’t blend into the outline in some of my cookies.
Give your cookies adequate time to dry
Ideally, let your icing dry overnight. If you don’t have that long, budget for at least 3-4 hours before transporting your cookies so that your design stays in tact. There are some tips for drying your icing fast, like placing the cookies in a low temperature oven to dry or dehydrate the icing, but you run the risk of drying out your cookies. Just allow the extra time.
Experiment with your vegan royal icing
The best way to get a feel for the right icing texture and using the icing is to play around with it. It’s as simple as that.
More advanced royal icing techniques
Once you’ve mastered outlining and flooding, there are some other techniques you can try out.
“Wet on wet” technique
You can create designs on your cookies while the icing is still wet for a design that is “embedded” into the icing. Here is a great video demonstrating how to make roses in the icing.
“Dry on dry” technique
Okay, I don’t think it’s actually called “dry on dry”, but we’ll go with it. Once the vegan royal icing has set on your cookies, you can take your pastry bag (filled with the thick outlining icing) and draw more designs on top of your cookies for a “3D” design. This is the technique used to make a lace design on the cookies. Here is a great example.
Get the recipe:
Vegan Royal Icing
- 1/4 cup aquafaba liquid from a can of chickpeas
- 2 1/2-3 cups powdered sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Lemon juice and/or water as needed
- Food coloring if desired
- Pour the aquafaba in the bowl of a stand mixer with the balloon whisk attachment, or a large mixing bowl if using hand beaters.
- Beat the aquafaba at medium speed until foamy.
- Gradually add the powdered sugar.
- Add the vanilla extract.
- Beat the icing until thick and glossy, 4-5 minutes. The royal icing should slowly drip off the beater, but hold its shape.
- Add more powdered sugar if the icing is runny, or water or lemon juice if it's too thick.
- Transfer to a pastry bag to outline cookies or draw designs.
- After outlining, thin out the icing with water or lemon juice to a pourable consistency.
- Slowly pour or "flood" the thin icing into the outlined areas of the cookies.
- Use a toothpick to help the icing cover the entire cookie.
- Cover any leftover icing and store in the fridge.
- It doesn't matter if you use water or lemon juice to thin out the icing, but lemon has a nice flavor!
- When making royal icing for outlining, it should be thick enough to hold its shape if you turn a spoonful upside down, but not so thick that it hardens immediately after piping. If it's too thick, it won't blend together nicely with the flooded icing, and if it's too runny, it'll run right off the cookie.
- Play around with royal icing to get the hang of it, and if you mess up, you can thicken it with powdered sugar or thin it out with liquid.
- I use Wilton gel food coloring for dying the icing. It comes in so many colors, and you only need a small amount for vibrant color, so it doesn't alter the texture of the icing.
- You can learn some more royal icing techniques by watching tutorials on YouTube.
What is the most impressive royal icing design you’ve seen?