Stop Being a Cookie Cutter: Take Your Cookie Decorating Skills up a Notch

These tips will have you piping and decorating like the pros

By: Jessi Minneci

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When it comes to decorating Instagram-worthy cookies, there’s a lot of pressure to pipe the icing and scatter the sugar flecks just right. Cookies usually taste amazing no matter what, there’s no denying that; but there comes a time in every baker's life when the vanilla frosting and rainbow sprinkles are no longer enough.

If you're serious about decorating cookies with a w-o-w factor, whether it be for the holiday season, your baking business, a wedding party, or to enjoy on your couch with a cup of tea, it's time to upgrade your techniques and tools.

Decorating cookies always seems like a good idea… but your finished product almost never ends up looking like the whimsically-decorated example image that goes along with the recipe found online. To avoid frosting fails and fondant fumbles, follow these expert tips on creating cookies that are both stylish and tasty.

It starts with the cookie

You cannot build a beautifully-decorated product without a beautiful base. In this instance, we’ll focus on a truly blank canvas – the sugar cookie. Make the dough ahead of time, roll it out (it’s way easier to roll out at room temp than when it’s cold), and allow it to chill before being cut out into shapes. Chilling the dough will help it better maintain its shape throughout that baking process instead of it becoming a puffy mess in the oven. In fact, we even suggest throwing your cookie sheets in the freezer for 15 minutes before cooking to really avoid that ballooning.

Speaking of ballooning, you’ll also want to pay attention to how you handle your butter. Over-creaming your butter can aerate the dough, thus causing the rise… and then collapse… of your cookies in the oven. Work the butter just enough that it homogenizes with the rest of the ingredients, but don’t over-cream.  

When it comes to cutting the cookies, we suggest avoiding shapes with too many protrusions – like complex stars. Longer or thinner bits of dough will break off easier and may also cook quicker and can become overly browned before the rest of the cookie is done.

Pro-tip: Want to bring your sugar cookies to the next level? Kick the flavor up a notch by adding a pinch of lemon or orange zest to the dough recipe. The zing of citrus-y freshness will elevate the flavor of your sweet treat just enough.

Keep cooling

 You let your cookies cool down before baking them; now it’s time to let them cool again after removing them from the oven.

There’s nothing worse than piping icing onto the surface of your fresh cookie and watching it melt off of the sides, or sprinkling colorful sugar glitter on top of your treat just to watch all of the color run.

Patience is key here. And although we don’t always want to wait around for a finished product, allowing your cookies adequate time to cool before decorating is key to piping a masterpiece.

Choose the right icing for the job

There are two main types of icing when it comes to cookie decoration – hardening and non-hardening. Which you choose is up to personal preference, however, non-hardening is ideal for cookies that 1). Do not need to be transported, and 2). Do not need to be stacked.

Embrace royal icing           

Royal icing is what gives bakery-made cookies their professional sheen. It is a hardening icing made from confectioners’ sugar, water, egg white, and flavorings (the egg white is what allows it to dry hard). You can also make it with meringue powder, which consists of dry powdered egg white and stabilizers.

A quick recipe:

  • 3 ounces pasteurized egg whites
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 4 cups confectioners' sugar

Combine egg whites and vanilla in a mixer and beat until frothy. Add confectioners' sugar gradually and mix on low speed until sugar is incorporated. Turn speed up to high and beat until mixture forms stiff, glossy peaks. This should take approximately 5 to 7 minutes.

Royal icing comes in different consistencies, depending on how you make it. For a stiff product, mix icing on medium-low speed to keep out too much air. The icing will turn out thick and dense rather than very fluffy. For a medium consistency, add a few drops of water at a time to stiff icing. Don’t add too much – it won’t take a lot. Medium consistency icing is thin enough to flow smoothly out of a small tip, but is not so thin that it spreads and loses the shape of what you’re piping. Smooth consistency does what it should: creates a smooth layer of icing on a cookie. Achieve it by adding a couple of tablespoons of water at a time to stiff icing. To test the consistency, take a spoonful of icing and drop it back into the bowl. It should take between 14-16 seconds for the icing to smooth itself out.

Get into your decorating space

Decorating cookies directly on a baking sheet or table, especially when you are working from your home’s kitchen, will make an absolute mess. No one wants globs of icing all over the place or stray sprinkles showing up days after you baked! To avoid the mess, place your cookies on a wire rack set over a rimmed baking sheet. This will help catch any runaway sprinkles and icing drips.

Improvise your kitchen tools

  • Piping bag: Don’t have any pastry piping bags on hand? No problem. Instead of smearing your icing on the cookie in a messy blob, fill a small Ziploc bag with icing. Snip the tiniest piece of the bottom corner of the bag off, and voila, you now have a makeshift piping bag
  • Toothpicks: These little guys can be used to create designs in the icing once you lather up your cookies
  • Tweezers: Fingers are too big and clumsy for placing sprinkles in a precise pattern. Use tweezers for better control and greater precision

Be clean and decorate quickly

Pipe the border of the cookie first with a stiffer icing, then fill in the center with smooth icing. You can use a piping bag, an offset spatula, or a paring knife to frost the center without sticking your fingers or anything else unnecessary in the cookie.

If coloring your icing, we suggest opting for gel food coloring over liquid, as even a few drops of liquid can thin an icing past its ideal consistency. Gel colors allow you to use less product, and won’t change the consistency of your icing.

Add the toppings and sprinkles while the icing is still wet and tacky — within two minutes of frosting. Though the surface of the icing will feel dry after about 10 minutes, let the cookies fully harden for a few hours (…if you can resist digging in right away.)

Remember, not every cookie is going to come out ‘perfect’ – even the pros run into a few glitches here and there. Take deep breaths; try not to stress and trust the process! To troubleshoot a few problems:

  • Runny icing: Add extra powdered sugar to your icing to thicken it up
  • Sticky decorating fingers: As you decorate, you’re bound to get some sticky icing on your hands. While licking the sweet stuff off is yummy, it’s not the best method in terms of keeping everything clean. Constantly wash and dry your hands with warm water to avoid unneeded mess
  • When you have to transport: Opt to bake rounder, less complex shapes when you must transport in order to avoid as much cookie-brakeage-in-transit as possible

In no time, you’ll be piping and prepping cookies like a pro – for the holidays, bake sales, and beyond!

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