A Royal-Icing Tutorial: Decorate Christmas Cookies Like a Boss

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik. Videos: Serious Eats]

When it comes to an afternoon of bonding with the kids, there's something to be said for living in the moment and letting the frostings fall where they may. At other times, it can be super satisfying to exercise your creativity and treat Christmas cookies like a work of art.

If your time in the kitchen is all about your own personal enjoyment, then there's nothing to stop you from tackling whatever wild ideas strike your fancy. But if you have your heart set on gifting beautiful cookies to your friends and family, then it's best to keep things simple. It's waaaaaaaay more fun to underestimate your skill level and hit a home run than fall short of your own expectations. Remember, NAILED IT memes are funnier when they're not happening in your own kitchen.

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Simple doesn't mean boring! Every design you see here is suitable for beginners, and requires just four icing colors and three kinds of sprinkles; it's the mix-and-matching that keeps things interesting and fun. Well, that and a few cute but simple cookie cutters, like my beloved candy canes, snowflakes, Christmas trees, and ornaments.

The first step to painting any masterpiece is, of course, procuring the right sort of canvas—a rolled sugar cookie that's thick, pale, and smooth (not to mention, you know, delicious). I'm partial to my own recipe, but any cutout cookie that meets those criteria will do. Steer clear of thinner, crispier sugar cookie styles, since they're more inclined to break, and keep in mind that cookies with a cracked or porous surface can make the icing more difficult to apply.

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The next step is to procure the paint, a.k.a. a "flood consistency" royal icing. Reserve one portion for plain white icing, divide the rest among three bowls, and cover each bowl with plastic. I'm a big fan of red, blue, and green, but you can choose whatever three colors you like. (If you'd like to make more colors, you'll need to make a double batch of royal icing, or else there won't be enough of any one color to go around.)

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Just as Bob Ross always had the perfect brush to turn a blob of paint into a happy little friend, you have to have the right sort of equipment to make beautifully festive cookies. Unless you're under the gun, with Iron Chef–level pastry skills to see you through, that means giving up on janky, MacGyver-style zippy bags with holes poked in the corner. You can definitely squeak by with a few tightly rolled parchment cones, but the far better option for cookie decorating is a disposable pastry bag fitted with a coupler and a superfine tip, such as a Wilton #3.

Once you've coupled the piping tip to the bag, tuck a bit of the bag itself down into the coupler; this acts as a stopper so the royal icing won't flow out while you're filling the bag. Next, partially roll the bag inside out, then stand it in an empty drinking glass so it can hold itself upright.

Working with one bowl at a time, stir in a few drops of gel paste until the color is just what you'd like. Scrape it into the prepared pastry bag, then twist the bag closed and work the icing down, like it's a tube of toothpaste, until it reaches the "clogged" coupler. You can tape the bag closed to prevent it from unraveling or opening back up, or just be mindful to keep it tightly twisted at all times (the pastry chef way).

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Fold the excess portion of the bag in half, and stand upright in a drinking glass with the tip pointed up. Move on to the next color, and, when you've prepped all the pastry bags, you're ready to rock and roll.

Technique 1: Flooding

To cover the cookies in a solid sheet of icing, start by positioning the piping tip at least three-eighths of an inch from the edge of the cookie. The icing will expand into that empty space after a few seconds, so putting it too close to the edge will only make a mess.

Gently (and I do mean gently) squeeze the pastry bag until the icing begins to flow. Once it touches the cookie, maintain a gentle pressure on the pastry bag, and slowly lift up until you're an inch above the cookie, tethered by a strand of royal icing. To outline the cookie, think of the icing like a string that you're trying to lay down, rather than something to be dragged or pulled around like ink from a pen or brush. By holding the piping tip well above the cookie, you'll have plenty of room to maneuver as you lay the icing down.

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When the outline is done, fill in the shape by zigzagging the pastry tip across the empty space, squeezing firmly so the icing "floods" out, using the tip of the piping bag to nudge the icing until it fills in the gaps. (This is where you'll really appreciate having a superfine pastry tip, as larger sizes will allow the icing to flow out far too fast to control.)

Once it's fully glazed, the cookie can be left plain, embellished with different types of frosting, or topped with your favorite sprinkles, like gold and silver dragée, sparkling sugar, jimmies, or even edible glitter. Just go easy: Store-bought sprinkles don't taste half as good as they look.

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Technique 2: Polka Dots

Whether you're frosting Christmas trees, cookie ornaments, or simple geometric shapes, polka dots add the most visual interest for the least amount of effort. For this technique, outline and flood the cookie with whatever color icing you prefer. Working with a secondary color, hold the piping bag perpendicular to the cookie, with the tip just barely above the surface of the icing.

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Squeeze gently until the icing begins to flow, and keep squeezing to enlarge the dot. To finish, stop squeezing, and lift the bag straight up. In a few seconds, the peak of icing will settle down and disappear. Repeat with more dots and colors to create whatever sort of design you like; you can even nestle dots within dots, for alternating rings of color.

Technique 3: Hearts

For this technique, outline and flood the cookie with whatever color icing you prefer. Working with a secondary color, polka-dot the cookie according to the instructions above. Next, drag a toothpick through each dot, moving from top to bottom.

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Pass straight through the center for a classic heart shape, or bisect the dot at an angle for a slightly more whimsical look. You can drag the toothpick through several dots in a row to connect them with a tail, or you can pick up and clean the toothpick between them for a tidier appearance.

Technique 4: Zigzags

As with the icing hearts, this technique starts with a flooded icing base, a secondary color, and a bit of toothpick magic. Start by piping a series of parallel lines across a flooded cookie, squeezing with constant but gentle pressure so the icing falls in an unbroken string.

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Next, drag a toothpick across the cookie from top to bottom, intersecting the lines at a right angle. When you reach the end, wipe the toothpick clean, scoot over a bit, and repeat from bottom to top. Keep at it until you've zigzagged your way across the whole cookie. At first, it may seem like there's a sharp "divide" where the icing parted, but it will disappear over time.

If the toothpick is dragged along a gentle arc, this same technique can be used to create the illusion of curvature.

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It can also be done in a more freeform style to make the whorls of frost on a snowflake, or the swirling stripes of a candy cane.

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Technique 5: Flocking

I love sprinkles. They're simple, sweet, and totally unpretentious, but festive like no other. I dig this four-piece set, which includes white, pearlized sugar that makes an icy-looking "snow," as well as pearlized jimmies for candy canes and gold and silver balls for Christmas ornaments.

To mix things up, remember that you don't have to flood every cookie. You can flock a few plain geometric lines with sprinkles to create all kinds of simple but eye-catching designs.

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Technique 6: Color-Blocking

This technique is simply basic flooding, but applied to smaller sections of the cookie. It's a great way to get alternating bands of red and white for a candy cane, or the various shapes of a more complicated design, like the sections of Santa's suit or the body and hat of a snowman.

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Regardless of what kind of holiday assortment you dream up, focusing on a few colors and basic techniques will free up your time and energy so you can spend more time on the fun stuff: piping and swirling and sprinkling your way through a thousand replays of "Jingle Bell Rock."

Just remember to give your frosted sugar cookie cutouts plenty of time to air-dry: about four hours if you plan on enjoying them at home, or eight hours to fully cure if you want to pack them in boxes to ship to friends. (That's assuming you can bear to part with your beautiful creations.)