It’s a classic Pinterest versus reality situation: you find recipes for gorgeous holiday cookies that look like delicate snowflakes, ornament-studded Christmas trees, and leaping reindeer with icing antlers, only to find that executing them isn’t quite as easy as you’d hoped. (And said reindeer ends up looking like an unfortunate brown blob.) Luckily, we tapped a few experts to get their best decorating advice so you can impress big-time at the cookie swap this year.
Cookie-making pros Caitlin Dysart, pastry chef at Centrolina and Piccolina; Kim-Joy, author and 2018 finalist on The Great British Bake Off; and Patti Paige, artist, baker, and owner of Baked Ideas shared their recommendations for key tools and gadgets, beginner designs, and decorating tips. If you’re worried about making mistakes, they’ve included ways to avoid common ones, and even if they do happen, you can always wipe it all off and start over. Read on for all of their tips.
First things first—you’ll need these tools
From the three bakers, we assembled a list of essential decorating tools: small piping tips (including plain, star, and closed star), piping bags (plastic food storage bags or parchment cut into triangles will also work), a small offset spatula, a tapered spatula for intricate designs, paintbrushes, quality food dye, edible black ink pens, scissors, toothpicks, a stand mixer or hand mixer for making icing, as well as mixing bowls and household spoons for mixing the icing colors.
“Be sure to keep the bowls of colored icing covered with a damp cloth so the icing doesn't crust over,” Paige says.
Try these easier beginner designs
“I would try something like a snowflake," Kim-Joy recommends. "Then you can practice piping straight lines, curved lines, and dots so you can get an idea of how to control your piping. If anything goes wrong, you can easily wipe it off.”
“Try a feathered or marbled royal icing technique: apply small dots of colored royal icing on top of white royal icing (or vice versa), and drag a toothpick across the surface to create a marbled look. It's a simple technique but can look quite stunning!” Dysart says.
“Gingerbread people or ornaments are easy, fun, and open to interpretation,” Paige advises. “For ornaments, which people can hang on a tree or even on the wall, I ice the cookie a base color and then decorate with lines of icing in any pattern that comes to mind. If you let the base coat dry a few hours or overnight, you have a lot of decorating options. But if you want to do it all in one sitting, wet-in-wet icing works well too and creates interesting results. Even a dusting of sprinkles is pretty and subtle.”
Pick a color scheme and shapes
“Come up with a few shapes you like,” Paige says. “Sometimes it helps to choose ones that go together, like mittens, winter caps, and snowflakes. Then, pick a color palette so you don't go crazy making a million colors. I've recently been experimenting with plant-based colors and they are really unusual and pretty.”
If you go with snowflakes, mix it up
“If I'm doing snowflake sugar cookies, it's fun to do slightly different designs on each,” Dysart says. “I like to pick a certain color scheme, and then create different designs with those colors.”
Royal icing is better than water icing…
“Royal icing contains egg white, so it’s stretchier and just easier to pipe—plus it will dry completely hard over night. Water icing won’t.” Kim-Joy says.
…and you want it at this consistency
“The biggest mistake, I think, is using icing that is too runny or too tight,” Paige explains. “When you are piping, if the icing is too runny, it will go all over the place and you won't be able to make your design. If it is too tight, it will be hard to squeeze the bag and the line won't be smooth and fluid. It takes trial and error to get it right, but basically, the icing in the bag should be a little bit looser than the consistency of toothpaste, depending on the size of the opening. I always advise people, especially beginners, to hold the bag with two hands. One hand applies the pressure so the icing comes out smoothly, and the other hand is there for support.”
Use this guideline to apply it
“Pipe lines of royal icing along the edge of the cookies, and then fill the outlined area in with looser icing, so that it fills in with a smooth and flat, not too thick coat of icing,” Paige says.
For more detail, use smaller tips
“All intricate designs benefit from using the smallest tip you can handle,” Paige says. “The trick here would be to make sure you sift the powdered sugar before you make the icing, because even the tiniest grain of sugar can clog up the small opening in the tips and make it impossible to pipe.”
If you don’t have piping tips, Kim-Joy recommends snipping a tiny hole in the piping bag—again, the smaller the better, since it gives you more control.
In addition to baking in a relaxed environment, which Kim-Joy recommends, patience is also key to making sure your cookies turn out the best they can. Dysart particularly warns against decorating cookies before they’ve properly cooled.
If all else fails, grab the sanding sugar
“One hack would be to line your cookies (snowflakes, for example) and before the icing dries, like immediately, dunk your cookie, icing side down, into sanding sugar so that it sticks to the lines. Instant festive sparkle.” Paige says.