Royal icing is the standard for icing gingerbread cookies or other cutouts that need decoration. It is made primarily from confectioners’ sugar and lightly beaten egg whites, and often a bit of cream of tartar or lemon juice is also added into it. The icing is very popular because the basic recipe can be flavored or colored very easily, giving you a lot of options when it comes to decorating. The icing can be made thick, which is best for pining or writing greetings, and it can also be made thin, which is good for flooding large areas with color. It also dries to be hard and shiny, so when you use it to pipe faces onto your gingerbread cookies, you don’t need to worry about them getting smeared or smashed when you pack them up and ship them to friends.
Royal icing can be whipped up to a thicker, fluffier consistency and spread onto cakes as frosting, as well. When used in this way, the icing will still dry to be quite stiff on the outside, again leaving you with an icing that will hold up well to transport, as well as one that will help trap moisture inside the cake and keep it soft and tender.
Most of the time, royal icing is not made with fresh egg whites. The icing is not cooked and there is a risk of salmonella from using fresh whites unless you start out with whole, pasteurized eggs. Most of the time, royal icing recipes call for meringue powder. Meringue powder is a fine white powder made primarily from dried egg whites, with a bit of cornstarch to keep it from clumping while stored. The powder can be reconstituted easily with a little water and whips up into a nice, fluffy meringue – just like regular egg whites – when beaten at high speed with a mixer. It has a very long shelf life and is definitely something you’ll want to have on your shelf if you’re planning on using royal icing on a regular basis.
Basic Royal Icing
2 tablespoons, meringue powder plus 6 tablespoons warm water*
or 3 large egg whites from pasteurized eggs
4 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract or other flavoring
food coloring, as needed
Reconstitute egg whites in warm water in a large bowl. Beat, using an electric mixer, until thickened and smooth. Gradually incorporate confectioners’ sugar until mixture is thick and fluffy. Beat in vanilla extract. Divide icing into small bowls and add food coloring until desired colors are reached.
*meringue powder should be prepped according to package directions, which will often have a recipe for royal icing on them that can be followed.