It’s easy to get lost for hours in videos of Hungarian cookie decorating or cookie-decorating bloggers, watching as they weave lace from icing and create elaborate portraits from sugar. Mashable even called the cookie decorating montages the “most relaxing culinary art form.” There are thousands more YouTube clips offering tutorials and expert tips for creating sugar cookies like the ones in the videos — cookies fit for sale in professional bakeries and decorated to look like painted masterpieces, realistic everyday objects, or edible optical illusions.
The key to making these edible works of art is royal icing, the glossy mix of meringue powder, powdered sugar, and water, that stays just liquid enough to paint, marble, and pipe, and then dries hard. And if you can shake yourself out of your mesmerized state and want to transform royal icing into intricate designs like the experts, the first thing to know is that the equipment is extremely important.
Whether you’re thinking edible invitations, galaxy skulls, or an entire blossoming platter, it’s all going to start with the right tools, down to the specific brands, so we’ve rounded up a shopping list that will set you up for success and stunning sugar cookies. With these in your arsenal, all you’ll need to bring to the pastry kitchen is a little artistic sensibility.
Rolling pin with thickness rings
One of the easiest ways to doom your cookie art before you even get to the decorating portion is by failing to create an even, flat surface on which to draw. Using a rolling pin that comes with adjustable thickness rings solves this issue: It keeps your pin a precise distance (of your choosing) off your rolling surface, ensuring that not only are all of your cookies the exact same thickness, they are also completely flat when they go into the oven (and, assuming you’re following a reputable recipe, leave the oven as well).
Piping tips and couplers
Welcome to the world of Wilton. This brand is sold everywhere (Amazon, Walmart, Michaels, Jo-Ann, Target, possibly your local grocery store) and used by many of the cookie decorators offering YouTube or blog tutorials. Each of the numbered piping tips is a slightly different size or shape and thus has a different use. At a bare minimum, you’ll want at least two tips: a size one round for any details and for outlining your cookie, and a size four for flooding the icing (i.e. filling in that outline). But if you’re serious about making cool designs, you’ll want a lot more, including a star tip to make little rosettes, so a complete kit is the best way to go. This kit also comes with a few couplers, the plastic pieces that let you switch tips on your icing bags without having to remove all the icing inside.
The tools you’ll touch the most when creating your royal icing designs are likely the piping bags: conical plastic bags that you fill with icing and then attach to piping tips. There are reusable piping bags on the market but you’ll want a new bag for each color so you can have them ready to go as you decorate, Plus, they’re somewhat difficult to clean, so buying the plastic ones in bulk is easiest. Wilton makes bags too, but its dominance as a brand is less relevant here. Ateco also makes dependable piping bags — in fact, the brand makes the best ones, according to Wirecutter and cookie bloggers the Bearfoot Baker and Chelsweets. They come in various sizes, but the 12-inch ones are a great place to start for royal icing on cookies.
Piping bag ties
When decorating cookies, sometimes it’s the small tools that make a big difference, like these little rubber piping bag ties. Some piping bag sets may even come with them because they’re so useful. Loop one at the top of your icing in the bag to separate the empty portion, and move it down as you work. The ties prevent any air from getting into your icing and keep the icing in the bag when you set it down on your work surface. With one of these, you don’t have to worry about twisting the bag around enough to apply pressure on the icing, and (unlike a regular rubber band), it’s easy to push down as you pipe.
Envision the clickbait title now: “This one weird tool will save your cookies!” A scribe tool is the magic behind beautiful cookies. Decorators use it to move the icing around into cool designs (like marbling), fix mistakes, and pop air bubbles that mar the surface of a cookie. Sure, it could all be done with a toothpick, but the scribe tool’s long handle makes it easier to control tiny, precise movements. Wilton’s scribe tool comes as part of a set, along with a few other tools for perfecting your cookie decorations, like a three-prong comb for marbling and a silicone scraper for smoothing.
Gel food coloring
Don’t even think about trying to use your standard liquid food coloring in your royal icing — it will change the icing’s texture and give you dull colors. Gel food coloring, on the other hand, keeps the colors bright and bold without watering them down. Wilton’s traditional color set is the best way to get started, but if you’re going super fancy, you can also check out the brand’s pastel set or neon set.
Edible paint pens
Experts can create intricate designs with piping bags freehand, but for beginners, it can really help to draw your desired artwork onto your cookies first — that’s where these food coloring pens come in handy. You can write directly on the cookie, then just follow your lines with the piping bag. If you have a detail you need to add, you can also use them directly on the royal icing after it dries.
Now, all that’s left to do is watch a few inspirational videos, take a deep breath, and remember that mistakes taste as good as masterpieces.