Follow our simple guide with expert advice on how to make royal icing including top tips, how to decorate, and how to store.
Royal icing is made by beating egg whites and icing sugar together to form a smooth paste. It is then used to coat and decorate a variety of different cakes and biscuits but it is mostly used for decorating wedding cakes (opens in new tab).
This particular icing dates back hundreds of years when it was less regally known as ‘egg white icing’. It was later changed to ‘royal icing’ after it was used to decorate Queen Victoria’s wedding cake in 1840.
Though it has fallen out of favour with modern-day couples tying the knot, you will commonly see it nowadays used to decorate Christmas cakes (opens in new tab), or thinned with a little water to decorate sugar or vanilla cookies (opens in new tab).
How to decorate with royal icing How to make royal icing Top tips for making royal icing How do you colour royal icing? What type of cake works best to cover in royal icing? What can you use instead of egg whites to make royal icing? How to store royal icing
How to decorate with royal icing
Royal icing is a great medium to work with if you’re looking for something to firmly set. As well as using it to coat the cake itself, you can pipe decorative borders, scrolls, and figures onto cakes using this type of icing, though this does take some practice.
Goodto.com Food Writer and cake designer, Keiron George is a huge fan of this type of icing. He says; 'I love working with royal icing and find the possibilities almost endless. It takes a lot of practice to get a beautiful finish, and you need a lot of patience when it comes to piping intricate details. Even though this is seen as an old-fashioned icing, I embrace it, I try to elevate it by using it in more contemporary cake designs, still with a nod to its tradition.'
It can be piped using a piping bag (opens in new tab) into dots, rosettes, swirls, loops, and lines using different piping nozzles, and is also used for piping names and messages onto cakes.
When royal icing dries it becomes firm and hard. The addition of glycerine allows it to set. This is recommended for coating cakes, but not for any piping or intricate details, as you will lose the strength of the icing. Allow the iced cake to dry and harden for 1-2 days before adding a piped decoration so that any mistakes can be easily scraped off.
You can pipe designs such as flowers or swirls onto florists cellophane and leave them to dry at room temperature before carefully adding them onto the cake. This option is great if you're making your cake well in advance and want to assemble it on the day.
If you want something a bit softer, or you wish to decorate your cakes with hand-modeled figures (opens in new tab), you would be better suited to a ready-to-roll sugar paste or fondant icing. This can be rolled out and used to decorate cakes, cut out for decorative elements, and used as edible modeling clay.
How to make royal icing
- 2 large egg whites
- 450g icing sugar
- 1 tsp glycerine
How to make royal icing: Step 1
Place the egg whites in a clean grease-free bowl. Sift the icing sugar and add in with the egg whites. Beat well with a wooden spoon or electric mixer on low. You can also use a stand mixer on the lowest setting.
How to make royal icing: Step 2
Continue beating the icing with a wooden spoon, or electric whisk for 5-10 minutes to get a very smooth consistency that will hold its shape. A knife will leave a clear road through the icing when it is the correct consistency. Add the glycerine and stir well to mix.
How to make royal icing: Step 3
Spread the icing over a marzipan-covered cake using a small palette knife. Covering your cake in marzipan beforehand will stop the royal icing from picking up any crumbs from the cake. Our guide on how to cover a cake in marzipan (opens in new tab) can help you do this.
How to make royal icing: Step 4
Make peaks on the top by lifting the knife upwards quickly. Smooth around the edges and on top of the cake until evenly coated. Decorate with edible decorations or leave to set as suggested above for 1-2 days (see our 'how to decorate' section above for more info).
How to make royal icing: Step 5
Top tips for making royal icing
When working with royal icing, be sure to keep it covered at all times with a damp tea towel to prevent a crust from forming. This will cause lumps if mixed back into the icing and make piping impossible.
How do you colour royal icing?
When colouring, we recommend using gel pastes rather than liquid colouring, as these can drastically alter the consistency. The gel pastes are very strong, so use them sparingly.
You want to add the colouring very gradually, starting with a lighter colour and then adding more to darken it to your preference. It's much easier to darken a colour than to lighten it.
What type of cake works best to cover in royal icing?
Royal icing is rarely used on sponge cakes. When learning how to make royal icing, always remember to cover a rich fruit cake (opens in new tab) with marzipan before icing, as this seals the moisture into the cake and will prevent the icing from staining.
Once a fruit cake is covered in marzipan and royal icing it can be kept for quite some time, years in some cases, if stored in a cardboard box (not an airtight container) in a cool place
What can you use instead of egg whites to make royal icing?
If you don’t want to use raw egg whites you can use powdered egg whites or meringue powder and rehydrate with water, and then make as described. You can also buy packs of royal icing mix that just requires water, just be sure to follow the packet instructions.
How to store royal icing
Royal icing can be made in advance and stored in the fridge, covered with a damp cloth and cling film. Any leftovers can be kept in the fridge also.
Before using the icing again, allow it to come to room temperature. You will need to stir it well as the icing will have lost some of its structure and will seem a little looser. Mix with a spoon or whisk until the icing regains its thicker texture.
Place the egg whites in a clean grease free bowl and whisk lightly with a fork or electric whisk.
Sift a little of the icing sugar into the bowl and beat well with a wooden spoon or electric mixer. Gradually beat in all the sugar to make a stiff icing.
Continue beating the icing with a wooden spoon, or electric whisk for 5-10 minutes to get a very smooth consistency that will hold it’s shape. A knife will leave a clear road through the icing when it is the correct consistency. Add the glycerine and stir well to mix.
Spread the icing over a marzipan covered cake using a small palette knife or round bladed knife.