Cookie Decorating 101

holiday cookies
Decorating cookies for the holidays is a great activitiy to do with the whole family. See more holiday baked goods pictures.

Holiday cheer and colorful cookies just seem to go mitten in mitten. Not only are they a hit at any soiree, but they also make great gifts. So, if you plan to deck the halls with trays of cookies, why not go the extra mile and decorate them yourself? Cookie decorating is easy and fun, and a great activity for the family to participate in. Sugar cookies are ideal candidates for decorating because they have smooth tops and a sweet-but-not-too-sweet flavor that works well with icing. You can either pick up a pack of store-bought sugar cookies to decorate, or bake them from scratch in all shapes and sizes. So, get out your rolling pin, and let's make some cookies.

Irresistible Icing or a Frosty Finish

Before you don your apron, the first step in cookie decorating is to come up with your design. Do you want to create smaller flourishes, like flowers or stars, or do you plan to cover the entire top? What you're essentially asking yourself is whether you want to use frosting or icing. Even though these two terms are typically used interchangeably, in cookie decorating, they're two different things. Icing has a much thinner consistency and dries like a hard shell, which you can then decorate with frosting. Frosting is what you would use in a piping bag to make rosettes, like you often see around the edge of a cake, because it's thicker and holds its shape. It's also a little tastier than icing, so you can also frost the entire top of the cookie, and this is a good option if you just want to add sprinkles and eat it. But if you want a professional-looking product, icing is the way to go.


Frosting should be thick enough to hold its shape, thin enough to come out of a small tip, stay put before it's eaten and be tasty enough to elicit a loud "yum" upon consumption. Buttercream frosting fits this bill perfectly. As for icing, the most common in cookie decorating is called royal icing, which is a combination of confectioners sugar and meringue powder. Some recipes also call for corn syrup if you desire a little added sweetness. Then, you just add food coloring to make your Christmas tree green or your dreidel blue.

Tips of the Trade

If you want to decorate like the pros, you'll want to invest in a piping bag and some icing tips. Piping bags come in a couple different lengths, depending on how much icing you need to work with at one time. For cookie decorating, you're safe to stick with the smaller sizes. When it comes to the tips that fit inside the piping bags, there are well over a hundred to choose from. If you want to eliminate the guesswork, you can buy a beginner's decorating kit, which will usually have a few of the tips you will likely use the most. But if you want to get crafty or have a specific decoration in mind, you'll probably want to choose your own tips.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Cummins, Mimi. "Decorating Sugar Cookies.", 2009.
  • "Cookie Decorating 101." Kitchen Collectibles, 2009.
  • "Decorator Icing Tip Guide.", 2009.
  • "Three Recipes for Royal Icing." Kitchen Collectibles, 2009.