How to Decorate Sugar Cookies 5 Ways (from Beginner to Expert Level)
Look like a pro baker, even if you’re more break-and-bake
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Candace Davison/Nico Schinco
Maybe you’re not @Petey_Cake, crafting museum-worthy depictions of Beyoncé and Meghan Markle from sugar, eggs and flour. But you still want a treat that churns out the ooohs and aaahs (a little validation never hurt nobody, right?). So how do you decorate sugar cookies when you don’t know where to begin? Right here, folks.
We’ve baked, piped and sprinkled more sweets than we can count, and we’re sharing our top five methods for creating impressive sugar cookies with minimal effort. You don’t have to be a baker, or even remotely artsy, to master most of these, and if you want to level things up, well, we’ve got some recommendations there too. Each technique is noted by a skill level: easy (as in, you’ve never baked before), moderate (you can frost a cake and toss some sprinkles on it) and advanced (you’ve used piping bags a handful of times before).
What’s the Best Sugar Cookie Recipe for Decorated Treats?
For truly showstopping treats, you’ve got to start with a great foundation. You want a cookie that won’t spread, rolls out easily without cracking or sticking too much to the rolling pin and still tastes great.
- If you want to bake from scratch, we love this seven-ingredient cutout cookie recipe.
- If you want to give yourself a shortcut (no judgment here!), you can always add ¼ cup of flour to a store-bought tube of sugar cookie dough, which will prevent it from spreading while baking.
Follow the recipe (or package’s) instructions, roll the dough out to about a quarter-inch thick, cut out the shapes you want with a cookie cutter (or flip over a cup for perfect circles) and bake. Let them cool, then get ready to decorate using one of the methods below.
How to Decorate Sugar Cookies with a Piping Bag:
Hot Tip: If you’re coloring frosting for your cookies, we recommend using gel coloring, since water-based ones can mess with the consistency of the frosting, resulting in a runny, gloppy mess.
1. How to Decorate Sugar Cookies with Buttercream Frosting
Skill level: Moderate
Royal icing can be runny and finicky to work with; plus, it hardens into a crisp, glaze finish, which may not be the texture you’re after. If you want something softer and easier to work with, we’re all about buttercream. Here’s how to decorate with it:
- Whip up your favorite buttercream frosting (or use store-bought), dividing it into bowls for each color you’d like to make. Add a few drops of food coloring—one color per bowl—stirring in a few drops at a time until you have the hue you like.
- In general: Spoon each color into a piping bag with a tip, or use a resealable plastic bag with a corner snipped off to draw designs directly onto each cookie.
- For a rainbow frosting technique, once you have all of the colors of frosting in bowls, spoon them into rows on a piece of plastic wrap. Roll up the plastic wrap and place it in a piping bag fitted with a large tip. Hold the piping bag directly above the cookie, topping it with a blob of frosting. Place the cookies in the freezer for about 10 minutes, then press each one, frosting side down, on a sheet of parchment paper to flatten out the top. Boom! Instant rainbow-frosted cookies. (Check out this video if anything seems confusing.)
2. How to Decorate Sugar Cookies with Royal Icing
Skill level: Advanced
With a little meringue powder, water, confectioners sugar and food coloring, you can make royal icing. (Yes, it’s that easy—and here’s our recipe for it.) You want it to be about the consistency of toothpaste or a thick syrup so it’s easy to pipe.
- Divide the frosting into bowls, one for each color. Add food coloring, a couple drops at a time, stirring in between, until you have the shades you like. Choose the main color you’ll be using as the base for each cookie (like green for a Christmas tree) and use that to outline the cookie.
- Place a little bit in a piping bag fitted with a round number 2 or 3 tip and outline each treat. (As you do this, keep the rest of the frosting covered with plastic wrap to prevent it from drying out.)
- Take the plastic wrap off the rest of the frosting you used for the outline and add a spoonful of water at a time, until it’s as thin as pancake batter. Use that to fill in—or flood—the outline, taking a toothpick to help push the runnier icing toward the edges or pop any bubbles that appear.
- Add the details in other colors right away—using icing that’s the consistency of pancake batter—if you want them to be flush with the rest of the icing, giving the cookie a smooth surface.
- For a more 3D effect, wait for the cookie’s icing to harden for a few minutes, then pipe on the details using the thicker (more syrup-like consistency) icing.
How to Decorate Sugar Cookies Without Piping:
Education Images/Getty Images
3. How to Decorate Sugar Cookies with Melted Chocolate
Skill level: Easy
Microwave a cup of white chocolate chips or semisweet chocolate chips with a tablespoon of butter or oil in 20-second intervals, stirring in between, until fully melted. Partially dip each cookie at an angle—or go all out and completely submerge it. Hold the cookie above the bowl, dripping off any excess, then place on a parchment-lined baking sheet to cool. Top with chopped nuts, dried cranberries, edible flowers or sprinkles if you’re feeling faaahncy.
Photo/Styling: Katherine Gillen
4. How to Decorate Sugar Cookies and Create a Marbled Effect
Skill level: Moderate
Follow this recipe for an easy icing that’s almost like a glaze. From there, add a few drops of two shades of food coloring. Mix very lightly for a streaky, bolder effect; mix more for an ombre, more subtle end result. Dip the cookie facedown onto the surface of the icing, then turn it right-side up and place it on a cooling rack to harden. (Psst: If you notice any bubbles in the icing, pop ‘em with a toothpick for a totally smooth surface.)
Nico Schinco/Styling: Erin McDowell
5. How to Decorate Sugar Cookies with Sprinkles After Baking
Skill level: Easy
Eek, so you forgot to dip your sugar cookies in that Fancy Sprinkles blend before baking them. No problem! Grab a butter knife, slather the treats with a little peanut butter, Nutella or—our favorite—jarred dulce de leche, then dust on those sprinkles.
Cookie Decorating Must-Haves: