Royal icing versus buttercream frosting, which is better for cookie decorating

Complete Guide: Royal Icing Versus Buttercream for Cookie Decorating

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One of the first choices you need to make as a new “cookier” is deciding what frosting you will use. The two main types are royal icing and buttercream. Let’s talk about the differences and similarities between royal icing versus buttercream frosting.

First, let’s define what royal icing is versus buttercream. Feel free to use the table of contents to skip to what you need to know if you have a specific question.

*This post may contain affiliate links, which means I may receive a commission, at no extra cost to you, if you make a purchase through a link. Please see my full disclosure for further information.*

What is Royal Icing?

Making Royal Icing
Image Sourced from Arina Habich from Getty Images

Royal icing is a type of frosting that consists of powdered sugar, egg whites or meringue powder, and
water. Royal icing can also include flavor such as vanilla extract.

Royal icing dries hard to the touch, making it ideal for packaging and certain design techniques such as drawing with edible pens and painting.

When decorating with royal icing, it is common to prepare multiple consistencies of icing. Here are some common consistencies you may have heard of and their definitions:

  • Flood Icing – a consistency of royal icing that is thin and easily fills the cookie.
  • Piping Consistency – a consistency of royal icing that is best for outlining and detailing.
  • Stiff Consistency – a consistency of royal icing that is best for borders.
  • 15-Second Consistency – a consistency of royal icing that, when a knife is ran through it, the line drawn by the knife will disappear in 15 seconds.

You may hear other time-bound consistencies as well which all mean the same thing, the line drawn by the knife will disappear within whatever amount of time is specified.

A common decorating technique with royal icing decorating is called the wet-on-wet technique. The wet-on-wet technique is a type of royal icing design in which you pipe multiple colors of icing without letting the icing dry to
create a 1D effect, rather than a layered effect.

What is Buttercream Frosting?

Smooth Buttercream Frosting for Buttercream Cookies

Buttercream frosting is a type of frosting that consists of powdered sugar, butter, and milk. Buttercream frosting is also commonly made with flavoring such as vanilla extract.

When used for decorating cookies, it is preferred and common to use American buttercream. American buttercream has more powdered sugar than “regular” buttercream.

American buttercream dries with an outer crust while keeping the majority of the frosting soft. American buttercream is also called crusting buttercream at times. Here is a recipe for an amazing crusting buttercream frosting.

What are the Similarities When it Comes to Royal Icing Versus Buttercream?

Both royal icing and buttercream frosting will use powdered sugar, also known as confectioner’s sugar, as its sweetener.

Both frostings will use icing bags to hold the frosting while piping. While it is common to use decorating tips with buttercream, they can also be used with royal icing.

Some common decorating tips are the Wilton round tips, Wilton petal & leaf tips, and Ateco brand tips.

What are the Differences When it Comes to Royal Icing Versus Buttercream?

When it comes to royal icing versus buttercream, there are quite a few big differences. These differences include ingredients, taste, texture, cost, decorating time, drying time, tools used, packaging, and popularity.

Royal Icing Versus Buttercream – Ingredients, Taste, and Texture Differences

The ingredients shown in the cookie decorating process is different. Royal icing tends to be cheaper to make since you do not need to buy butter.

As for taste, both royal icing and American buttercream are very sweet. That being said, the buttercream has a heavy butter taste to help offset the powdered sugar and therefore tastes less sweet than royal icing. Many people find buttercream to be of superior taste.

Sometimes, vanilla extract is not added into a royal icing recipe, which can also cause the taste to be very sweet.

When biting into a sugar cookie decorated with royal icing, the bite will be harder. The softness will all come from the cookie. If you are using cut out sugar cookies, which tend to be a harder bite to keep its shape, the cookie will be hard.

To get around an overall hard cookie, you can take the baked but undecorated cookies out of the oven, once cooked, and place them into the freezer in an airtight container. Freezing the baked cookies before decorating them will result in a softer sugar cookie that still held its cut out shape.

On the other hand, buttercream sugar cookies have a soft bite. Buttercream frosting only forms a slight crust on the outer, topmost layer of frosting, leaving the majority of the frosting soft. Furthermore, if you let the decorated sugar cookies rest for a day or so, the cookie itself will become softer.

Royal Icing Versus Buttercream – Difference in Decorating & Drying Time

Decorating time will really depend on the design goal. If using the same consistency of royal icing the entire decorating time, using the wet-on-wet technique solely, decorating can be fairly quick. Below is a photo of Valentine cookies decorated with the wet-on-wet technique.

Royal Icing Versus Buttercream
Image Sourced from EasterBunnyUK Getty Images

If you want to add 3 dimensional decorations, you will need to use multiple consistencies of icing. This is where decorating time can take a long time. You will need to wait for each layer of icing to dry before adding new decorations.

Below is a photo of ice cream decorated sugar cookies using multiple consistencies and layers of royal icing.

Royal Icing Versus Buttercream Royal Icing with Multiple Consistencies of Icing
Imaged Sourced from Denis Film Getty Images

Buttercream sugar cookies are typically faster than royal icing to decorating, as there isn’t any drying time to account for between layers of frosting. Everything can be piped right away. If you want to paint buttercream or add stencil work, you only need to wait about 10-30 minutes.

Royal icing, by comparison, takes upwards of 12 hours to dry. To speed up the drying time for royal icing, some cookie decorators use a dehydrator.

Below are some buttercream sugar cookies with multiple layers of frosting. There was no need to allow layers to dry while decorating.

Royal Icing versus Buttercream - Buttercream Sugar Cookies with Multiple Layers

Once dried, buttercream tends to dry more matte than royal icing. Buttercream won’t be completely matte, more like an egg-shell amount of shine; whereas royal icing can get shinier.

Royal Icing Versus Buttercream – Different Tools Used

Royal icing cookie decorators often use a scribe. A scribe is a metal needle-like tool that allows you to move
royal icing on the cookie and pop air bubbles. Some cookiers use toothpicks instead.

As mentioned above, to speed up the royal icing dry time, some cookiers will use a dehydrator. This can be an expensive but worthwhile, time-saving tool if running a cookie decorating business.

Since buttercream frosting doesn’t smooth out like royal icing, an angled flat spatula or palette knife is often used. Some cookiers use the frozen cut out method or rolled buttercream to achieve this look.

Another important note is that royal icing uses a whisk to prepare the icing while buttercream frosting uses a paddle attachment.

Royal Icing Versus Buttercream – Packaging & Presenting Differences

Due to royal icing cookies drying hard to the touch, they can be individually packaged and stacked with ease once fully dried. When placing in boxes, royal icing sugar cookies can be stacked vertically, making it easy to fit more cookies into a box at a time.

Buttercream sugar cookies only have a slight layer of protection with the crusted outer layer. They can still be individually packaged, preferably with a little bit of air, similar to a bag of chips. When boxing buttercream cookies, treating them like cupcakes works best. You can find more information on how to package buttercream sugar cookies safely here.

Royal Icing Versus Buttercream – One is More Popular Than the Other

It should come as no surprise that royal icing is a more popular frosting to decorate sugar cookies. A quick Google, Pinterest, Instagram, insert-social-platform-here search of decorated sugar cookies will pull up mostly royal icing designs.

If you are thinking about selling decorated sugar cookies, many clients will likely bring royal icing inspiration photos. If you want to be able to match that style perfectly, you will want to use royal icing.

As mentioned above, royal icing is cheaper to make than buttercream frosting and it creates a smooth shiny design.

All that being said, buttercream sugar cookie decorating is on the rise. The Facebook group, The Buttercream Cookiers, often has posts of people switching from royal icing to buttercream frosting.

What Does the Cookie Decorating Process Look Like for Royal Icing Cookies?

How to Decorate Cookies with Royal Icing

Gather these items: You will need your baked & cooled cut out sugar cookies, royal icing ingredients, stand mixer, gel food dye, piping bags, and a scribe. You may find that you want to use piping tips as well.

Prepare the icing: Prepare the stiffest consistency of icing in the stand mixer with the whisk attachment. Pull some frosting out to color the desired shade(s) with gel food color. Thin out the icing in the mixer to achieve a piping consistency of icing, then pull some out to color the desired shade(s).

Keep repeating this process for the 15-second and flood consistencies. You may need to make more than one batch of each consistency depending on your design. Place all of the prepared icing into disposable icing bags, with piping tips if necessary.

Decorate the cookies: Decorate the cookies beginning with the base layer, which may consist of a border and a flood. Use a scribe to help move the frosting and pop any air bubbles. Allow this layer to dry for 8 hours or overnight.

Come back to the cookies to pipe more layers of royal icing, using the needed consistencies, and allow to dry between layers. Allow the cookies to dry overnight before packaging.

Total time to decorate & dry: typically about 48 hours.

What Does the Cookie Decorating Process Look Like for Buttercream Cookies?

How to Decorate Cookies with Buttercream Frosting

Gather these items: You will need your baked & cooled cut out sugar cookies, buttercream ingredients, stand mixer, gel food dye, and piping bags. You may find that you want to use piping tips &/or couplers as well.

Prepare the icing: Prepare the buttercream frosting in the stand mixer with the paddle attachment. Divide the
frosting up to reflect the amount of frosting shades you need and then dye the frosting. Place the frosting into
piping bags, with piping tips & couplers if desired.

Decorate the cookies: Frost the entire cookie design, as there is no reason to allow to dry between layers. Allow the frosting to dry for eight hours or up to overnight if individually packaging.

Total time to decorate the cookies & allow to dry – 9 to 24 hours.

Buttercream Sugar Cookie Beginner Course

In my opinion, buttercream sugar cookies are the way to go. If I am going to spend my time decorating cookies (noted it takes less time to decorate buttercream than it takes to decorate royal icing) I want my cookies to taste as good as they look.

If you have come to the conclusion that buttercream sugar cookies are the way you want to go, make sure to check out my online beginner course. In the course, you will learn how to decorate buttercream sugar cookies to match any birthday party theme.

It’s only $21 for lifetime access with all the tips, tricks, and recipes you need to start your new hobby or career.

Read more about my beginner cookie decorating course here.

Save This Royal Icing Versus Buttercream Frosting Guide for Later

If you are thinking about diving into the creative world of cookie decorating, make sure to save this tutorial for later. Simply use any of the social sharing icons at the top of the page or pin the image below.

Which is better, royal icing versus buttercream frosting for cookie decorating

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