Comparing Royal Icing Recipes, With and Without Corn Syrup (updated 3/21/19)
The basic Royal Icing recipe, which I call “crisp,” is made from pasteurized egg whites and powdered sugar.
A variation, which I call “soft,” is made from the same two ingredients, plus light corn syrup. This recipe results a softer, “stretchier” version, good for creating decorations that require flexibility during construction.
Both variations result in a shiny surface after being applied to cookies and once dried, have a nice bite.
Note that some recipes substitute meringue powder for egg whites and to make the results shinier and a bit more fail-safe, need the addition of light corn syrup. I do not use meringue powder, however, because there are unpredictable differences between meringue powder brands, mixing is not always uniform due to water being required to reactivate it, and loose storage of it is subject to environmental humidity.
Royal Icing made with egg whites result in a glossy end product, but the addition of light corn syrup can produce a shinier surface. The initial mixture is always softer when light corn syrup is added and you can never achieve true “stiff” consistency with it. Depending on the amount of light corn syrup, the initial batch slowly sinks into a smooth surface.
Crispy Royal Icing that does not include light corn syrup remains stiff. The stiffer it is, the better the base is for stiff, crisp piping. With or without the addition of light corn syrup, both variations make transfers, although you can control outlines better without it.
Working Differences Between Royal Icing Recipes
Both recipes make “consistency perfect” thick icing, however, soft Royal Icing is more pliable than stiff and can be piped immediately without the addition of water. If very tiny amounts of water are added, however, it quickly turns into a flood consistency.
Soft icing is favored for use in “string decorating,” which simply means that you can drape piped (“extruded“) icing to look like heavy string. Stiff icing needs a tiny amount of water added before it can be piped. Both require small amounts of additional water to bring them to the flooding stage or to make “pearls” that you need for your design.
How much extra water? The humidity in your environment determines that. It’s best to avoid working in high humidity as your icing can become too fluid and your crispy cookies soft. If you leave your decorated cookies out in a high humidity area, they can fall apart.
For small batches (4 to 8 cups of powdered sugar), add water a tiny bit at a time. Instead of using measuring spoons, spray water into the mixture a half-spray at a time, then test. If, when making a flood consistency, it spills over the edges of your cookie or borders, it is too wet. If your icing hardly moves when you flood a large area, it is too dry.
You learn by testing your icing prior to applying it on a cookie by piping the icing onto a plastic sheet or parchment paper. “Second counts,” which are frequently referenced in tutorials, measure the time it takes the icing to flatten once it has been disturbed may not result in the consistency you need.
About Meringue Powder
I recommend making Royal Icing exclusively with pasteurized egg whites (or raw egg whites if you don’t mind a slight chance of salmonella). There are experts who love meringue powder, however, I found using this ingredient requires more precise water measurement and the finished mixture is more likely to pit, ripple, or sink. In addition, without the addition of light corn syrup, its surface when dry tends to be dull when compared to the egg white version.
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