How to Decorate Gingerbread Cookies to Win You the Swap

Anna Hezel is a food, culture, and travel writer, and currently a senior editor at TASTE. Her first book, Lasagna, features 50 creative baked pasta recipes. Even though holiday cookie swaps aren’t officially competitions, Anna’s shared with us some of her favorite gingerbread decorating tips to ensure hers (and now yours) are the prettiest of the bunch.

Decorating gingerbread is one of my favorite holiday tasks because you can just hunker down with a few episodes of Breaking Bad and a tray of cookies, and before long, you have a stack of lovely edible gifts. In my opinion, it’s far more relaxing than shopping for gifts, picking out a tree, building a gingerbread house, or, heaven help me—hanging up garlands. 

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I’m assuming you’ve come to this page already armed with gingerbread cookies, or at the very least, have a recipe in mind, but if not, here are three cookies for all occassions. For cookies basically made of (edible) kevlar, try this recipe; for cookies that are actually tasty too, try this one; and if all this talk of piping bag know-how and benefits of egg white-based icings has stressed you out, try these equally-impressive Sparkle Pigs instead. 

Whether decorating gingerbread trees, (wo)men, candy canes, or snowflakes, for stunning results be sure to:

Roll and bake the gingerbread dough between parchment sheets.
Get your frosting consistency right.
Do a few practice runs on a baking sheet.

Roll your gingerbread cookie dough between parchment sheets. Take a cue from professional baker Erin McDowell’s guide on how to build a gingerbread house (what is a gingerbread cookie, if not a tiny version of a gingerbread house?), and roll the dough between sheets of parchment paper to protect against any chance of a sticky mess. Peel off the top layer of parchment paper (but do not throw it away—we will be using it in a second), and cut shapes out as desired.

Some micro-coaching on how to best use cookie cutters: align your body so you’re able to press the cookie cutters straight down—this will give you cookies with clean, 90-degree edges. Peel away the excess dough and set aside. Transfer the parchment paper, cookies and all, to a cookie sheet. Reroll the scraps between parchment, and repeat cutting and transferring cookies to another baking sheet. If wanting to use your cookies as functional ornaments, now would also be a good time to stamp a small hole into each cookie for hanging . 

And bake your gingerbread cookie dough between cookie sheets. A bit extra, but you’re here to win the cookie swap, aren’t you? After transferring the cookie-laden parchment sheets to baking sheets, cover the cookies with your reserved  parchment paper, then with another baking sheet of the same size. The light, uniform pressure will keep your cookies flat as they bake (yay, no puffies!), while the parchment barrier prevents cookies from sticking to the baking sheet’s underside. Be sure to bake the cookies well—until the edges are crisp and golden brown—even overbaking a bit, if making cookie ornaments. They will continue to harden as they cool on their sheets. Leave them to cool thoroughly (at least 2 hours) on a rack before decorating. Your patience will be rewarded in the form of clean, unmelted lines of icing.

Get your frosting consistency right. The ideal frosting for icing cookies will have the texture of melted chocolate at room temperature. I like to cream together 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter with about a cup of powdered sugar, and then add one or two tablespoons of milk, until the texture is right.

If you want an icing that sets harder, try this egg-white based icing instead. If you want an icing that sets harder, and does so quickly (and you just so happen to have egg white powder in your pantry), this one is for you.

When I’m happy with the consistency, I transfer the icing to a piping or plastic bag, squeeze out all of the air bubbles, and seal the bag. To make a piping “tip”, I just snip off a tiny (1 millimeter) corner with scissors. This, while it works, is admittedly very lo-fi. For even more control of the form and thickness of your lines, drop an icing tip inside your bag with the clipped corner. Then fill with icing, remove any air bubbles, seal the bag tightly, and pipe from there.

To flood your cookies, you’ll need a second piping bag filled with icing that’s thinner in consistency. Just transfer some of your first royal icing batch to a small bowl, and add milk, a tablespoon at a time, until it reaches a thin, pourable consistency. Transfer this thinner icing to another piping bag. Again, squeeze out the air bubbles, seal the bag well, and snip a corner off. With the stiff icing, pipe an outline following the cookie’s edges; use the thinner icing to pipe in the empty space. The border should contain the icing as it spreads and sets. (Here is a more in-depth look at flooding.) 

A note about food coloring: Gel food coloring—as opposed to liquid or powdered—offers the best saturation and overall consistency in icing. Just make sure to stir the coloring in well, and to check that you’re satisfied with the final consistency before bagging it.

And another about bagging royal icing: Be sure your piping bags stay sealed, especially if working with multiple bags. When exposed to air, royal icing will quickly harden to sugar-concrete—a good thing when it’s expected, bad when it’s not.

Do a few practice runs on a baking sheet. When returning to piping after a long break from piping, I’m always surprised at how rusty it feels, but also how quickly it all comes flooding, ha, back. Grip the bag in your dominant hand, using your other hand for support. Hold the bag at a 45-degree angle to your work surface. When working with royal icing, always “pull” your designs toward you, rather than “pushing” the tip back into your design. For dots, pipe with the bag at 90 degrees to your surface; lift the bag and tip straight up when closing off a dot. As icing moves through the bag, continually readjust, squeezing air bubbles out. This way, you’ll always be working with a pressure you can control, and you won’t be surprised by a sudden lapse or pop! of icing.

Decorating cookies are kind of like making pancakes: You have to prepare, mentally, to sacrifice the first shaky, wriggly one to the Cookie Gods. But, if working with a limited number of cookies, practice your snowflake V’s, gingerbread men buttons, or candy cane lines on a baking sheet or plate. As soon as you feel confident and consistent, switch over to the cookies.

A version of this article originally appeared on December 11, 2013. We’re re-running it because it’s beginning to feel like fireplace weather.

What are some of your best gingerbread decorating tips? Let us know in the comments below!


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