How do you make store-bought icing better for decorating?

Store-bought icing can be a quick and easy way to decorate cakes, cookies, and other baked goods. However, the consistency and flavor of premade icing is not always ideal for decorating. The icing can be too thin or too sweet. Luckily, there are several tricks to improve store-bought icing to make it better for decorating.

Thicken thin or runny icing

If your store-bought icing is too thin or runny, there are a few ways to thicken it up:

  • Add more powdered sugar – Start by adding around 1/4 to 1/2 cup more powdered sugar and mix it in thoroughly. Keep adding more, a tablespoon at a time, until desired consistency is reached.
  • Use corn starch or flour – Mix in a teaspoon of corn starch or all-purpose flour at a time to thicken runny icing. These starches will absorb moisture.
  • Whip longer – Whipping air into the icing will help thicken it up. Use a stand mixer or hand mixer on high speed for 5-10 minutes.
  • Cool completely – If icing is still warm, pop it in the fridge for 30 minutes to chill and firm up.

Thicken icing without sweetening

If your icing is already very sweet, you can use these tricks to thicken it without adding more sugar:

  • Add powdered milk – Mix in dry powdered milk a little at a time until desired consistency is reached.
  • Use meringue powder – Whip in meringue powder which will thicken and stabilize the icing.
  • Add cream cheese – Beat in a block of room temperature cream cheese to thicken the icing.
  • Try butter – Whip a few tablespoons of softened butter into the icing. The fat helps thicken and enrich it.

Thin overly thick icing

On the other hand, if your store-bought icing is too thick or stiff for decorating, you can thin it out with:

  • Milk – Add milk 1 tablespoon at a time until icing is a good spreading or piping consistency.
  • Water – Use water to thin out icing. Start with 1 teaspoon at a time.
  • Cream or juice – For flavor, thin with small amounts of cream, lemon juice, etc.
  • Glycerin – Mix in glycerin 1/2 teaspoon at a time to prevent icing from re-thickening.

Adjust sweetness

Premade icing is often very sweet. Here are some ways to cut down on sweetness:

  • Add milk, cream, or juice – This dilutes the sugar concentration for less sweetness.
  • Stir in cocoa powder – Cocoa balances and masks some sweetness.
  • Mix in cream cheese or peanut butter – Tangy cream cheese or rich peanut butter also reduce sweetness.
  • Add spices – A pinch of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, or cardamom adds warmth and complexity.
  • Fresh fruit puree – Swirl in mashed fruits like raspberry, lemon, or strawberry.

Boost flavor

Store-bought icing tends to lack complex, pronounced flavors. Amp up the flavor with:

  • Extracts – Almond, vanilla, lemon, orange, peppermint, etc.
  • Zest – Freshly grated citrus zest infuses bright flavor.
  • Spices – Cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves add warmth.
  • Cocoa powder – For chocolate or mocha flavors.
  • Instant coffee – Mix in instant espresso powder.
  • Liqueurs – Try coffee, orange, peppermint, etc.
  • Jams – Swirl in jam for fruit flavored icing.

Start with small amounts, like 1/4 teaspoon of extracts or zest, and add more to taste. Too much will overpower the icing.

Adjust consistency for decorating

The right consistency is key for decorating. Here are some guidelines depending on your needs:

Decorating Technique Desired Icing Consistency
Flooding or covering a cake Thinner, pour able
Pipe basic borders or writing Softly whipped, able to hold shape
Pipe flowers or intricate details Stiff, holds defined shape
Adhere candies or decorations Thick, forms peaks

Test the consistency by lifting some icing with a spatula or spoon. Dip a toothpick in and see if icing holds shape or slowly drips off. Adjust as needed by thinning with liquid or thickening with powdered sugar.

Allow icing to crust

Let your iced cake or cookies sit out uncovered for 30 minutes to an hour before decorating. This allows the surface to dry out and form a firm crust. Whipped icing peaks will hold their shape better after crusting. Skipping this step can lead to messy, blobby decorations.

Use an icing smoother

An icing spatula or bench scraper is essential for smooth, professional looking icing. Use the straight edge to smooth out lumps and uneven surfaces after flooding a cake. Edge the bench scraper at a 45 degree angle to create perfectly clean borders and lines.

Consider icing consistency

If you plan to decorate your baked goods more than a few hours before serving, a firmer buttercream or royal icing works best. Loosen up the icing before decorating as needed. Whipped icings are great for decorating right before serving. Just beware whipped icing will not hold up long in heat or humidity.

Choose proper piping tips

Having a variety of piping tips allows you to create different effects. Start with basic round tips in sizes like #2, #12, or #199. You can make dots, write words, outline, or flood with these. For more advanced decorations like flowers, petals, or leaves, try specialty tips like petal, leaf, basketweave, or star tips.

Practice piping techniques

It takes skill and technique to pipe icing well. Try practicing on parchment paper before decorating actual baked goods. Guide the bag at a 45 degree angle and keep pressure steady. Stop squeezing before pulling away for clean lines. Vary pressure for thin or thick lines. Watch video tutorials to learn how to make roses, leaves, borders, and writing.

Use icing colors

Food coloring allows you to tint icing any color you like. For rich colors, use gel food coloring. Start with toothpick amounts and add more until you achieve the shade you want. Liquid food coloring works too but may thin icing more. For natural colors, try beet, carrot, turmeric, spinach, or matcha powder.

Add dimension with luster or pearl dust

Metallic luster dust or edible pearl dust give icing a shimmering, multidimensional effect. Use a brush to dust it over dry icing. You can also mix it into icing but the color will be more subtle. A little goes a long way with these concentrated powders.

Outline and flood

A simple way to decorate a cake is outlining and flooding. First pipe borders around the top and bottom edges of the cake. Then fill in or “flood” the center area with thinned icing. Smooth it out with an icing spatula for a polished look. Let set before adding embellishments.

Make a drip effect

Dripping icing makes cakes look whimsical and rustic. Thin some icing to a pourable consistency. Pour a small amount in one spot atop the cake and use a spoon to push icing over the edge. Guide drips down the side. Let set completely before handling.

Create an ombre effect

For a striking ombre cake, tint batches of icing in various shades of one color. Spread or pipe the lightest color first, then work down to darker shades on bottom tiers. Blend edges for a gradient effect. Let each layer crust before adding the next shade.

Try a sponge effect

Crumple up plastic wrap and dab onto icing to make neat indentations, like a sponge. Try concentric circles or a wave pattern. Best for a firm icing that will hold the texture. Smooth any rough edges for pretty embossed designs.

Add dimension with piping

Use piping to create 3D effects. Pipe freeform swirls, spikes, loops, or pulled icing accents atop cupcakes or cake tiers. Let each piped piece crust, then gently stack or layer.

Incorporate fresh fruit

Fresh berries, stone fruit slices, citrus wheels, and tropical fruit make lovely cake decorations with added flavor. Arrange fruit on top of iced cake or pipe icing rosettes to anchor fruit. Brush fruit with glaze or jam for extra shine and hold.

Add crunchy toppings

For texture, garnish icing with chopped nuts, toasted coconut, granola, crushed candy canes, or crumbled cookies, brownies, or candy bars. Press gently into icing or use a small amount of icing to “glue” toppings in place.

Use fondant accents

Rolled fondant can be cut out, shaped, and molded into detailed cake decorations. Let fondant decorations dry and firm up overnight before placing on cake. It works best in low humidity environments.

Try modeling chocolate

Modeling chocolate is similar to fondant but made with chocolate instead of powdered sugar. It handles heat and humidity better than fondant. Mold decorations a few days ahead and let chill completely to firm up.

Add candies or cookies

Decorate your cake with desired candies by pressing them gently into slightly under-whipped icing. Mini chocolate chips, M&Ms, gumdrops, jelly beans, and candy corn are fun mixed in or used to create patterns.

Make a drip cake

A striking drip cake involves pouring thin glazes or ganaches over an iced cake, allowing it to cascade down the sides. Chill the cake first so icing is firm. Spoon glaze on top and spread to edges so excess drips down. Smooth icing first for clean drips.

Incorporate sprinkles

No birthday cake is complete without sprinkles! For best results, sprinkle them over icing right after smoothing it, before icing crusts. Press sprinkles gently so they adhere. Use jimmies, quins, confetti, nonpareils, sanding sugar, edible glitter, etc.

Create a pattern

Make a geometric pattern by piping on icing stripes, zigzags, dots, or other designs in an alternating color pattern. Or brush stripes of luster dust onto dry icing for an elegant shimmer pattern.

Add miniature decorations

Tiny decorative touches look charming atop cupcakes or cakes. Try miniature flowers, animals, bows, flags, or seasonal shapes piped from icing. Or use small candies, nuts, or dragees clustered creatively together.


With a few simple tricks, you can elevate basic store-bought icing into bakery-quality icing worthy of any special occasion. Adjusting the texture, flavor, colors, and consistency makes a big difference. Stock up on essential decorating tools like piping tips, food coloring, luster dust, and icing smoothers. Practice piping techniques and combine methods like flooding, dripping, piping, fruit, and candies. Soon you’ll have the skills to create breathtaking cakes and cookies customized to your unique style.

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