Decorated gingerbread cookies
Decorated gingerbread cookies.

Cookie decorating is one of the most beloved holiday traditions.  Royal Icing is the traditional icing used for glazing cookies, piping decorations, or assembling the walls of gingerbread houses. It dries and hardens quickly and is easy for nearly anyone to achieve decorating success! Made traditionally from egg whites and powdered (confectioners’) sugar, it is an easy icing to prepare. However, if raw egg whites are used, the icing may be a health risk.

It is a well-known fact that eggs may contain the bacteria, Salmonella Enteritidis (SE), that can cause foodborne illness. Researchers say that if present, the SE is usually found in the yolk, but the possibility of SE in egg whites cannot be ruled out. To eliminate risk and be certain of a safe frosting, raw egg whites should be replaced with lightly cooked egg whites, meringue powder or dried egg whites, or pasteurized egg whites when making Royal Icing.

Lightly Cooked Egg Whites. Use the following method provided by South Dakota State University which can be used for Royal Icing and other frosting recipes calling for raw egg whites. In a heavy saucepan, the top of a double boiler, or a metal bowl placed over water in a saucepan, stir together the egg whites and sugar from the recipe (at least 2 tablespoons sugar per white), water (1 teaspoon per white) and cream of tartar (1/8 teaspoon per each 2 whites). Cook over low heat or simmering water, beating constantly with a portable mixer at low speed, until the whites reach 160° F. Pour into a large bowl. Beat on high speed until the whites stand in soft peaks. Proceed with the recipe. Note that you must use sugar to keep the whites from coagulating too rapidly. Test with a thermometer as there is no visual clue to doneness. If you use an unlined aluminum saucepan, eliminate the cream of tartar or the two will react and create an unattractive gray meringue.

Meringue Powder. Meringue powder is available in specialty stores wherever cake decorating supplies are sold. Meringue powder is composed of cornstarch, dried egg whites, sugar, citric acid and some stabilizers. It’s perfect for making royal icing. There is usually a recipe on the package. If not the following recipe for Royal Icing works well:

4 cups powdered sugar
3 tablespoons meringue powder
1/3 cup, plus 2-3 tablespoons, warm water, divided
desired food coloring
In large mixing bowl, combine powdered sugar, merinque powder and 13 cup water. Beat on low speed until combined. Increase speed to medium-high and beat 8-10 minutes, addined 2-3 tablespoons warm water, as necessary. Icing should be stiff enough to hold peak when tested. Color as desired.

Dried Egg Whites. Dried egg whites are just that, 100 percent powdered egg white; they require no refrigeration. Dried whites are pasteurized by heating to the required safe temperature. Like meringue poweder, the egg white powder can be reconstituted by mixing with water. The reconstituted powder whips like fresh egg white and, because it is pasteurized, can be used safely without cooking or baking.

Pasteurized Egg Whites. Pasteurized egg whites are of two types—pasteurized in-shell eggs or liquid pasteurized egg whites. Pasteurized in-shell eggs are available at some grocery stores. Shells of such eggs are stamped with a red or blue “P” in a circle. Whites of pasteurized shell eggs may appear slightly cloudy compared to fresh eggs. Liquid pasteurized egg whites are found in the refrigerated section of the grocery store in a milk-like carton usually near the regular eggs. According to the FDA, both of these products are safe to consume raw. Use these two products like raw whites in the recipe.

Keep unused icing covered at all times with a damp cloth or tightly wrapped to prevent drying and caking. For longer keeping time, store in the refrigerator for up to three days or freezer for up to three months. In addition to preventing food borne illnesses, refrigeration seems to help with separating. (If separation occurs–yellowish liquid on the bottom—just remix.).

Make sure that your holiday cookies or gingerbread houses bring nothing but joy! Avoid raw egg whites when making your decorating frosting.

Updated December 2023, mg.

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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15 thoughts on “Royal Icing Made Safe

  1. My icing recipe calls for a raw egg yolk and beat with beaten butter and vanilla for 3 minutes on medium-high before adding the confectioners sugar.
    Would this raw egg yolk be considered safe to eat in this recipe

    Could I substitute one cup of 1%. Milk for 1 cup of
    Buttermilk for my cake batter

  2. Jean, thank you for your questions and contacting AnswerLine. Despite the beating and mixing, the egg yolk is still raw and a potential food safety risk. An egg (yolk or white) is only safe when it is cooked to 160 degrees F. Yes, you may substitute milk for buttermilk in your cake as long as you add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar to the milk. Stir the milk and lemon juice or vinegar together and let stand 5 to 10 minute at room temperature. When it is ready, the milk will be slightly thickened and you will see small curdled bits. This substitute will not become as thick as regular buttermilk, but you will also not notice the curdled bits in your finished recipe. Depending upon the other ingredients in the recipe, some acid is needed. Milk has a pH of 6.7–6.9, compared with 4.4–4.8 for buttermilk.

  3. Hello! If we make royal icing with lightly cooked egg whites or pasteurized eggs, for use on a gingerbread house, is it safe to eat the iced house after it sits out on display for several days? Thanks!

  4. Anna, thank you for contacting AnswerLine. If you make icing safely as you suggest, eating the gingerbread house later will also be safe. Have a fun and a great holiday!

  5. Thank you for this excellent information. Clearly explained and current. It was very useful. THANK YOU! 🙂

  6. I was trying to make the icing for my grandsons birthday cake and it came out too soft . after using buttermilk and cream cheese . what went wrong?

  7. Gloria, thank you for contacting AnswerLine. I believe there is some confusion in the kind of icing that you were trying to prepare. Royal Icings are made with egg whites or egg white substitutes and sugar. It can be used to decorate a cake but more commonly a buttercream recipe is used. By suggesting that you used buttermilk and cream cheese, it seems that you were attempting a buttercream frosting rather than a royal icing. A buttercream frosting usually incorporates powdered sugar with butter and/or cream cheese, flavoring, and a small amount of cream/milk/buttermilk. All of the ingredients beyond the powdered sugar contain some liquid. If the frosting was too soft, then it could have been too much liquid; additions of more powdered sugar would help absorb the liquid. Butter and cream cheese also contain fat; if they are too warm, they, too, will make the frosting soft but often refrigeration helps them to solidify and set up. Perhaps you would enjoy looking at the Wilton website offering tips and tricks for buttercream frostings.

  8. Hi there.
    If I make a royal icing that contains meringue powder, is it safe for a two year old to eat?

  9. Jessica,
    Meringue Powder is a pasteurized egg product used for icings and meringues. Meringue powder contains modified food starch, egg whites, sugar, gum arabic, calcium sulfate, citricacid, cream of tartar, silicon dioxide and artificial vanilla flavoring. Meringue powder is gluten free, safe from salmonella, and some brands are certified kosher. Meringue powder has a long shelf life (up to two years), as long as it’s kept dry and not contaminated. As long as the two-year old has no allergy or intolerance to the ingredients, the royal icing should be fine.

  10. I was wondering if there were any cases reported .. people getting sick from salmonella after eating royal icing cookies made with raw egg whites. We add quite a lot of sugar (nearly 1:6 ratio) and acid (cream of tartar or citric acid) It seems to me we are more likely to get sick from salmonella when we prepare our undercooked breakfast eggs, omelette or sunny side ups ?? I’ve once read in a research that there were no cases reported people getting sick from royal icing..

  11. Hi Gamze, The risk is slight, but it is certainly possible for raw egg whites to contain foodborne pathogens, such as salmonella. Therefore, the concern with Royal Icing. It is impossible to know of specific cases of food borne illness caused by Royal Icing as many foodborne illness cases are never reported for various reasons or if reported, the source of the illness may not be known. So the warning is there to error on the side of caution and prevention.

  12. I’m planning to make cherry chocolate cupcakes for fair this year. I’ve made these before, but the frosting I used called for a cherry ingredient. Am I able to substitute cherry extract for the vanilla extract? Is food coloring also banned from the Fair?

  13. Hi Maddy, thank you for checking with AnswerLine. The recipe in the blog post below must be used without any changes; it is the only acceptable homemade frosting for use on a 4-H food exhibit for fair: https://blogs.extension.iastate.edu/answerline/2023/02/14/safe-frosting-for-iowa-4-h-fairs/

    Tested Vanilla Buttercream Recipe
    Required for use with Iowa 4-H Fair Food Product Exhibits.
    (All Iowa 4-Hers must reference and attach this blog to their
    write-up for full credit if a homemade frosting is used in the exhibit. Any change or addition of ingredients will be unacceptable and will result in disqualification.)

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