royal vs glace icing

The Difference Between Royal Icing and Glacé Icing (+Scientific explanation)

If you’re into decorating cookies you’ve probably had to decide more than once whether you were going to use a Royal Icing or a Sugar Glaze/Glacé Icing* to decorate your cookies. Both can be used for decoration purposes, though they behave and look slightly different. One (Glacé Icing) is made with just two ingredients: powdered sugar + water. The other (Royal Icing) also includes egg whites.

The addition of this one single ingredient drastically changes the properties and behavior of the icing! It’s some pure science at play, involving complex 3D structures. In other words, our curiosity was peaked, so we’re diving in!

*Whereas Royal Icing is quite a standardized name, Glacé Icing isn’t. Some may call this cookie icing, powdered sugar icing, or sugar glaze, to name just a few. What we’re referring to is an icing made with just powdered sugar and water (and maybe some color or flavor) that can be used to decorate cookies.

Royal Icing & Glacé Icing

We’ve discussed glacé icing quite extensively before. It’s a fascinating product because in just a little bit of water, you’re added heaps and heaps of icing sugar until you’ve reached the consistency you’re looking for. It’s pretty simple to make, if you have a bowl and a fork, you’re good to go. All you do is mix the icing sugar with the water, which can be done by hand pretty easily.

How to make royal icing

Royal icing is made using a whisk, we chose to use the whisk on a stand mixer, but a hand whisk or any type of electric mixer works just fine. To make it, egg white powder (or liquid egg whites) and icing sugar are first gently mixed (to avoid creating a dust storm) with water. Then, at a higher speed, the mix is aerated and whipped up into a foamy light mix.

Depending on your use case, you might add a little extra water to make it slightly thinner, or add a little extra sugar, to thicken the icing. If you’re looking to create very fine, intricate decorations on cookies you probably want a slightly thicker icing. If you want the icing to flow and fill large surfaces, you’d want it a little thinner.

Royal vs. Glacé (Powdered sugar) icing

Despite there only being minor differences between the two icings (the egg white powder and whisking), they do behave quite differently!

Drying time

First of all, royal icing sets noticeably quicker than glacé icing. During drying the icing loses some of its moisture. This causes the icing to thicken and firm up. If you use a very thick layer of icing you will notice it takes a lot longer to set. It will take longer for the moisture to evaporate out of the icing.

Icing has fully set when you can stack the cookies on top of one another, without the icing being affected. For royal icing it’s dried within 1-2 hours, depending on the consistency of your icing as well as the temperature and humidity around you. Glacé icing on the other hand can take as much as 24 hours to dry, again, this depends on its consistency.

royal vs glace icing
Testing the crackability of the icing. Both cookies were broken in several pieces by hand. This cracking and breaking did not affect the royal icing outside of the crack zone. The glacé icing on the other hand shows cracks all throughout!

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Crackability

‘Crackability’ is a term we just came up with ;-). It’s a measure for how easy the icing on top of your cookie cracks. Royal icing is very firm and sturdy. It doesn’t crack easily. Glacé icing on the other hand is a lot more prone to crack (we’ll get to why that is below). So if your cookies will have to whether some form of transport or shaking, using a royal icing is probably your best bet.

Strength

Aside from being less prone to cracking, the overall strength of royal icing is typically a lot higher than that of glacé icing. It isn’t as susceptible to deformations (e.g. when pressed upon). Also, when breaking a cookie covered with royal icing, you tend to need more force to break the cookie, due to the added strength of the icing.

Amount of colorant

When decorating cookies with icing, you’d probably want to add a splash of color. Even though both icing can be colored in a similar manner, the amount of colorant you need differs significantly between the two!

When you make royal icing you’ve introduced a lot of air bubbles within the icing. Air bubbles scatter light in all directions. As a result, an aerated icing will be lighter in color than a non-aerated one, despite containing the same amount of colorant. Those two cracked hearts in the photo above, they were both made with the same concentration of colorant! The royal icing turned pink whereas the glacé icing a dark red.

royal vs glace icing after 5 days storage
Both icings can be stored in the fridge for a few days, the high sugar content protects them from spoiling quickly. However, after a few days (this photo was taken after 5 days) the icings will start to split. The aerated part of the royal icing will float to the top (due to its lower density) and the sugars will sink to the bottom. In the case of glacé icing the sugar will settle to the bottom (sedimentation) while the sugar syrup floats to the top. Notice the stark color differences between the different phases. The aerated part is the lightest in color (due to all the air bubbles), the sedimented sugar is slightly darker (but still light thanks to the scattering of light by the sugar particles) whereas the sugar syrup is by far the darkest of them all.

Eating experience

Of course it’s important for the icing to look good. However, taste and overall eating experience are just as important! The difference in strength of the icings also results in a different eating experience. The weaker glacé icing dissolves a lot more quickly in your mouth. You could even lick the dried icing off the cookie if you’d want to. This is not possible for the royal icing. It doesn’t dissolve as easily and that also makes it less sweet.

Why glacé and royal icing behave differently

So why do these two icing show such differences? Both the aeration process as well as the presence of egg whites play a role here. Luckily, a pair of scientists looked into this using advanced microscopy techniques in the early 2000s.

Glacé icing is a jumble of sugar crystals

Scientists showed that in a glacé icing, you’ve essentially got a lot of small sugar crystals, packed together in a little bit of liquid. Most sugar crystals haven’t dissolved, nor have they bonded together. The individual crystals simply sit close together, with pretty large empty spots in between as well.

Because all these crystals haven’t formed a cohesive structure, it’s quite soft and prone to cracking. When you create a crack, this crack can easily continue to travel further. The crack will easily find a spot where it can travel in between two crystals. Since these crystals don’t ‘hold onto’ each other, they can’t stop the crack.

The same is true for the overall strength of the icing. Because those individual crystals don’t form a network, the icing is as strong as its weakest component, the liquid binding the crystals together. This is by far not as strong as the individual sugar crystals themselves.

pink royal icing
Royal icing on sugar cookies

Royal icing under the microscope

When scientists look at Royal Icing under the microscope, the image they get is quite different. Even though it was made using the same sugars, the particles were a lot smaller in size with a more irregular shape. This irregular shape makes it easier for the sugar particles to ‘lock’ into each other and hold on tight. There aren’t as many voids between the particles either.

Of course, the royal icing also contains small round air bubbles. These round air bubbles contributed to the strength and resistance to cracking. By being round, it is harder for a crack to travel through them linearly. Air bubbles would often serve as the end point for a crack, preventing further propagation.

Using some advanced microscopic images, scientists thus discovered that the microstructure of Royal Icing is noticeably different from that of glacé icing. Both the presence of egg whites and whipping the mix seem to have enabled sugar crystals to organize themselves in such a way to produce a strong material.

icing with vs without egg white
We tried whisking glacé icing (left) without any egg whites, however, that clearly didn’t work. Any air we might have beat in disappeared in a matter of seconds. The egg white serves to hold onto the air in royal icing and is indispensable.

Egg whites are great at holding onto air

So why do you need both aeration & the egg whites? Well, the two build on each other. As we know, egg whites are great at holding onto air. The proteins in the egg whites have hydrophilic as well as hydrophobic regions. The hydrophobic regions prefer to sit in air, as opposed to water. The hydrophilic areas prefer water. This way these proteins position themselves in between air and water, stabilizing the air bubble that would have otherwise escaped quite easily.

We’ve tried

So for the air bubbles to contribute to the strength of the icing and help prevent cracking, the presence of egg whites is essential!

comparing royal vs glace icing
All cookies on a horizontal line contain the same amount of powdered sugar and water. Going down, each next row contains 1/2 tsp of extra water per 100g of powdered sugar. The royal icings also contain egg white powder. Notice how the egg white powder significantly firms up the icing. Also notice how all royal icings behave pretty similarly whereas the same additional amount of water had a huge impact on the consistency of the glacé icing.

Difference in sensitivity to water

Another difference we noticed when making the two types of icing is the impact of a little additional water to the recipe. Whereas the same amount of extra water would greatly impact the flow behavior of the glacé icing, this was less so for the royal icing. The flow properties of the glacé icing changed very rapidly, and a little more or less water had a huge impact. However, for the royal icing, once a certain consistency was achieved, a little more or less water didn’t have as much of an impact.

This is most likely again due to the difference in microstructure of the two. Since the glacé icing consists of roughly stacked sugar crystals with very little cohesion and structure, a little extra water can make the crystals flow along sid each other a lot more easily. However, in the royal icing a more cohesive structure had formed, thanks to the egg whites. This structure is less affected by a little extra water.

Royal icing is a type of meringue

Looking at the royal icing recipe we realized that royal icing is actually a type of meringue! Meringues are made by whipping egg whites with sugar into a light and airy consistency. Royal icing using the exact same ingredients and processes, so is in fact a meringue.

So why does it behave so differently? That is mostly due to the very high sugar content. The large amount of sugar thickens the meringue considerably and makes it more dense. This is a good thing. You don’t want royal icing to contain too many, nor very large air bubbles. These air bubbles would only cause the icing to break more easily.

There are a lot of different types of meringue (e.g. Italian, French, Swiss). Most are a lot lighter and less dense than royal icing for sure!

Summarizing

In summary, these are the main differences between the two types of icing. All because of two small differences!

Royal IcingSugar/Glacé Icing
Drying time1-2h24h
IngredientsWater, icing sugar, egg white (powder)Water, icing sugar
ProcessWhip the ingredients to aerateJust mix the ingredients
Drying time*1-2h24h
PropertiesHard and sturdySofter, more prone to cracking
Eating experienceHarder, doesn’t melt in the mouthSweeter, dissolves rather easily
Overview of main differences between the two most common types of cookie icing. *Drying time does depend on exact recipe and drying conditions, these are general guidelines.

References

J. Buckman and C. Viney, Note. The Effect of a Commercial Extended Egg Albumen
on the Microstructure of Icing, Food Sci Tech Int 2002;8(2):109–11, link

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