How to prevent color bleed in royal icing is hands-down one of the top five questions I always get asked! So, naturally, I had to do a blog post on this topic.
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What is color bleed and why does it happen?
Color bleed is when one color kind of bleeds into the next once dry. This largely happens either because there is too much moisture in the icing (this can come from the recipe, consistency, environment, etc) and/or there is too much food coloring in the icing. The good new is: it’s largely preventable!
How to prevent color bleed in royal icing
Even though I can think of maybe one time in the last at least 5 years that I’ve personally experienced color bleed, preventing it (to me) still sometimes seems like a mystery. That said, I’ve gathered a few different methods that work for me and are industry-standard recommendations for preventing color bleed.
Consistency is Key
Consistency is key when it comes to color bleed: the thinner the icing, the more like it is to bleed. Now, this is most applicable to flood consistencies. In the consistency terms that I use, you start to get into dangerous territory when you go for an extra thin (or even thinner than that).
Given that, if you often struggle with color bleed I’d sugar aiming for more like a thick flood when mixing your flood consistency and see if that helps!
Use High Quality Food Coloring
Not all food coloring is created the same! Generally, I recommend gel colors. That said, powdered colors like The Sugar Art Master Elites are a good choice as well. Just make sure you’re not using water-based food coloring! This will add way too much moisture to your icing.
Below is what I would recommend for gel brands:
- Link for basic set of Wilton colors
- I’d recommend these over Wilton if budget allows and you instead to decorate more–better quality colors, bottles and larger amounts of color:
- Chefmaster – small bottles OR large bottles
- **I’m newly obsessed with Chefmaster and highly recommend getting the large bottle set (you can mix just about any color you need from them!) or the small bottles if you prefer more premade colors
- *You CAN use Chefmaster Bakers Rose (pink) and Deep Pink with my lemon royal icing!!
- Link for basic set of Americolor
- Please note: you cannot use Americolor pinks with my lemon royal icing
- Artisan Accents (I’ve never used these but it’s reputable brand loved by others I know!)
- Please note: I’ve never tried their pink option with my lemon royal icing
- Chefmaster – small bottles OR large bottles
Allow Colors to Develop
Too much food coloring is a just asking for color bleed. The way that you do not add too much food coloring is to allowing the icing to develop.
What does that mean? The color of the icing naturally gets darker over time as the color is allowed to develop in the icing. Whether it be 30 minutes, 1 hour, 6 hours or overnight, it all helps! I always color my icing the night before a couple shades lighter than I need.
The next morning I survey the situation and will add more color if needed. It’s always the most nerve-wracking to have to add a lot of color morning of because I usually only have 1 hour max between finessing the color and then decorating (which is not enough time to really know where the color is going to land).
Below is what my brown icing looks like the night before:
And then this is what my brown icing looked like 10 hours later (the next morning):
Allowing color to develop is especially important for dark/saturated colors like black, red, brown, dark purple, navy, etc. That’s because these colors naturally need more food coloring anyway, so it’s very easy to use TOO much. Check out these blog posts for more information on coloring red icing and black icing.
Rule of thumb: if the icing is the exact color you want it in the bowl, you’ve added too much color! The color will continue to darken as you bag the icing, decorate and dry. So, you want the icing still to be a shade or two lighter in the bowl than you ultimately want.
I also highly recommend using The Sugar Art Master Elite line for the darker/more saturated colors like black and red. It is very hard to achieve these darker colors and you need a LOT of gel food coloring for them (if you add too much your icing may also taste bitter and dry crumbly). The Master Elites are a highly pigmented powder (activated with water) that allows you to achieve these darker colors without nearly as much coloring.
Color Your White Icing
Color bleed tends to happen more often against white icing. One way to help prevent this is to actually color your white icing with white coloring. I like to use Americolor gel in Bright White OR Chefmaster gel in White OR The Sugar Art Master Elite in White.
Now, that said, I’ve still heard of cases where someone colored their white icing and still got color bleed. In this case, I would imagine one of the other factors listed in this post was at fault.
Temperature/Environment Control: Use a Dehumidifier/AC
Remember how I said at the beginning that color bleed tends to happen when there is too much moisture in the icing? Well, this can happen from your environment as well! When it’s really humid, that means that is extra moisture in the air. The best way to combat this is to use a dehumidifier and air conditioner.
Recipe: Beware of the Corn Syrup!
Now I’ve never personally use corn syrup in my icing, but this is becoming more and more common these days because it results in a soft bite. I’ve heard, however, that if you add too much corn syrup this could be another factor causing color bleed.
How much is too much? Sorry, I have no idea since I’ve never used corn syrup. Best thing is to use a tried and true recipe from a trusted source, like Borderlands Bakery has one for sale.
Storing in the Fridge/Freezer: The Dos and Don’ts
First things first: never ever store your royal icing cookies in the refrigerator. Royal icing cookies have to be exposed to air while they dry. I will often dry my cookies something like this (the bottom completely touching a surface and the top exposed to air):
No, storing them in the fridge will NOT make them dry faster! This is a surprisingly common question asked on Google… In fact, storing them in the fridge could ruin them! They’re certainly ruined if stored before completely dry (because they will never actually dry), and I could see them getting color bleed stored in the fridge after dried.
That said, you can absolutely free your dried cookies as long as it’s done properly! ***At some point I will write a more detailed post on storing/freezing cookies, but until there here are some quick things to keep in mind: not only can too much moisture inside the icing cause colors to bleed, but so can moisture outside of the icing after it’s dry.
Given that, you want to make sure that the cookies are first completely dry and then sealed in an airtight container (I prefer to heat seal them first individually and then place in a Tupperware, but you can also put the cookies directly into the container).
Properly defrosting is the most important part! You do NOT want to take the cookie out of whatever airtight situation it’s in (whether heat sealed or all just in a container) until the cookies are COMPLETELY defrosted. If you take the cookies out too soon moisture will condense on the cookies and the colors will bleed.
Defrosting can take an hour or up to 6 hours depending on whether you’re defrosting a single cookie or an entire container. I just leave mine on the counter until they’re defrosted.
Other posts you might be interested in:
- What Is Royal Icing: A Beginner’s Guide
- My Royal Icing Recipe
- My Cookie Recipe
- Royal Icing Consistencies
- How to store royal icing (more detailed instructions)
- Troubleshooting Royal Icing: Common Problems While Cookie Decorating
- How much icing per cookie – coming soon!
- All of my favorite cookie decorating supplies
- Left-Handed Cookie Decorating
- Cookie Decorating Practice Sheets