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Butter Bleed in Icing: What the heck is it, and what the heck can I do about it?

Butter Bleed in Icing: What the heck is it, and what the heck can I do about it?

There is little more frustrating to a cookier than going to bed content with the beautiful trays of freshly flooded cookies in your kitchen, only to wake up to see those same cookies look like they floated around in an oil slick overnight.

But what are these greasy stains that showed up like a thief in the night?  Did you mess up your icing consistency or not mix your food coloring in completely?  Possible, but not likely.  Two words: Butter Bleed—and it can be the bane of a cookier’s existence.

Why Butter Bleed Happens

Butter bleed typically happens when excess butter from the baked cookie below seeps upwards through the layer of royal icing, appearing as an oily stain.  Sometimes you can make it work: butter bleed on Halloween gravestone cookies?—draw some cracks on with an edible marker, and no one need be any the wiser that that shadowing wasn’t intentional.  But oftentimes seeing grease marks on your cookies can be cause for panic, begging the question—how can it be prevented?!

cookie with butter bleed

How to Prevent Butter Bleed in Royal Icing

Set your cookies on paper towel after baking

One of the easiest, most common fixes for combatting butter bleed is to allow your cookies to sit on paper towels while cooling and drying.  Instead of coming through your royal icing on top, the excess butter will be absorbed right into the paper towels below.  When you come back to your cookies hours later, you’ll see that each one now has a buttery, greasy outline where it is sitting on the paper towel.

For cooling cookies, leave them on the paper towels until they are cool enough to be packed away until you are ready to decorate (if not decorating immediately).  Once you’re ready to flood them, pop them back onto your paper towel-lined trays for their entire dry-time.  If the paper towel method is already in use in your kitchen and you’re still struggling, there could be a couple more factors in play.

Stop Butter Bleed at the Source

Too Soft Butter

One, is your butter too soft when you are making your cookies?  Most recipes will suggest using “room temperature” butter, but that doesn’t mean leaving it sitting on your countertop for hours; 30 minutes in an average-temperature room is enough.  And if, for example, you are baking in Arizona in July and don’t have air conditioning, then 30 minutes on the counter at what I can only assume is the temperature of the sun is going to be too much.  I can usually tell if my butter has achieved Goldilocks status (not too soft, not too hard) by giving it a gentle squeeze; if it compresses a little bit without completely deforming, I know I’m probably good to go.

Butter Brands

A second possibility is the brand of butter you are using.  Someone recently told me that “butter is butter” and when I got done wiping my tears of laughter away, I ordered a few more boxes of my favorite butter via Instacart.  (The butter shortage is real, people, and I can’t have that kind of blasphemy cursing me!)  Some butters have higher fat content than others, and some have more moisture.  If you are consistently struggling with butter bleed, it might be worth switching your brand to see if that makes a difference.

Temperature and Humidity are Key

One last thing to keep an eye on is the temperature and humidity in your decorating/drying area.  Going back to our example of decorating cookies on the surface of the sun (AKA Arizona in the summer), if your kitchen is hot, then the butter in your cookies is going to want to melt.  If the only place for it to go is out through your royal icing, that’s when you’ll run into butter bleed.  If at all possible, keep your air conditioning at a reasonable level and use fans when necessary (or if A/C isn’t available).

Get creative to hide the bleed

Although there is no 100% guaranteed method to avoid the dreaded butter bleed, there are definitely some steps to try before throwing in the towel and vowing to NEVER COOKIE AGAIN.  Ahem.  If you do find your cookies the victim of this greasy culprit, pipe on some florals, stencil a background, spray some edible glitter (maybe a LOT of edible glitter)— the best thing you can do is roll with the punches, make notes for next time, and know that you are likely your own harshest critic. 

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Lyn - November 11, 2022

Thanks so much! I never knew what this was but it is totally frustrating. Will try your solutions on my next batch!

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