For many of us, the holiday season wouldn’t be complete without building a gingerbread house. It’s a wonderful family activity — until the structure collapses or the decorations start to fall off the walls. Talk about frustrating! So we asked seasoned gingerbread decorating pros and winners of gingerbread house contests for their tricks to make building and decorating a a breeze. Keep reading for their tips and their top gingerbread house ideas and tips to outsmart the most common gingerbread-house problems.
1. If your house tends to looks messy, decorate, then build
When it comes to creating a gingerbread house, many people build it, then decorate it. But the award-winning gingerbread house artists we spoke to recommend flipping that timeline around and doing most of your decorating first.
“I always decorate the walls of my houses before assembling them, while they’re sitting flat on my table,” says Catherine Beddall, author of The Magic of Gingerbread. “It’s much easier to pipe on a flat surface than on a vertical surface. Once the decorated pieces are assembled, you can add the finishing touches.”
This way you won’t have to worry about icing or candy sliding down your house’s walls. Simply let the decorated gingerbread pieces sit for one to two hours to dry, then set them upright and attach together (see below for the genius “glues” that work magic).
And if you’re decorating with little ones who insist on using heavy candy? Suggest that they glue it along the bottom of the walls. This adds support instead of making your house wobbly.
2. If your house won’t stay together, try these glue secrets
One of the most common hiccups when assembling your gingerbread structure? The pieces don’t want to stay together! Read on for pro tips on two common “glue” methods.
Gingerbread glue secret #1: Royal icing this way
“Royal icing the most well-known adhesive for gingerbread houses and it can work wonders when used correctly,” says Grier Rubeling, who won second place at the 2021 National Gingerbread House Competition. “However, if it’s not mixed properly and sits for too long, it can start to deteriorate and provide less support.”
To make your own royal icing: On low speed, beat 2 cups of confectioners’ sugar, 3 Tbs. of meringue powder and 1/3 cup of warm water until glossy. Beat in 1 tsp. of vanilla extract until smooth. If too thick, beat in more water, 1 tsp. at a time. If too thin, beat in additional confectioners’ sugar. Keep covered when not in use.
For best results, you’ll want to ensure you use the icing soon after preparing and ensure it has an extra thick texture. (Tip: Keep the bowl of icing covered as you decorate to prevent it from drying.) How to tell if it’s thick enough? “If you dip a spoon in it and flip the spoon upside down, the icing shouldn’t move,” explains Ted Scutti of Merry Mischief Bakers in Phoenix and winner of the 2020 and 2021 National Gingerbread House Competition. If it moves, add more sugar to thicken it up.
Whatever you do, don’t thicken it with butter, shortening, or any form of fat. The added fat will soak into the gingerbread, causing it to soften and leading to a collapsed house.
To apply the icing to your house, you’ll need a cake-decorating bag and piping tips. “They help get royal icing right where you want it,” advises Julie Andreacola, who won the 2018 National Gingerbread Competition with her husband, Michael. “Toothpicks are also essential.” (They make it easy to get the icing into small spaces.) No piping bag handy? Put the icing in a plastic baggie and cut off one corner and use this as a makeshift piping bag.
Gingerbread glue secret #2: Try ‘gummy glue’
“My go-to glue is melted gummy bears; I call it gummy glue,” says Ann Bailey, four-time National Gingerbread House Competition champ. To do: Microwave gummies on low in 10-second intervals until melted; use a paint brush to quickly paint onto the gingerbread to assemble.
She’s not alone in her love of gummy glue: “I use them for walls because they firm back up to their original consistency when they cool, providing a solid support,” adds Rubeling.
While gummy glue won’t give your house the traditional white lines of royal icing, you can always add icing as decoration around windows, doors and the roof if you like the look!
3. If your house tends to topple over, grab some pasta
If you want to be extra certain that your house stays up this year, The pros at the Omni Grove Park Inn, which hosts The National Gingerbread House Competition every year, say to build the walls first, and wait to glue on the roof. This gives the glue between the walls a chance to harden, creating a sturdy base. If possible, grab a family member for help; it’s much easier if one person holds up the walls while the other places the roof on.
Also smart: “When you’re putting your walls together, you can use items that you commonly have around your kitchen to help prop things up,” says Scutti. “Cans of fruits or vegetables are nice and heavy and you can use those on either side of the walls to help them stay upright.”
For larger structures, consider adding even more reinforcements. Rubeling likes to use a rotary tool (buy on Amazon, $12.49) to drill tiny holes into either side of the gingerbread, but you could try using a knife, toothpick or other sharp tool. “Then I thread some thick pasta (like bucatini) through the holes to give extra support — almost like putting in a nail or a screw,” she says. Just use a little royal icing or gummy glue to keep the pasta in place.
When all the walls are all standing upright and glued together, let them dry for an hour before adding the roof. This ensures they’re stable before you add any weight!
Gingerbread house ideas using pantry staples
Whether you opt for a pre-assembled cookie house or put one together yourself, the fun comes with the decorating! Thankfully, there’s no wrong way to personalize your structure and the possibilities are endless.
Even more good news? You don’t have to spend a fortune on decorations to make it look impressive. “Some of my best ideas have come from trips to Dollar Tree for brainstorming sessions,” says Rubeling.
Below, the pros share their favorite gingerbread house ideas to jazz up your creation.
Add Christmas trees with ice cream cones
“Ice cream cones make great Christmas trees,” says Andreacola. “Cover with green royal icing and roll in dried parsley or other green herbs.” Or, if you’re using icing for your decor, simply set the cone upside-down on your surface and pipe green icing over the trees, using a star tip.
Other foods that double as decor: star anise (use it as a star) and candy-coated sunflower seeds (press them into icing on the roof for Christmas lights).
Add snow with powdered sugar
“Try sifting some powdered sugar on top of your house — it will look as though it’s been dusted with beautiful fresh snow,” says Beddall.
See how great this looks in the video below:
Use beans for stonework
“If you’re going for something a little less traditional, that might not necessarily be eaten, I would consider some other interesting materials, like spices (for texture), cinnamon sticks (for support), dried beans (for stonework), corn silk (for hair), ginger clay (for sculpting), and gelatin (for windows),” says Rubeling, who created the intricate stone cottages above.
Add color with food dye + vodka
“Experiment with paint colors and paint your house,” says Bailey. Try painting it in bright colors, using 1 Tbs. of vodka and a few drops of food dye. You can also buy premade edible paint, like the Satin Ice Edible paint Kit (buy on Amazon, $16.99).
Woman’s World aims to feature only the best products and services. We update when possible, but deals expire and prices can change. If you buy something via one of our links, we may earn a commission.
Woman’s World aims to feature only the best products and services. We update when possible, but deals expire and prices can change. If you buy something via one of our links, we may earn a commission. Questions? Reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org
For more Christmas decorating fun, keep reading!