How to Build a Solid Gingerbread House, According to Baking Experts
Runny icing is the key.
Gingerbread homes are an ethereal holiday tradition that smell wonderful and make for a spectacularly festive centerpiece—if you can actually get the whole thing to stand up. Although baking is a scientific feat in itself, constructing a gingerbread home without a standardized kit requires a bit of engineering prowess, too. Thankfully, Patti Paige—known fondly as the royal icing queen and author of Gingerbread Kama Sutra—and MaryJane Robbins, an internal gingerbread building expert and baking specialist at King Arthur Baking Company, have all the expertise needed to build both a beautiful and structurally sound gingerbread house.
Use a buildable dough
There are all types of construction dough recipes available now, so if you’re seeking out sturdiness and aren’t actually planning on eating your gingerbread house, use these doughs—which lack leavening agents that cause gingerbread to puff up and spread. Paige, however, has been using two of her own edible gingerbread recipes—one of which is completely vegan—with great success. “I don’t mind that it puffs out because it’s part of the charm of a cookie,” Paige says. For a regular gingerbread dough, Paige recommends baking it well-done so the cookies come out much sturdier.
And if you do end up using construction dough for the house, Robbins says you can always use a more edible dough for decorations, including sugar cookie dough or shortbread.
Make sure your walls and roof seams are even
One of the best ways to make sure your gingerbread walls and roof are even is to cut out a template, or even build a cardboard model, for your house. This act is almost like the mise en place for gingerbread house construction, and will not only help your home’s structural integrity, but keep you organized while baking. “When you take it out of the oven, it’s just a funny shape, but you put your template on there and then you take your pizza wheel and you cut around it so it’s perfect,” Paige says, adding that the trimming should happen while the dough is still warm. The extra strips can be used for decoration or snacking.
Robbins’s tip requires a different tool. “Structurally, you want to make sure that your wall and roof seams are even for a good fit together,” she says. “A grater or microplane is a big help with this to shave down uneven spots.” Paige also uses a microplane for perfectly fitting walls, and takes the gingerbread dust to build walkways or sandy decor.
Find the glue that works for you and get support
Once all the elements of your gingerbread home are baked, it’s time for construction. Paige has made a gingerbread house that has stood for over seven years (!), and she swears by a runny royal icing made with egg whites and confectioners sugar (you can also swap the egg whites for aquafaba to make it vegan). “The icing has to be super runny—more runny than you would even dream,” Paige explains. “People don’t like to use runny icing because it takes a few minutes to set, so you can’t just walk away and think you're done.” But the runniness is the key, according to Paige, so drizzle it down the meeting points of gingerbread walls and have heavy cans available to provide support as the icing hardens.
Robbins has a couple other suggestions. “If you’re going to display it for a long time, cooked sugar like you’d do for making caramel or candies makes a great glue,” she says, though this option isn’t advisable for kids or amateurs, as the molten sugar can cause serious burns. “If you aren’t going to eat the house, I’m a huge fan of hot glue. It takes the worry of loose roofs and wobbly walls away.” Admittedly, though, royal icing is traditional, “and it can be colored, too, so it does make a festive house,” Robbins says.
Robbins also suggests assembling the house way in advance of decoration, with 12 to 24 hours for icing, four to six hours for hot sugar, and an hour or so for hot glue. “This is a must if working with kids,” she says. “They mostly want to decorate, rather than assemble the actual structure.
Think outside the box for decorations and constructions
“I have used food coloring, cocoa powder, and black cocoa in dough to make different shades,” Robbins explains. “Adding texture to pieces before baking is fun, too, like pressing the potato masher into a slab of dough before cutting your walls will give them a textured look.”
For Paige, a gingerbread house can be anything. She’s constructed brownstones reminiscent of a winter’s day in Brooklyn, castles straight from a fairytale, and butterfly roof homes that would look perfectly in place in a Palm Spring cul-de-sac. Construction is the first part of making a gingerbread house your own.
From there, anything and everything can be considered for decorations. Paige swears by Supernatural Kitchen’s sprinkles, which are dye-free and contain blends that look like snowstorms. She has also melted isomalt to create clear glass windows that allow glances into her gingerbread homes, which she sometimes fills with fairy lights for a glowing and festive look.
Robbins finds inspiration in her pantry. “Pretzels rods and sticks make great trees and fences, Shredded Wheat makes a great thatched roof, white chocolate-covered pretzel twists can be used for icicles,” she explains. “Keep those cupboard doors open and just play with what you’ve got on hand—you'll be amazed at the ingenuity and new uses you find for pantry staples.”
At the end of the day, building a gingerbread house should be a delicious act of fun. “Keep it low key and stress free,” Robbins says. “Take breaks, limit candy consumption if you can, and revel in the joy of being together.”