decorating

sugar skulls

Día de Muertos is coming, so it’s time to make sugar skulls for our dearly departed! All the supplies are laid out on the ping pong table and ready for you to assemble your own DIY sugar skull kit. There are so many options, so grab a bag and pack it full with everything you need. Keep scrolling for some frequently asked questions.

Step 1: Choose a skull or two to decorate.

We have three sizes: extra large, medium, and tiny.

The extra large ones are what you see in the pictures from previous years. You can fit a lot of detail on them, and they take some significant time.

This year, I also bought a medium mold. These are still 3D, but they are a more manageable size if you don’t have a lot of time or are new to this kind of craft.

The tiny ones are really made in a candy mold from the extra sugar. You can still decorate them if you use a small enough piping tip or cut a small enough hole in the icing bag.

Step 2: Choose some colors of icing.

When we decorate sugar skulls together in the lounge, I make bags and bags of icing in different colors. This year, I’ve set out pre-mixed bags of royal icing mix in various colors. You just need to add water slowly, mixing in a few drops at a time until it’s toothpaste consistency. Then give it some really good mushing, cut off a corner, and pipe! The color will come out much darker and brighter than it looks in the bag. You’re welcome to mix your own colors, too! Get another Ziploc bag (we have some in the drawer next to the dishwasher), and pour in some of the icing mix from the colors you want to combine.

If you have an electric mixer and want to make your own royal icing, I’ve pre-portioned out some meringue powder as well. You can find it in the very back of the icing mixes. Add the 5 Tbsp. of meringue powder to one bag of powdered sugar, stir, and slowly add water (1/4 to 1/2 cup to start) until you reach a thick honey consistency. Beat 2-4 minutes until it’s fluffy. Then add gel or paste food coloring and transfer to a piping bag.

Step 3: Choose your decorations.

We have lots and lots of decorations from over the years of decorating sugar skulls. You are welcome to take anything you think you might use. If you don’t think you’ll need a whole package, I’ve left a box of snack bags nearby so you can take some and leave the rest. You can also cut apart the sticker jewels and pearls – scissors are in the “miscellaneous” drawer in the kitchen. Most of these supplies are from Dollar Tree or the $1 bins at Target and Michael’s, so if you don’t see what you’re looking for, those are good places to find craft supplies for cheap.

Frequently asked questions

Sugar skulls, called calaveras in Spanish, are a part of the ofrenda, or altar, constructed during the three day observance of Día de Muertos between November 1 and November 3. They are a representation of loved ones who have departed and accompany flowers, food, candles, photos, and other gifts for the loved ones. In the weeks leading up to the holiday, you can buy premade skulls from a vendor, who will pipe your loved one’s name across a foil strip placed on the forehead.

Our sugar skulls are not made the traditional Mexican way, by pouring boiled sugar into a clay mold, as that is a craft that is difficult to perfect, passed on through the generations. Artisans take months and months, patiently crafting the skulls, in order to have enough for the holiday. The sugar skull molds we use are in two parts and created more like sandcastles with a damp sugar mixture being placed into the mold, turned out, and dried for days.

Technically, sure. It’s just meringue powder, sugar, and water. But think of it more like a gingerbread house. It’s designed to sit out on a table for days and days, and the materials that make it sturdy don’t taste great. In the end, that’s not what it’s for. Also, I don’t take any food safety precautions while making these sugar skulls, and they’ve already sat out for weeks (some of them a year). So if your curiosity is too great, take a nibble of the tiny ones on the silver tray, but do so at your own risk.

**Note that the skulls on the black plastic tray are a year old and were not kept in an airtight container. Please, please, please do not taste them!

It depends on what you use and where you store it. We’ve had some last for years! If you use any food other than royal icing, like store-bought icing or candy, those parts will go bad quickly and you’ll want to throw it out after the holidays. If you want to preserve it, use only royal icing and craft supplies, and keep it in an airtight container when you’re not displaying it to prevent bug activity and humidity from getting it.

Anything, really! Many traditional skulls use both edible and inedible elements, such as royal icing, sequins, colored foil, and glitter. Over the years, I’ve bought most of the inedible supplies we use at Labyrinth from Dollar Tree. They usually have glitter, sequins, stick-on rhinestones and pearls (though you’ll still want to secure them with royal icing), ribbon, specialty papers, feathers, and plenty more supplies.

Royal icing is my number one supply. You can color it and use it to pipe all sorts of designs. Some years I don’t even use other supplies as the icing is enough decoration. Royal icing is also like glue – it’s what you use to construct gingerbread houses so that they hold up forever. You can use royal icing to attach glitter, beads, feathers, sequins, etc. to the skull. If you don’t have enough icing, you can use tacky glue – also available at Dollar Tree!

I usually try to match my decorations to the person I’m honoring. For my grandmother, who was an avid gardener, I’ll put lots of floral designs. For my grandfather, I’ll pipe on his iconic glasses and maybe the Boy Scouts emblem. If you look through the pictures on this page, you’ll even find a Marsha P. Johnson calavera lookalike!

Think about the loved one you’re honoring. Did they have a favorite color? A hobby? Tattoos? If you’re having trouble getting inspired, spend some time remembering your loved one and all they loved in life. (After all, that’s what this holiday is for!) How can you represent some of your favorite things about them?