It is traditional to decorate any Samhain altar with skulls, etc. in remembrance and honor of those who have departed.
Here are some instructions on how to make the famous Mexican Sugar Skulls for Dia de los Muertos.
Sugar Skulls are a traditional folk art from Southern Mexico used to celebrate Day of the Dead. Mounds of colorful sugar skulls are sold by Indian vendors in open air village markets during the week preceding the holiday. Spirits of the dead are welcomed back to their homes with beautifully decorated altars made by their loved ones. Sugar skulls, marigolds, candles, incense and special foods adorn home altars.
Families take the flowers and sugar skulls to the cemetery to decorate the tombs on November 2. Sugar skulls are colorfully decorated with icing, pieces of bright foil, colored sugars and usually bear the name of the deceased loved one being honored. They are easy to make by children and adults, and if kept dry, they can last a year.
Make sugar skulls as part of your family tradition to remember your dear, departed loved ones.
Sugar skull recipe
Do not make sugar skulls on a rainy or high humidity day. They will not turn out.
Please don’t forget the meringue powder!
It’s necessary for the sugar skull recipe.
Meringue Powder Brand
Do not use meringue powder from hobby shops or cake supply shops as it’s usually diluted and cut way too much for use with heavy granulated sugar. It’s ok for icing, just it will not hold together sugar skulls! We get calls daily from teachers & folks who’s sugar skulls are "sandy" and not sticking together and have a big mess on their hands and don’t have enough time to get new meringue powder and redo the project. Start right from the beginning! The only reliable meringue powder is the one we sell or that of Sur La Table gourmet kitchen shop/ catalog.
Mix together well in large bowl:
1 teaspoon Meringue Powder for every cup of granulated sugar used.
Step 1: Mix dry ingredients well.
Step 2: Sprinkle sugar mixture with 1 teaspoon water per cup of sugar used.
Variation: Colored Skulls
Most people prefer white skulls the first time they make them, but if you’d like colored sugar skulls, add paste food coloring TO THE WATER. For a 5 pound bag of sugar, use 1/4 cup meringue powder and 10 teaspoons of water. Yield 5 large skulls or 20 medium skulls or 100 mini skulls or any combination.
For a 10 pound bag of sugar, use 1/2 cup meringue powder and 7 Tablespoons water. Yield 10 large skulls or 40 medium skulls or 200 mini skulls or any combination.
Meringue Powder is a MUST and cannot be omitted. It is difficult to find, but may be ordered in 4 oz, 8 oz or 1 pound packages on our sugar skull molds and supplies page. Meringue powder is what makes the sugar and the icing hard. Its main ingredient is powdered dry egg whites & starch, but it also includes vegetable gum, cream of tarter, calcium lactate, malic acid & sodium aluminum sulfate. It’s totally edible.
Powdered sugar for Royal Icing
1 pound box = 3 1/2 cups
2 pound bag = 7 cups (do not sift Powdered Sugar)
Measurement: 3 teaspoons make a Tablespoon: 4 Tablespoons make 1/4 cup. But on this website, 7 Tablespoons (21 teaspoons) of Meringue Powder = 1/2 cup! (Please don’t email me on this!) Sugar Skull making is not an exact science… we like easy measurements! Especially when measuring with kids.
Mix well with hands until every bit of sugar is moistened. If your fingerprints remain when you squeeze the sugar in your hand, it is ready to mold. (Right) It should feel like cool "beach sand."
If it doesn’t hold together, mixture is too dry. (Left)
Remember, water sinks, so keep the sugar mixture mixed up frequently as you make your sugar skulls.
Pack sugar mixture FIRMLY into mold with special attention to chins & edges. Use a straight edge to scrape the back of the mold flat. Pack down some more until perfectly tight.
Place a stiff cardboard square (approx. 5" x 6") over mold and invert immediately. Lift mold off carefully. Throw any "mistakes" back into your bowl, stir up and try again. If mix is too dry, spritz with a water bottle.
If all the sugar mixture does not fall out of mold easily, it is too wet. Re-mix with a bit more sugar. Hand wash and dry your mold after every 5 skulls to avoid sticking. Most Sugar Skull makers will have a collection of molds to make the molding process more enjoyable.
All sizes of the molded sugar skulls need to air-dry on their card boards from 8 hours to overnight before they are ready to decorate. Medium and Mini skulls may be decorated after they are completely dry.
Large skulls require a few more steps. They are a 2-piece mold, and must be "scooped out" after they are partially dry; start checking them in 5-6 hours. When the skulls feel dry enough to handle, hold skulls carefully and hollow both the back and the front out with a spoon, leaving the skull wall 1/2" thick. Do not scoop out the neck area. It’s very important to scoop out the larger skulls as they are so thick, they trap moisture – AND they are so heavy that they slide apart if not scooped.
Set the hollowed skulls upside down to continue drying until totally dry (approx. 12 hours). When completely dry, dust off and assemble the front and back of the skull with a 1/4" bead of thick royal icing, either applied with a knife or squeezed from an icing bag (one side only). Align points on the back of the skull with the sides of the neck, and press the two sides together until they are firmly connected. The icing will ooze out a little. Drag your finger over the seam to remove excess icing. Try to do this with just one pass – touching the skull too much will make the icing look bad. Drag your finger across the base of the neck crack to remove excess icing. Lay skull aside to dry. When seam is dry, about 2 hours minimum, it is ready to decorate. Sugar skull blanks may be made up to a year ahead of time awaiting decorating. Just store in "breathable" boxes like cardboard. Not plastic lidded boxes.
- When assembling the Large skull, if the two pieces of the skull are sliding around, your royal icing is too wet. Add a Tablespoon of powdered sugar to your icing, to stiffen it up a bit.
The sugar "scoopings" from Large Skulls will net about 50%. Sugar will be soft and moist and may be made into smaller skulls. This moist sugar may be stored in plastic tightly-topped box for a day or two. When you’re ready to use sugar, give it the hand-squeeze test. If too dry, spritz with the water bottle until it holds together again. Tip: When assembling the Large skull, if the two pieces of the skull are sliding around, your royal icing is too wet. Add a Tablespoon of powdered sugar to your icing, to stiffen it up a bit.
Royal icing recipe
Mix 2/3 cup water, 1/2 cup meringue powder and 2 pounds powdered sugar with an electric/stand mixer until icing peaks (about 9 minutes!) Don’t mix up more than 2 pounds at a time. Keep in a tightly covered container. DO NOT REFRIGERATE.
Royal icing is a cement type icing used for gingerbread house construction. It isn’t very tasty, but it is strong, dries pretty and lasts. Use ONLY concentrated paste food colorings (NOT liquid food coloring from the grocery store!)
Mix icing & paste colors in disposable cups. Use pastry bags and metal decorating tips if you are a pro or into cake decorating. Yes, we have great disposable pastry bags on the Order Page!
Add 2-3 ounces of Royal Icing (no more than 1/4 full). Squeeze to decorate.
Calculate each 5 pounds of sugar skulls will need 2 pounds of powdered sugar Royal Icing. Most skull makers prefer 5-6 paste colors to decorate with and at least one pack of colored tin foil. Yes, we have tin foil in deep Purple, Magenta, Orange, Gold and Red,
The sugar "scoopings" from Large skulls will net about 50%. Sugar will be soft and moist and may be made into smaller skulls. This moist sugar may be stored in plastic tightly-topped box for a day or two. When you’re ready to use sugar, give it the hand-squeeze test. If too dry, spritz with the water bottle until it holds together again.
DO NOT ATTEMPT TO MAKE SUGAR SKULLS ON A HUMID DAY
That means rain, rain tomorrow, or rain yesterday. Sugar freaks out around damp air and the skulls won’t dry right, stick right, or hold the icing on. Check your weather forecast.
If you were to have an unexpected rain storm in mid-project, the only tip I can give you is to pray. Then, see if you can "candle" the skulls in a low oven (150 degrees) for 15 minutes. Lay them on cookie sheets covered with thick newspapers to wick the moisture from the skulls. If they don’t scorch, you may have fooled Mother Nature. Turn the oven off, and let the skulls sit in the oven over night.
A link on all the molds and supplies you can order is found at