Making Sugar Skulls for Day of The Dead

nixon sugar skull

The Tradition

Making sugar skulls is just part of the Dias de Los Muertos (Days of the Dead) celebration. November 2nd is the day that loved ones return from the dead and are greeted with alters covered with foods, sugar skulls and other offerings. In Mexico, death is not the end but in fact the beginning of life.

In Mexico (and in some Mexican markets in the U.S.) you can purchase pre-made sugar skulls. They vary in size from 1" to almost life-size. For home skull making we prefer the 3 or 4 inch size mold. The smaller molds are better for little hands and the larger molds can be used for older children.

The skulls are very easy to make. Just follow these simple instructions.

Preparation And Materials

Assemble your ingredients. You will need about 1 pound of sugar per large skull.  Make sure to have the following materials ready:

  • Skull molds
  • Cut small cardboard drying platforms for each skull

Additional Tips

The skulls need about 8 hours to dry before decorating
Make a test skull (optional)

Sugar Skull Directions

Basic Sugar Skull Recipe - (1 large skull)

  • 2 1/8 cups (452 g) granulated sugar
  • 2 rounded teaspoons meringue powder
  • 2+ teaspoons of water

sugar skull making supplies
Place the meringue powder and the sugar in a  bowl large enough to allow you to mix the ingredients by hand and stir until well blended.

Mixing

Add the water and mix with your fingers until all the sugar mixture is moistened.   Once the mixture is about the texture of "moist beach sand" it is ready to mold.  You may need a bit of extra water if so just add a few drops at a time.

mixing sugar with meringue powder

Pack The Molds

Once the sugar is moist pack it into the molds.  Our large mold has 2 pieces so pack sugar into both sides.  Make sure to pack the mold firmly, scrape the mold with a straight edge (use a ruler or the back of a straight kitchen spatula or knife), then pack again. Check the mold to make sure all the indentations are smoothly filled.

sugar packed in skull molds

Unmold Skull onto Drying Platform

Lay your cardboard on top of the skull mold and invert onto the platform as you would a cake layer on a plate.

invert skull mold onto cardboard

Remove the Mold

Gently lift the mold away from the sugar skull. **Note: Hand wash the mold after every 5 skulls to prevent sticking.

remove skull form mold

Allow Skulls To Dry

Your skulls should now be placed aside to partially harden -- about 4 hours. They need to be hard enough to hold in your hand without falling apart but firm enough to scoop. You may have to sacrifice one for testing. Now, if you are impatient like we were and you try to move the skull before it dries, it will fall apart.   If this happens just place the sugar mixture back in the bowl, add additional moisture if needed and remold the skull.

sugar skulls drying

Hollow and Complete Drying

Once the skulls are dry enough to handle (around 4 hours) then they can be hollowed out. This time will vary depending on room temperature and humidity. If they over-dry they will be very hard to scoop.  Hold the skull carefully in your hand and scoop the insides out with a spoon until it is about 1/2" thick. Don't scoop around the neck area which is too narrow and may break. **Use the "scoopings" for making more skulls.

skulls hollowed out
Allow the hollowed skulls to dry upside down on their platforms at least a full 12 hours.

Assemble Skulls

When the skulls are completely dry dust them off and assemble.  Make a batch of Royal Icing (recipe below).

Use an icing bag and pipe a 1/4" bead of icing around the back of one half of the skull then press the two sides of the skull together to fuse. Use your finger to smooth the icing over the seam.  Set the skull aside to dry.

Royal Icing Recipe

Royal icing makes a very strong, colorful icing and is frequently used for gingerbread houses. One 2 -LB batch of icing is enough for 5 - lbs. of sugar skulls (5 large skulls). 

  • 2 pounds powdered sugar
  • 1/2 cup meringue powder 
  • 2/3 cup water
  • paste food coloring 

Mix sugar, meringue powder and water and beat using an electric stand mixer for about 9 minutes or until peaks form.

Place icing in disposable cups, mix with your choice of colors. Place about 1/4 cup colored frosting in a disposable icing bag fitted with metal decorative tip. Squeeze to decorate.

Sugar Skull Pirate

view more sugar skull decorating ideas>>

Left Over Materials

Both the sugar and royal icing can be stored for future use if stored properly.  Here are some tips.

Moistened Sugar Mixture - Place in airtight containers and refrigerate up to 2 days.
Royal Icing - Store in an airtight container but do NOT refrigerate.

Sugar Skull Making Supplies

Available at GourmetSleuth.com - We carry all the supplies you need to make your own sugar skulls at home. You may want to purchase our Day of The Dead Sugar Skull Kit which includes everything (but the sugar) or items sold separately as well. Shop Now for sugar skull supplies.

dead dude sugar skull
dead dude sugar skull

Sugar Skull Mold Yields 

Mold Size # of Skulls Sugar (Lbs.) Meringue Powder Water Tbs.
Large 10 10 1/2 cup 7
Medium 40 10 1/2 cup 7
Mini 200 10 1/2 cup 7
Large 5* 5 1/4 cup 3
Medium 20 5 1/4 cup 3
Mini 100 5 1/4 cup 3

Meringue Powder Conversion Table

Weight Cups (approx.) Tbs. Tsp.
4 oz. Jar 1 16 48
8 oz. Jar 2 32 96
1 lb. Bag 4 64 192

**Conversions for meringue powder are based on 21 teaspoons of powder = 1/2 cup
rather than the cooking standard

author

Barbara Bowman graduated with degree in Foods and Nutrition from San Jose State University. As CEO of GourmetSleuth.com she spends most waking hours writing, cooking, eating, gardening and traveling.