Sugar Skulls Step by Step: How to Make Calaveras de Azúcar for Day of the Dead

  • 01 of 07

    Lighthearted and Solemn: Skulls Made of Sugar

    Sugar Skulls
    Sugar skulls displayed on a traditional decorative tray in Mexico. photo (c) Marcie Gonzalez / Getty Images

    At the same time decorative and edible, sugar skulls or calaveras de azúcar are one of the most iconic elements of Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebration. These cranium-shaped objects are created in sizes from tiny to life-sized and adorned with brightly-colored icing, metallic paper, sequins, or other decorative details.

    Sugar skulls often sport a person’s name on a tiny slip of paper attached to the forehead—the person creating the skull, the one receiving it, or one being remembered. The skulls...MORE are used both as an offering for the dearly departed on a family’s altar and as a sign of affection to the living when given as a gift (a gentle reminder of our own mortality).

    Visit any Mexican market in the month of October and you will see entire stands dedicated to the sale of skulls made out of sugar, chocolate, amaranth, gumdrop-like gelatin, and other edible materials. If you live where these objects are unavailable for purchase, sugar skulls are not at all difficult to create. All you need are a mold, a few simple ingredients some ordinary household supplies and utensils.

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  • 02 of 07

    Assemble Your Supplies for Making Sugar Skulls

    Sugar Skull Materials
    Some of the ingredients and materials you'll need to make your sugar skulls. photo (c) Robin Grose

    Making the sugar skulls is not difficult if you carefully follow each step. Having one or more skull-shaped molds is critical. I've found excellent sugar skull supplies online; one great source is the Reign Trading Company.

    What you will need to make your own sugar skulls:

    • Granulated Sugar, quantity depending upon how many sugar skulls you will be making and what size they will be.  Approximately 1 cup of sugar should be enough for 6 very small skulls, 4 medium or 1 large-ish.
    • Large bowl
    • Water
    • Sug...MOREar Skull molds, shape and size of your preference. Some are faces only and some include two parts that you put together to make a whole skull.
    • Meringue powder, 1 teaspoon for each cup of sugar. (This is available in supermarkets and baking supply stores and greatly helps to hold the sugar together.)
    • Powdered sugar for the decorative icing.
    • Paste food coloring in bright colors to tint the icing.
    • Icing decorator bags
    • A large, dry area for the sugar skulls to dry in undisturbed. (Once for the sugar to dry and solidify, then later the icing to dry and harden.)
    • Any other decoration you like such as foil, sequins, feathers, or other elements.


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  • 03 of 07

    Prepare the Sugar for Your Skulls

    Sugar Skull Sugar
    How your prepared sugar should look. photo (c) Chelsie Kenyon

    For every cup of sugar, mix in 1 teaspoon of meringue powder and sprinkle 1 teaspoon of water on top.

    Work the water into the sugar with your fingers until the mixture feels like cool beach sand. This takes a few minutes, so be patient. The sugar is ready when you can press your finger or thumb into it and the print will stay.

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  • 04 of 07

    Make Your Sugar Skulls

    Sugar skull molding
    Packing the sugar into a plastic skull mold. photo (c) Chelsie Kenyon

    Fill the mold with sugar and press firmly with the palm of your hand. When the skull is full and pressed into mold, use the back of a knife to scrape off excess sugar and flatten back.

    Lightly re-press the scraped surface to smooth it.


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  • 05 of 07

    Remove Mold and Let Your Sugar Skulls Dry

    Unmolding Sugar Skull
    Unmolding a freshly made sugar skull. photo (c) Chelsie Kenyon

    Place a piece of cardboard or flat plate over the sugar skull. Hold the skull tightly on the cardboard or plate and flip it over. Remove the mold. Place the skull—plate and all—in a place where it can dry undisturbed.

    Repeat steps 4 and 5 until you run out of sugar.

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  • 06 of 07

    Make the Icing and Decorate Your Sugar Skulls

    Sugar Skull Decorating
    Sugar skulls can be decorated however you like. photo (c) Chelsie Kenyon

    Beat 2/3 cup water, 1/2 cup meringue powder and 2 pounds of powdered sugar with a large electric mixer until icing peaks, about 9 minutes.

    Divide the icing into smaller portions (disposable cups and popsicle sticks work well for this) and use the paste food coloring to tint each portion a different color

    Place the icing in the decorator bags. Snip the end of each bag when you're ready to decorate. Start very small with the snip, you can make it bigger if necessary.

    Use the colored icing to...MORE decorate your skulls however you like. If you're adding foil, beads or feathers, use the icing as a glue to attach them. (Note: If you attach non-edible items to the skull, remove these before eating, or use the skulls only for decoration.)

    Also use the icing to glue together the halves of any  2-piece skulls.

    Alternative decorating materials: Purchase ready-made royal icing or tubes of colored white chocolate to use for decorating your skulls.

    Place the decorated skulls in a place to dry undisturbed. The icing will harden as it dries.

    Once both the sugar and icing are completely dry, your sugar skulls can be touched, eaten, bagged, displayed, etc. You've created your very own Mexican sugar skulls!

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  • 07 of 07

    Tips for Sugar Skull Making

    Sugar Skulls
    Finished homemade sugar skulls. photo (c) Robin Grose
    • It's best to not omit the meringue powder in the sugar used to make the skulls . Some people make their sugar skulls with use egg white instead, but sometimes these do not solidify well when they dry.
    • If possible, make your sugar skulls on a very dry day. If it is too humid outside, they may not dry well. If you do have trouble getting your skulls to dry and harden, try putting them in a warm oven for 2 hours or so.
    • Lightly spritz sugar with water if sugar gets too dry while working.
    • For the...MORE larger skulls, scoop out some of the front and back pieces to make the finished skull lighter.  First, let the skull dry in the mold for a couple of hours; then, use your fingers or a spoon to scoop out a hole in each one, leaving a 1/2 inch solid flat border around the edge where you will glue the two halves together later with icing. The “scoopings” can be re-used to make more skulls.