How to make “calaveras” or Mexican sugar skulls without meringue powder

The net is an incredible place, because 10 years ago, if I wanted to make “calaveras,” which are those sugar skulls that kids and lovers give each other for the Mexican holiday El Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), how on earth would I have figured out how to do that without going to Mexico and hanging out in some grandma’s kitchen? So I was all excited a couple of weeks back when I ordered my sugar skull mold (just a cheap piece of polystyrene that looks like the containers that things like Ipods and flash drives come in…that stuff thats practically impossible to cut open without slicing your hands) and got ready to make 40 calaveras for my fall dinner party.

Mold to make calaveras, or Mexican sugar skulls for El Dia de los Muertos

Exhorbitantly expensive for some plastic packaging!

The website that sold me the skull mold (for an astonishing $15 considering the cheap production cost…this stuff is just basically packaging) has a recipe for sugar skulls that I found repeated virtually EVERYWHERE on the internet. If a site had a recipe for sugar skulls, this was the recipe. And there simply were no other recipes. The problem was that their recipe called for an ingredient called “meringue powder” which is an obscure ingredient typically only found in commercial bakery kitchens, and it’s offensively expensive. Sure, their website will be happy to sell you a small quantity, enough to make about 4 big skulls, for around $10. Maybe that’s a bargain if you only want to make 4 skulls (which, with your $15 mold and $10 meringue powder, plus shipping, is going to make your skulls cost around $9-$10 per skull once you buy the rest of the ingredients). I can’t afford that for 40 skulls.

But their recipe specifically states, “This recipe will not work if you leave out the meringue powder, the skulls will fall apart.” And it was the ONLY recipe I could find on the net that looked legitimate. “Surely,” I thought, “those little grandmas in Oaxaca aren’t pulling out their tin of ultra-expensive imported meringue powder when it’s time to make calaveras.” Knowing that meringue powder is basically powdered eggs whites, I figured…why not just try using egg whites to help cement the sugar together, and maybe bake the skulls at a low temperature to speed the setting and drying process?” An experiment proceeded to unfold. And I got it right with the first try! So if you can find yourself a sugar skull mold, here’s how to make perfect calaveras without meringue powder:

6 cups sugar
2 egg whites

That’s it folks.

Put the egg whites in the bottom of a big bowl, dump in the granulated sugar, and get your hands all messy squeezing and churning it together until the sugar feels like wet sand at the beach. You want the sugar to be as dry as possible but still stick together in the mold, but it’s better for it to be too damp than too dry.

Sugar and egg whites for calaveras or Mexican sugar skulls for El Dia de los Muertos

It should be the same consistency as beach sand for making sand castles

Take a handful, dump it into your skull mold and press it down, and continue until the mold is full. Make certain that you press VERY firmly so the sugar is packed hard into the skull.

Filling the skull mold for calaveras, or Mexican sugar skulls for El Dia de Muertos

Packing the sugar firmly into the mold

Over fill the mold for calaveras or Mexican sugar skulls for El Dia de los Muertos

Over-fill the mold, pack it HARD!

Then rake a knife or straight edge across the back of the mold to give yourself a flat edge for the bottom of the skull.

Raking off excess sugar from the calaveras mold

Using the cardboard square to level off the back of the skull

Then take a spoon and scoop out a little sugar from the center of the back of the skull so that you don’t waste sugar and so the skull doesn’t weigh too much.

Scooping out excess sugar and egg white from the calavera

Careful, now!

Make sure the walls of the skull will be at least 1″ thick when you dump it out of the mold, or it may collapse on itself.

Hollowing out the calavera, or Mexican sugar skull for El Dia de los Muertos

This is an optional step but results in a lighter skull and you waste less sugar

Then take a square of cardboard just a little larger than your skull, place it against the back of the mold, and flip the mold over.

Gently flip the skull mold

Gently flip the mold over onto the cardboard

Gently pull the mold up off the sugar and you’ll have a perfect replica of a skull staring back at you.

Removing the mold from the Mexican sugar skull for El Dia de los Muertos

The mold should come off if your sugar isn't too damp with egg white

The mold should come off easily. If it is hard to pull off, your sugar is too wet and you need to add an extra handful to the bowl and work it in well with your hands. The mold should pull off easily leaving a smooth, perfect replica, and the drier the sugar is, the better this will happen.

Rinse the mold between each skull and dry with a paper towel. Continue making skulls with more sugar and more cardboard squares until you have all your skulls formed. Then, very carefully, place your skulls inside a preheated 200F oven for 30 minutes. When you remove them, the surface will be very hard to the touch. But don’t put too much stress on them yet…they need a week of drying before they’ll be hard enough all the way through to handle vigorously.

Google images for “sugar skulls” or “calaveras” to see pictures of how the skulls are decorated. Traditionally, the name of the person receiving the skull is written on a piece of colored foil which is placed across the skull’s forehead, and then the rest of the skull is decorated with brightly colored icing. You can get tubes of premixed icing at the grocery store which work just fine, or make your own by using lots of powdered sugar, an egg white, a few tablespoons of corn starch, food coloring, and a few drops of water. Stir it until it’s thick, then stuff it into a decorating bag. If you don’t have a decorating bag, make a cone of wax paper, parchment paper, or just plain paper, fill the cone with icing, and cut a tiny bit off the tip of the cone. Fold the top paper down until you can squeeze the icing out of the tip you just cut. Use the icing to decorate the skulls, which can be done as soon as they come out of the oven and cool. Then let the skulls, icing and all, dry for a week and you’ll have a perfect Mexican sugar skull.

Calaveras, or Mexican sugar skulls for El Dia de los Muertos, WITHOUT meringue powder

Calaveras, or Mexican sugar skulls for El Dia de los Muertos, WITHOUT meringue powder

The recipe above will make about 2 complete large skulls. (Molds come with a front and a back. You make them separately and then glue them together with icing. I found it was just as cool to just make the front of the skull, the face, and decorate it so it lies flat on the table and stares up at you.) So the recipe above will make 3-4 large skull faces, but this will vary depending on the size of your mold. If you make lots of skulls, buy a huge bag of sugar and lots of eggs. I went through 25 pounds of sugar and 18 eggs to make 40 skulls, and only made the front half of the skull.

49 Responses to How to make “calaveras” or Mexican sugar skulls without meringue powder

  1. Found one other meringue powder-free recipe here (or two, if you read the text there are the original Mexican ingredients mentioned)

  2. Your recipe worked perfectly. Take that pricey meringue powder!!!

  3. I’m trying this today! I don’t have skull molds, but I have space shuttle molds and… BRAIN MOLDS! Mwahahahahaha. If this works out well, I’m handing the brains out for Halloween.

  4. I made sugar brains! They turned out awesome! Thanks so much for posting this guide!

  5. I actually did find a few other egg recipes but laughed a LOT when I read yours. My reaction to the “meringue powder” was the same as yours “hey, meringues are just egg whites, can’t I just use egg whites?”
    But this – this is genius:
    “Surely,” I thought, “those little grandmas in Oaxaca aren’t pulling out their tin of ultra-expensive imported meringue powder when it’s time to make calaveras.”


  6. You can purchase meringue powder at craft stores such as Michael’s or A.C. Moore for $7 or $8

    • Which is WAYYYYYYY too expensive, when you can just use egg whites!

    • If you are going to use meringue powder please note that the meringue powder at craft stores is NOT the same thing so it won’t work that well. I think better to use the above recipe if you can’t get the real skull meringue powder. I also saw a posting that is only sugar and a tiny bit of water – here in California that would probably work, although very fragile – but I think anywhere with humidity would ruin those. I’m going to try the egg whites in a carton since they are pasteurized in case someone takes a bit of the skull!

  7. I knw it was just egg whites too, but if you dnt understand spanish, you would never have known! koool Im definitly gonna make some too. :)

  8. mary fitzsimons

    use icing sugar and whipped egg white, one egg white for 500 grams of icing/powder sugar. i mould the skulls with my hands and use cornflour to stop it sticking.have a extra powder sugar on hand if the egg white is large or the day is humid.

  9. I am so thrilled to find a recipe without Meringue powder! A life saver! I am following your blog! Thank you!

  10. Does it have to dry for a week? I am doing this for a school project at my spanish class and i only have two days for it to dry.

    • Jenna, just leave the skulls in the 200F oven for 3-4 hours and you should be fine!

    • Wondering how it turned out for you with the short window. I’m going to try a dehydrator to speed it up and hope that works – theoretically it seems like the low constant heat might be the way to go.

  11. I used this recipe to make a big batch of sugar space shuttles for some friends at the Jet Propulsion Lab (where they run the Mars rovers!), and they were a hit!

  12. You said 30 minutes on 200 degrees. How many skulls is that for? Thanks so much for going to the trouble to do this!

    • Lynette, I was doing 4 skulls in my oven, because that’s all that would fit. If your oven is big enough to hold more, I’d do an extra 5 minutes per skull beyond 4.

  13. Thank you Ben. You freaking rock. I miss watching you and your hats on TV. COME BACK!!!!!!!!!

  14. Pingback: Instructions on How to Decorate Your Own Skull « skullsproject

  15. omg!! you are a life saver. I have to do this for a school project too and only have a couple days!!! I am so happy I found your site!!!

  16. Thank you so much!!!! I bought the stupid CK meringue powder, only to find that I can’t use ANY of it, because it’s not peanut/tree nut safe, and my school is nut free! RRRRRR. Thanks for helping me not feel like a total sucker! I’ve got two trays of sugar Monarch butterflies drying right now….. Fingers crossed! Thanks so much!!!

  17. So happy I came across you site! I, too, am a teacher – with over 100 students to celebrate Dia de los Muertos. I want my students to understand what sugar skulls are all about. But with soo many students I decided on a much smaller mold – went to a local dollar store this afternoon and bought 2 skull ice cube trays for Halloween. they are purple rubber trays that will make 10 skulls – small enough for a student to paint in under 30 mins and to paste a small magnet onto the back. I will post my “hopeful” success with these molds when all is said and done.

  18. I am throwing my first Dia de los Muertos party Nov 2… so to get technical, do I beat the egg whites first, then add the sugar? maybe a dumb question but I want to get it right. LOL

  19. Christina Tapia

    Super awesome!!! I been like crazy all over town
    Looking for that MERINGUE powder n no store has it.
    U rock..Thanks for the info. I will be making the
    Sculls for my Dads grave on Nov.2.

  20. Wow! I am so glad I looked for more recipes. I was thinking how did they do this before the commercial meringue powder since this is a very old tradition. I am all about tradition when it comes to celebrations. Going to try this over the weekend.

  21. Cheaper molds can be bought online from the Wilton website. I think they are 4$. I couldn’t bring myself to buy that $15 one sold as the “original” sugar skull mold ( the originals were not plastic obviously!).

  22. How long do you think 20 ice cube sized ones should stay in the oven if I need them to be ready in a couple of days?

    • Irma, ice cube sized skulls will cure very quickly…30 minutes to an hour is all you’ll need for them to be totally ready!

      • Had them in for an hour and a half before I saw your comment. Just took them out and I couldn’t be happier with the results. Thanks!

  23. Good to know that this works! But you can buy 4oz-8oz containers of meringue powder at walmart in the icing/cake decorating section for under $5. And you can make mini calaveras with 1/2 cup sugar, 1-2 tsp water, 1 tsp meringue powder. Mix together, form into an egg shape, use the end of a wooden spoon to make eyes and the tines of a fork to make teeth/nose. Dry overnight. I’m a Spanish teacher and my students loved decorating their own calaveras. And 4oz meringue made over 80 small calaveras. In the end it’s not a bad price compared to buying egg whites or whole eggs and separating the yolks!

    • Stefanie, many of my blog visitors are against shopping at Walmart, but you are correct…it can now be purchased there. However, it’s still FAR cheaper to buy eggs over meringue powder, and separating an egg takes about 2 seconds in your hand. Less time than measuring out a teaspoon of meringue powder!

  24. What kind of sugar did you use for this recipe?

    • Regular granulated table sugar. Some of the calaveras are made with a dough from powdered sugar, also, but I haven’t experimented with that.

  25. Just wanted to chime in. I followed your instructions and my calaveras turned out awesome! Thanks!

  26. Thanks, I also know how to make it without the mold (on another site I looked up) so this way, its not as hard and ten times more awesome. Thanks so much for this, you are a lifesaver. Thanks this is awesome I don’t know what to say

  27. A question, where can I buy the molds? They are special for the oven? Silicon molds?

  28. I made these during hurricane Sandy. I let them sit @ 200 in the oven for a few hours as we were in a hotel and I was just giving the kids something to do and needed them hard quickly. Total success even with the humidity!

  29. I have to make sugar skulls for school tomorrow will i have time?

    • Madison, it would be pushing it, but you COULD do it, you just won’t have much time for decoration. Leave them in the oven an extra couple of hours and forego the long room-temp drying time.

  30. How do you make them 3D if you have the back part? How do you connect the front and back?

  31. Can you paint them with edible markers?

    • Mary, I don’t have experience with edible markers, but as long as they’re not too wet that they dissolve the sugar, I’d imagine it would work!