Devan

Editor at Kitchen Stories

Think of your favorite baked desserts. Does a no-fuss chocolate loaf cake come to mind, or maybe tangy lemon meringue cheesecake? Perhaps something more unusual like an Irish coffee bundt cake or a sheet cake with a coconut-infused frosting?

Whatever sweet treats tickle your fancy, chances are they all have one thing in common: A sweet, sugary covering. Most desserts come topped with some variation of a fluffy frosting, satiny glaze, or rich ganache, but do you know the differences between these vital dessert finishers that can elevate a simple cake or put the finishing touch on a festive cookie?

Let’s get to know these sweet champions—from richly thick buttercream to smooth royal icing, simple chocolate ganache to tangy cream cheese frosting—and give them the spotlight they deserve.

Are frostings and icings the same thing?

I’ve always been told there’s no such thing as a stupid question but the question of frosting versus icing is, undoubtedly, one that still makes some people roll their eyes. Are the two names simply regional variants, or are there differences between icings and frostings that can help us create a clear divide? After painstaking research that led me to plunge into the dire circle of sweets for over a week (please excuse my sarcasm, I love sweets), I can definitively say that though frostings and icings are part of one big happy family, they can differ both in texture and application.

Frostings are often based on dairy fat, usually butter or heavy cream, which gives them their thick, fluffy texture and undeniably rich taste. They are used to crumb coat cakes or sit proudly atop cupcakes. They are ideal for piping, coating, spreading, and even filling a variety of sweets.

Icings, or sugar-based frostings, often taste sweeter than butter-based frostings but lack the richness. They can still have a little bit of fluff to them but are often smoother and thinner in texture, ready to drizzle for a matte-finish or spectacular sheen that’s perfect for brushing hand pies, covering sugar cookies, or glazing cakes or muffins with a thin saccharine coating.

With that in mind, let’s break down all the frostings and icings you need to know before your next big bake!

Kitchen Stories

4 types of dairy-based frostings and how to use them

1. Buttercream

As well as being one of the most simple frosting recipe there is, it’s also the most versatile, and—in many humble opinions, not just my own—the most delicious. The key to making a perfect buttercream is to beat the sugar and butter together until they are really light and fluffy. Then you can add your flavorings and a pinch of salt (because it makes everything better). Whether sandwiched between cookies or coating a cake, buttercream is the frosting to turn to when you’re not quite sure which to choose. In short, with a basic buttercream, you just can’t go wrong.

Basic Vanilla Buttercream

Basic Vanilla Buttercream

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Bonus tip: Let refrigerated buttercream come down to room temperature before serving, it tastes a whole lot better that way.

2. Cream cheese frosting

The perfect companion to any carrot cake worth its salt, cream cheese frosting is a tangy frosting with a cream cheese and confectioner’s sugar base, usually mixed with butter, vanilla extract, and/or lemon juice.

Carrot cake with cream cheese frosting

Carrot cake with cream cheese frosting

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The flavor of the cream cheese is the perfect foil to heavily spiced or rich chocolate cakes, but we also love to use it on a variety of rolls that lie somewhere in-between breakfast and dessert.

Pumpkin cinnamon rolls

Pumpkin cinnamon rolls

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Gingerbread loaf cake

Gingerbread loaf cake

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Chocolate-Guinness cake

Chocolate-Guinness cake

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3. Whipped cream

Arguably the easiest of all the dairy-based frostings, whipped cream is a simple, airy mixture of heavy cream and, usually, sugar or confectioner’s sugar, that ranks as high in its visual appeal as its taste.

Using the above as a guideline for the base, you can experiment with different essences, spices, herbs, and even more creative flavorings, to pair with your favorite whipped cream topped desserts.

How to infuse whipped cream

How to infuse whipped cream

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3-ingredient roasted peaches with honey whipped cream

3-ingredient roasted peaches with honey whipped cream

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Glazed chestnuts with whipped sherry cream

Glazed chestnuts with whipped sherry cream

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4. Fudge frosting

Chocolate lovers were probably holding their breath in anticipation for this one! A classic fudge frosting combines butter, milk or heavy cream, confectioner’s sugar, and melted chocolate. Whipped to a creamy and light spreadable frosting, there’s nothing not to like about a cake bedecked with this chocolatey blanket.

Strawberry-filled cupcakes with chocolate-covered strawberries

Strawberry-filled cupcakes with chocolate-covered strawberries

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Smarties cake

Smarties cake

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4 types of sugar-based frostings and how to use them

1. Royal icing

The go-to for any intricate decorating of cakes and cookies, royal icing is one of the only icings that dries completely hard which. It’s a super sweet mixture that can also work like an edible glue for things like gingerbread houses and its pure white color makes it ideal for working a variety of bright colors into. Intricate designs and lettering are just a few ingredients, and minutes, away.

How to make royal icing: Whisk together an egg white (or 1 egg white’s worth of powdered egg whites or meringue powder), 2 cups of confectioner’s sugar, and 1 teaspoon of water until you have a thick and smooth icing, approx. 2 min. It should be texture of pancake batter—equally as runny as thick. For intricate decoration or writing, you can thicken it with more sugar, and you can also thin it out with more water to use an all-over covering. Transfer it to a piping bag for easy use and decorate to your heart’s content!

2. Simple glaze

Made by combining confectioner’s sugar and a liquid (usually milk, lemon juice, or water), this glaze is best poured over a doughnut for a thin, sweet shell or kept thick for drizzling over cakes in fantastic designs. Follow our basic sugar icing method and vary it with our suggestions below.

Glazed doughnuts

Glazed doughnuts

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Quick sugar icing

Quick sugar icing

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How to make coconut glaze: To make a simple coconut glaze, combine ¼ cup of coconut milk with 1 ½ cups of confectioner’s sugar. Add some shredded coconut for texture!

How to make jam glaze: Making a jam glaze is as easy as choosing the flavor you want and heating up some of that jam or preserve with equal parts water over medium heat. Let it simmer until it’s syrupy and brush it over a warm cake before frosting, use a thick layer as a cake or cupcake filling, or toss freshly fried fritters into it.

How to make chocolate glaze: You can use melted chocolate as a glaze all on its own, or melt butter, chocolate, and corn syrup with a little bit of milk or water to create a satiny chocolate glaze with a richer texture that will keep its sheen.

3. Meringue

Meringue is a dessert on its own, yes, but it also makes for a delectable, pillowy topping for sweet cakes, pies, or tarts. A simple mixture of egg whites and sugar (with salt, lemon juice, and cream of tartar often added), meringue is stiff and glossy with a lighter-than-air mouthfeel and subtle sweetness that balances out both texture and flavor for cakes that skew dense or moist. Try these recipes to get a feel for meringue as a sweet topping to any number of treats.

Mini lemon meringue cheesecakes

Mini lemon meringue cheesecakes

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Rhubarb meringue cake

Rhubarb meringue cake

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Pear meringue tart

Pear meringue tart

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4. Seven-minute (marshmallow) frosting

If you united the best parts of a marshmallow and a meringue frosting, the outcome would very likely be the old-school, classic, seven-minute (also called marshmallow) frosting. It tastes like you took a bite out of the fluffiest marshmallow cloud you could find, melting in your mouth in a puff of sweetness that you’ll come to crave. It’s thick and glossy and sets up relatively stiff, making it an ideal filling and frosting for layer cakes of all kinds.

How to make seven-minute frosting: In a heatproof bowl set over a pot of simmering water, combine 1 ½ cups sugar, 2 tablespoons corn syrup (optional), and 6 egg whites. Whisk together frequently and cook until it reaches approx. 160°F (70°C). Remove it from the heat and use a hand mixer or stand mixer with beaters to beat the mixture on high speed until it’s glossy and thick and has doubled in size. Add vanilla extract or any other flavoring you like (rose water or orange blossom water are delicious!) and use immediately. It stiffens relatively quickly, so for the best result, don’t make this frosting ahead of time. You can also toast it up with a flambé torch for a different look, texture, and campfire-esque taste.

Eggnog cupcakes with marshmallow frosting

Eggnog cupcakes with marshmallow frosting

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What is ganache?

A glaze, frosting, sauce, or filling, ganache is a decadent mixture of bittersweet or dark chocolate and heavy cream. Smooth and silky with the most photogenic sheen you could imagine, ganache is an easy choice for all sorts of sweets from an extra rich topping for cakes and tarts to the thick filling for a classic cookie sandwich.

How to make ganache

How to make ganache

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Water ganache

You learn something new every day and thanks to Helen Goh and Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbook, Sweet, our eyes were opened to the possibility of something called water ganache. The vegan alternative (make sure you choose vegan chocolate!) to classic ganache simply replaces the heavy cream with water. It’s tastes just as good but is a little bit lighter in texture and can be a touch thinner in consistency.

What is fondant?

With the texture of playdough and super sweet taste, fondant (or fondant icing) is used to decorate or sculpt decorations for cakes and other pastries. Stabilized with gelatin and glycerine, it has reliably pliable (say that three times, fast!) consistency which it makes it the ideal choice for sculpting, covering, or creating cutouts to decorate cakes.

How to apply fondant

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