A Sweet Guide to Frosting

A Sweet Guide to Frosting via Sweetapolita

1. rolled fondant 2. whipped cream frosting 3. ganache 4. sugary frosting 5. chocolate glaze 6. gumpaste (flower) 7. chocolate party frosting 8. swiss meringue buttercream 9. royal icing 

Frosting? Icing? Tom-aa-to, tom-ah-to? Well, that depends. It depends on where are you live, and maybe even what the confection is made from. In some parts of the globe, people simply prefer to call all versions “icing” and leave out the termfrostingall-together. In Canada, we tend to use the word “icing” much more frequently than “frosting,” regardless of the dessert in question. Confused yet?

That being said, I often relate icing to thinner glazes and royal icing, and think of frosting as the fluffy, sugary sort. I reserve the word “buttercream” for meringue-based buttercreams. I have noticed that Americans tend to favour the term “frosting” as a catch-all. All sorts of craziness indeed. According to some dictionaries, the words are synonymous, so I think I’ll just go with that. It is a bit of a gray area, but some baker folks are passionate about the fact that icing is one thing and frosting is, well, another . . .

And then just when you get that straightened out, there are countless varieties of the sweet and creamy bliss: meringue buttercream, sugary frosting, ganache, royal icing, fondant, gumpaste, chocolate frosting, chocolate glaze, whipped cream frosting and more. Most often, the questions readers ask me are about frosting — what’s the difference between them, when to use each, etc. So, to answer those questions I’ve put together a little guide to frosting. It’s certainly not a comprehensive list, but it’s a guide to those I use most often, and the ones you’ll come across throughout my recipes.

So, here we go!

1. Rolled Fondant

  • Some say “FOND-ent” and some say “fond-AHNT.” Both are accepted as correct, and you know I’ll love you no matter what, but can we all (please) unite and say “FOND-ent?” Also known, in some cases (such as in UK) as “sugarpaste.”
  • Made from icing sugar, corn syrup, oil and flavourings (and several other binding ingredients).
  • Can be purchased or made from scratch (many cake designers choose to buy it pre-made). My favourite brand is Satin Ice because it is so, well, satiny, tastes like a sugary dense marshmallow and melts in your mouth. It also dries with a firm porcelain finish (more so than other brands, I find).
  • Feels and behaves like a dense play-dough. Pure white in colour — takes beautifully to gel paste colours (kneaded in). Also sold in chocolate (delish!) and vanilla that’s been pre-coloured.
  • Rolls out like pie dough to cover cakes with an icing that dries with a smooth, hard finish. It can be left smooth and dry for a modern look, or can be impressed or embossed while still soft. Once completely dry, it can be decorated by piping royal icing, painting with non-toxic colour powders mixed with vodka (in photo above), colouring with non-toxic markers (remember the rainbow doodle cake?), along with countless other methods of decorating.
  • Most common uses: covering buttercream cakes and fancy cookies for a smooth finish, modeling cake decorations. Cake decorations made with fondant will always be softer than those made with gumpaste (below).
  • Challenges: dries out quickly once exposed to air, which means you must work swiftly. Can tear easily once rolled, which does make covering a cake in fondant a time-sensitive task. “Sweats” when in a humid environment (but will dry back out once humidity is gone), softens in heat and direct sunlight.
  • Can add tiny amounts of water to dried fondant to adhere other fondant decorations, strips, etc. Wet fondant will dissolve into an instant “glue.”
  • Pipe-a-bility: none
  • To strengthen small amounts of fondant for special decorations you’d like to strengthen (and still have taste good), you can knead a sprinkle of Tylose powder into your fondant. It will become something between fondant and gumpaste.
  • To know how much fondant to use for each cake size/shape, you can refer to this chart.
  • Keeps at room temperature, wrapped in plastic then sealed in airtight container, for about a year.
  • You can see more of the fondant-covered cake in the above image in this post.

 2. Whipped Cream Frosting 

  • Made from whipping cream, sugar and vanilla.  Light, airy, not-so-sweet, cloud-like.
  • Best used for frosting and filling vanilla cake, berry desserts and cupcakes.
  • Simple and quick to make (simple whipping is all it takes).
  • Challenges: needs to be refrigerated after a few hours and is best made at the last moment
  • Pipe-a-bility: can be piped on cupcakes with a pastry bag and large plain round tip, but not ideal for most piping styles.
  • You can see the Whipped Vanilla Dream Cupcakes in this post.

3. Ganache

  • Pronounced guh-nahsh.
  • Made by whisking chopped solid chocolate covered by warm heavy cream (36-40% fat content). In Canada, it’s more common to find whipping cream (35%), which is what I use.
  • It’s best to use quality chocolate: bittersweet (extra dark), semisweet (dark), milk or white and .  Liqueurs, extracts and other flavourings can be added for countless varieties.
  • Ganache can be made into many different consistencies — thicker (more chocolate, less cream) for spreading over candy, tarts and more; thinner (more cream, less chocolate) for pouring over cakes, desserts, etc., and every consistency in between. Altering the temperature can also change the consistency for use — the cooler the ganache, the thicker it will be. Once heated, it will be smooth and pourable once again. Room temperature ganache can be whisked (beat) for a moment or two to create a whipped version ideal for frosting and filling a cake.
  • Thick ganache can be rolled into balls and coated in cocoa powder for homemade truffles.
  • Can be stored, covered, in refrigerator for several days and reheated slowly for use.
  • You can see the Dark Chocolate Salted Caramel Tart from the above image in this post.

4. Sugary Frosting

  • Also known as “american buttercream,” “icing,” “cupcake frosting,” and more. 
  • Typically made from butter, icing sugar, vanilla and milk. In grocery shops and some bakeries it will often be made from shortening. The frosting most of us think of when we remember our childhood birthday cakes.
  • Taste: creamy, rich and super-sweet. Can add flavourings, citrus zest, infused milks, vanilla bean, melted and cooled white chocolate, and more.
  • Best used for cupcakes and layer cakes.
  • Simple to make (beating of all ingredients in one bowl). Keeps at room temperature for several days.
  • Pipe-a-bility: will hold its shape when piped, but not as stable as meringue-based buttercreams.
  • Takes well to colour, but has buttery tone (unless you use shortening in place of butter), causing some challenges when attempting certain colours, such as cool blue (will have teal appearance) and pink (can have a peach appearance).
  • You can see the Pastel Swirl Cake shown in the above collage in this post.

5. Chocolate Glaze

  • Made my melting chopped chocolate and butter together (sometimes corn syrup).
  • Similar to ganache in its deep, dark, glossy appearance, but has no cream, therefore less rich.
  • Satiny, shiny and thin when warm, then thickens when cool.
  • Best used for pouring over cupcakes (frosted or not), cakes, donuts, etc.
  • Pipe-a-bility: none.
  • Can be stored, covered, in refrigerator for several days and warmed when needed.
  • You can find the Dark Chocolate & Raspberry Buttercream Cupcakes shown in the collage in this post.

6. Gumpaste

  • Similar to fondant, gumpaste is a soft, knead-able “dough” for creating cake decorations. You would not, however, cover a cake, cupcake or cookie with gumpaste, as it dries rock-hard and really has no taste at all. 
  • Can be rolled out extremely thin (paper-thin), even thinner than fondant. Once rolled thin, it can be ruffled (as in photo), pleated, etc. Doesn’t tear while working with it, the way fondant does. Soft gumpaste will start to harden immediately when exposed to air, so I always work with small quantities, keeping a small sealed plastic bag nearby to place the bits I’m not using.
  • When dry, it has a porcelain feel and look ideal for creating sugar flowers, highly-detailed decorations, figurines, etc.
  • Typically it’s used in much smaller quantities, as it’s not something you would eat. Most gumpaste decorations are pulled off a cake and set aside before eating.
  • You can make it or buy it premade. I used to make it, but now prefer to buy the Satin Ice Gumpaste, as I find it dries the most porcelain-like than my homemade variety.
  • Takes well to gel paste colour. Can be painted or dusted with dry petal dust or shimmer powder once dry.
  • Pipe-a-bility: none.
  • If kept airtight and wrapped in a sealed bucket, it will last many, many months.

 7. Chocolate Frosting

  • Chocolate version of sugary frosting
  • Typically made from butter, icing sugar, melted dark or extra dark chocolate, vanilla and milk. In grocery shops and some bakeries it will often be made from shortening. The frosting is, again, what most of us think of when we remember our childhood birthday cakes.
  • Simple to make (beating of all ingredients in one bowl). Glossy appearance.
  • Taste: creamy, rich, chocolaty and sweet. Can add malt powder, liqueurs, extracts and more.
  • Best used for cupcakes and layer cakes.
  • Pipe-a-bility: will hold its shape when piped, but not as stable as meringue-based buttercreams.
  • Best used right away for ideal consistency while frosting, but then lasts on cake for several days at room temperature.
  • You can find the Chocolate Birthday Cake shown in the above collage in this post.

8. Meringue Buttercream 

  • Swiss Meringue Buttercream (aka SMB and SMBC) and Italian Meringue Buttercream (aka IMB and IMBC) are most popular variations. Both variations are the sophisticated cousin, of sorts, to the sweet and simple sugary frosting. Baking purists might say that meringue-based buttercream is the only actual “buttercream.” 
  • Made from granulated sugar, egg whites, butter, vanilla and salt (with countless options for variations). Both are a bit time-consuming, but fairy simple to make. The process involves beating cool-but-softened unsalted butter chunks into stiff-peak meringue, followed by adding flavourings. They are almost identical in taste and texture, and simply differ by way in which the meringue is made before adding the butter.
  • The result is very rich, buttery, creamy and not too sweet.
  • The most versatile frosting you can make — once your base is made, you can flavour it with everything from melted chocolate to lemon curd.
  • Used for filling and frosting cakes of all kinds, coating cakes to be covered in marzipan or rolled fondant, frosting cupcakes, filling baked meringues, and more. In most cases, this is the buttercream that you will see on a wedding or event cake that isn’t covered in fondant.
  • Meringue-based buttercreams are the most stable frosting you can use for a cake that will be outside in the heat, although it will melt in direct sunlight and severe heat.
  • Pipe-a-bility: excellent. Keeps shape the best of all frostings, and will hold up to ruffles, swirls, and more.
  • Takes well to colour, but has buttery tone, causing some challenges when attempting certain colours, such as baby blue (will have teal appearance) and pink (can have a peach appearance). I have also found that it does not take well to Wilton brand colours (the colour seems to become speckled). It seems Sugarflair and AmeriColor brands work best in every scenario. Because the buttercream is so rich and buttery, I also find it’s very difficult to get deep, dark pigmented colours.
  • Can be frozen (a month) or refrigerated (a week) in an airtight container, then brought to room temperature before re-whipping.
  • You can find the Lemon-Blueberry Macaron Delight Cake featured in the above collage in this post.

9. Royal Icing

  • Typically made from meringue powder/egg whites, icing sugar, cream of tartar and water.
  • A one-bowl icing that is a simple mixture of all of the ingredients slowly incorporated in a mixer on low speed for 10-12 minutes.
  • The result is glossy and very sweet.
  • Can alter thickness from super-thick to thin and runny by adding water, depending on what it’s being used for.
  • Most often used for decorating cookies, gingerbread houses, covering cupcakes (fairy cakes) and as a glue for adhering sugar decorations to cakes, cookies, gingerbread houses, and more.
  • Pipe-a-bility: thicker royal icing (not as much water) pipes beautifully, and it what is used on wedding cakes and fancy cakes for piped patterns, swags, flowers, and more. It dries very hard.
  • Can be kept at room temperature for a day, but must always be covered, or it will get crusty. Can refrigerate by covering bowl with a damp cloth with a dinner plate on top, for up to 2 days.
  • You can find the Marzipan-Filled Easter Cookies shown in the collage in this post.

So friends, I hope that helps in some way. If I’ve not answered some of your frosting-related questions, feel free to leave them in the comment section of this post, and I’ll do my best to answer them!

I’ll be back in a few days with another recipe. ♥


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  1. says

    Great post. I’m one of those that call ‘sugary frosting’, buttercream- because well (at least mine) always contains heavy cream and butter. So, it fits, right? :-)

    Question for you. I’ve always wondered what distinguishes Bavarian Cream from frosting?

  2. says

    WOW. It must have taken you HOURS to write up this post! What a beautiful and comprehensive look at icing!

    I do have a question about Swiss Meringue Buttercream. I made a wedding cake using it recently, and I found that when I piped it, it seemed to yellow in color a bit. The decor on the cake was essentially white on white (ivory on ivory, really) so the yellowish piping was somewhat noticeable.

    Is this due to the icing heating up under my hands in the piping bag? Is there something wrong with the brand/type of tip or bag I am using (Wilton) that would cause this discoloration?

    Would appreciate your thoughts!

  3. says

    Wow Double Wow! Thanks very much for your very detailed notes. I’m a big fan of all your frosting recipes and have made the SMB countless times. My favourite flavor to this is to add a good dose of creamy peanut butter, what a sweet salty complement to any chocolate cupcake! Also love your chocolate fudge frosting to which I’ll add a large amount of chopped hazelnuts *drool as I think about it now*

    Like to check with you if its necessary to place the buttercream into the fridge before using as I find that it frequently turned runny as I piped towards the end of each piping bag. i wonder if I’ve not cooked the sugar and egg white to the right temperature or was it due to the warmth of the hands..

    Also, would you have any idea how long chocolate ganache can keep if I freeze it?

    Thanks very much!!

  4. says

    Great post!
    I had the same problem with colouring SMB. I wanted to make it baby blue for my nephew and it turned out teal! So I paired it with orange and the end result was pretty.
    What alternative is there in such a case? Whipped cream frosting?

  5. Erica says

    Great list! But you forgot my favourite… cream cheese frosting :) A variant of sugary frosting, you say? Perhaps you’re right, but I would argue – based on deliciousness alone – that it deserves it’s own category!

  6. says

    This was a very informative post. :) I really liked it. I’m becoming more interested in decorating cookies and cakes, which means I will be getting more into the different type of frostings, so this was a nice post to condense all the options out there :)

  7. says

    This is the most useful post ever – one thing that always confuses me when I’m thinking about making a cake is what icing to use when and now I have the perfect cheat sheet!

  8. says

    Totally agree on the fondant pronunciation matter……I think people that say fondAHNT are trying to hard and think they’re French but they’re not……

    I’m a cake decorating instructor and I am in agreement with the idea that icing and frosting are interchangeable terms, so you can ice with frosting or frost with icing and you’re doing the same thing.

  9. Liz says

    Great description! I never use the word “frosting” only icing. Maybe it’s a regional thing – I grew up in Cleveland so perhaps we have that Canadian influence. Whenever I hear the word “frost” I think of either the ice on my car, or the movie, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days!

  10. Patty says

    I have noticed when making the SMB and using the Wilton colors that when I put the second coat of icing on after crumb coating that the icing bleeds or changes color throughout the top to the bottom. For instance if I touch up a spot then the color becomes darker in that spot and stays that way.

    Is this because of using Wilton colours? I have never used any other product on icing a cake and have been wondering about this colour change for some time now. If you can shed some light on this that would be great. does anyone else have a similar problem with their icing and shade changes with the SMB?

  11. Jenny says

    Am I the only one who has a really hard time getting SMBC up to 160 degrees? It takes forever and sometimes I think it tastes too eggy. I even bought a proper double broiler (Martha Stewart) to see if it would help seal in the heat better, but it’s still been difficult.

  12. Nat says

    I’d love to know more difference between IMBC and SMBC, if you have the time and inclination … i’m a new student in baking. You said the difference is between the way you make the meringue before you mix it into the cool but soft butter which has been whipped to soft peaks … dare i ask you to elaborate further? But thank you for the rest of the info. Glad I found this blog!

  13. Gina says

    You should do a favorite post of 2012 like you did with 2011;) would love to know your fav cakes and most success stories

  14. Yeida says

    Hi! I need to make some cupcakes for a birthday pool party. May sound weird considering it’s January but,I live in the tropics so as you may imagine it will be very hot outside. The cupcakes will be put around 8:00am in the cake table and will probably be there until past noon. I will be very thankful for a recomendation on which kind of frosting will be best for this purpose. For me it is important that the frosting has height, because of the design i wanted to make using an open star tip. Thanks!

  15. Julianne says

    I recently made cookies and used fondant to ice them. Some I just topped with regular rolled fondant, but on others I “let down” softened fondant with a little water until I got it smooth (it took a bit of elbow grease!). I put it in my squeeze bottle and used it to pipe and flood just fine! The next day the fondant had set solid and still had a nice sheen to it. It’s not ideal, maybe, but if you don’t have the ingredients to make royal icing, you can get away with this on cookies.

  16. says

    I just found your blog a couple of days ago. So far, I find all your cakes and recipes amazing and yummy.
    I’m writing from Europe. I have a Spanish blog http://www.loleta.es full of paellas and Italian, French, Indian, Thai …cooking mixed with traveling around the world. You have an English version to follow!!.
    Congratulations. Your blog is just great and I can’t wait for the weekend to make some of your recipes!!

  17. says

    Thank you so much Rosie. Before I found your blog, I only ever iced anything with a whipped butter and sugar mix… Now SMB is my go-to icing!! I use your method and don’t know what I’d do with out you!! Looking forward to more of your awesome cakes this year!! :)

  18. says

    such a fantastic post! thank you so much for the detailed information, I will be bookmarking this for sure as this definitely helps clear up some questions I have had. I learned to make SMB from your great step-by-step tutorial and it is now my favorite for cupcakes..you are so talented and smart, keep up the fantastic work!!:)

  19. devon says

    you are my go to girl for all things dessert. i went to pastry chef school, owned a small bakery but now im a stay at home mom with 2 kiddos and your website keeps me in the know!!! LOVE IT:)

  20. says

    This is a fantastic post! I’m a life long baker although, I have no problem differentiating between these, I’ve never thought about each with so much depth. Wonderful!

  21. Sara says

    I’ve made today your Swiss meringue buttercream it’s Devine .
    It mixes well with everything, so scrummy :)
    Thank you I don’t think I will ever go back to buttercream alone.
    I used liquid egg whites for the first time too. Great stuff. X
    Sara x

  22. Sarahraspberry says

    Thank you so much for this post… i was tired of trying and making error or not being sure of what is the best icing for piping which keeps the shape as well.

  23. says

    Thank you for the teachings never did baking at school but am teaching myself, do you offer online courses, would love to communicate with you.thanks once again, looking forward to hearing from you.

  24. Stacey says

    This is a great post! I was wondering if I could ask your advice? I am making a birthday cake for my daughters birthday. It’ll be two or three layers of 9″ round white cake. My family are huge fans of your whipped cream frosting but I am worried the consistency won’t work for layering and decorating. (I also want to put it all together and decorate it the day before.) any thoughts? We are not huge fans of the sweetness of sugary frosting but I’m thinking I may have to go that way??
    Thanks in advance for any advice!

  25. Jessica says

    THANK YOU! I just found this site after hours researching on my own the best type of frosting for cupcakes. I’m doing everything DIY for my daughter’s 4th birthday on April 5th and had no idea that there were so many frosting types not to mention COOKED frosting!! I’m going with the SMBC and can’t wait to experiment this weekend. You Rock :)

  26. Nicole Butt says

    Hi Rosie-
    I discovered your site randomly a few years ago when I was looking for some ideas for a cake for my little girls 1st birthday. I think your cakes are amazing and I always look at your site for inspiration :) I just saw the image of the cake with the gumpaste flowers (no.6) on your ‘Sweet guide to Frosting’ page. OMG this cake looks stunning- any chance of seeing more photos of it?? Any tutorials on those flowers? I am quite the novice and haven’t worked with gumpaste yet.
    Thanks- Nicole x

  27. Carol Ftelianos says

    Thank you so much for the above information. I have googled so many times trying to find a breakdown like this but have struggled finding one that makes any sense. Absolutely love all your recipes. You are an inspiration.

  28. Vanessa says

    Hi. I would just like to ask. What is the best icing to crumb coat before covering the cake with fondant? I am a newbie in baking and I am making a cake for an outdoor party. I have tried using buttercream but a few hours after it became runny and ruined the fondant. Please help..

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