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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