Are frostings, icings and glazes more important than a cake itself? As any kid—big or little!—who’s licked the bowl can attest: yes. The ultimate finishing touch, a thick swirl or drizzle adds that last bit of sweetness and contrasting texture, and can even cover up a crumbly cake glitch or two. Every type of cake has its perfect match. Is there a difference between them, you ask? And are there multiple types of each one? To get to the bottom of these confectionary questions, we whipped up the details below.
There’s a reason Buttercream Frosting is so popular. At its most basic, it’s straightforward to make: just “cream” the butter (meaning beat it for several minutes), then add sugar and a touch of vanilla and salt! Light, fluffy and neutral tasting, this frosting is simple to spread and complements all sorts of cake and cupcake flavors, such as our Matcha Cake with Vanilla Buttercream. Once you’ve nailed basic buttercream, try mixing in apple butter to make our Beet Cake with Apple Buttercream, or maple syrup for Pumpkin Cupcakes with Maple Buttercream Frosting. Our Chocolate Buttercream is a must-try, too.
Whipped Cream Frosting
Whipped cream frosting is made similarly to plain whipped cream, with confectioners’ sugar and often vanilla added for sweetness and flavor, and a little cream of tartar (about ½ teaspoon for every pint of cream) for stability. Because it’s neutral in flavor and super airy and light, this frosting is a great choice for stacked berry cakes. For maximum volume and smoothest texture, chill your bowl and whisk before beginning, and always used well-chilled heavy or whipping cream.
Cream Cheese Frosting
Carrot Cake and Red Velvet Cake seem to have the most ardent fans. Is it because they are passionate about carrots, or those ruby-hued layers? Maybe so, but we’ll place our bets that the Cream Cheese Frosting that tops these beloved treats is what's really taking the cake! This thick, creamy, pleasantly tangy frosting is also great on dark chocolate and caramel cakes and cupcakes, as well as pumpkin, zucchini and banana cakes, too.
Light and fluffy, this old-fashioned frosting is made by simmering cream or milk with flour until thickened, then cooling the mixture before blending it with creamed butter and sugar. Fun fact: it was the original topping for red velvet cake! It also works beautifully on sheet cakes, such as this Birthday Cake, which you can than decorate with sprinkles or candy topping, if you like.
Swiss Meringue Buttercream
Swiss meringue buttercream is a favorite among serious bakers who love its shiny look and silky-smooth texture. Because it starts with beating egg whites and sugar in a double boiler, and since a candy thermometer is often recommended, this is frosting is among the fussier to make. But if you’re up for the task, Swiss meringue buttercream is sure to elevate a basic Yellow Cake to sublime heights.
Icing (including the popular chocolate icing called ganache) is another popular cake and cookie topping that’s thinner than frosting, but thicker than glaze. While icings set quickly and stiffen as they dry, glazes also set but don’t harden because of their lower sugar content. Icings and glazes are poured or spooned over cakes and other confections (like cinnamon buns), rather than spread like frosting.
Another favorite of professional bakers, Easy Royal Icing hardens fast and shiny, and is often used to decorate Sugar Cookies and fancy tiered cakes. Because it employs raw egg whites, it’s best to use pasteurized eggs for this icing.
Find out all there is to know about making, using and storing royal icing here.
WATCH: How To Pipe Frosting Petals
A simple mixture of confectioners' sugar and a liquid, such as milk, lemon juice or water, glaze can be made in a variety of consistencies—from thick to thin—which dry to varying degrees of stiffness, but do not harden (see Icing above). Drizzle your favorite glazes atop tea cakes, such as our Glazed Lemon Pound Cake; pastries, like our Hot Cross Buns; cookies, such as our Lollipop Cookies; and last but not least, our doughnuts! Glazes can also be flavored in all sorts of ways, from pomegranate to matcha, white chocolate and beyond!