Ever wonder what kind of frosting you should use? There is no single answer as it depends on what you are frosting! When I started decorating cakes 25 years ago, I had no idea that there was any other kind than the classic recipe my mom used made from butter, powdered sugar, vanilla, and milk.
But I quickly learned that there are many types of frosting, or “icing” and to pick the right one for the job is crucial to your sweet dessert success! So here is a quick list of some of the most common kinds of frosting and their suggested uses.
American Buttercream is most like the classic recipe my mom used when I was a kid. It is basically butter and/or shortening, vanilla extract, powdered sugar, and milk. The consistency can be thicker or thinner based on the amount of milk you add.
Pros: Easy to prepare, and you probably already have the ingredients on hand. If you don’t have them, you’ll have no trouble at all finding them at the grocery store. You can also use other flavors of extract in addition to or in place of vanilla, making it versatile. Because this frosting contains some shortening, it is more stable than some other types and doesn’t melt as easily as a frosting with a higher butter content.
Cons: This frosting can be VERY sweet! While this might be considered a “Pro” with some people, I do find that it can be a little overwhelming, and you wouldn’t want to use it on a rich and overly sweet type of cake. Also, because of the shortening in the recipe, this frosting can be somewhat stiff to spread over a cake, and therefore it can be tricky to frost a cake without having this icing tear up crumbs on your cake sides.
SWISS MERINGUE BUTTERCREAM
Swiss Meringue Buttercream is my go-to icing for almost all of my cakes! When I found this, I seriously fell in love! So smooth and delicious it is certainly a staple in my bakery. What is Swiss Meringue Buttercream and why is it so awesome? Well, it is basically meringue (sweetened and whipped egg whites) with flavoring, and butter whipped in.
Pros: This icing is so velvety-smooth that it spreads so easily. You virtually never have to worry about it tearing crumbs from your cake! It is also absolutely delicious and my favorite part is that it is not too sweet. For this reason, I love to use it underneath fondant, which is very sweet. It also pipes beautifully! If you want nice borders on a cake, or if you are piping rosettes onto cupcakes, this icing works like magic!
Cons: Most of the “Cons” for this icing are due to its high butter content. Because it contains LOTS of butter (2 lbs in the recipe I use), it is very sensitive to heat. You would not want to use this on an outdoor wedding cake in the summer, or even inside with sun shining on it through a window! Also, the high butter content is not palatable to everyone. While I find it delicious, some brides have mentioned that it feels a little “greasy” on the palate.
CREAM CHEESE ICING
Cream Cheese Icing is also one of my favorites! I love the slight tangy flavor that compliments the sweet. Your classic cream cheese frosting contains butter, softened cream cheese, powdered sugar and vanilla extract.
Pros: I find this icing not too sweet because of the cream cheese. It reminds me of a creamy cheesecake but in frosting form. It goes well with almost any flavor of cake, but you’ll almost always find it on Red Velvet and Carrot Cake. You can also add in other flavors (one of my favorite ways to ‘zazz it up, is to add orange zest and orange extract). It’s also delicious in chocolate form.
Cons: If you want or need a pure white color to the icing (as in a wedding cake), you will not get this with this recipe. It has a definite yellowish hue to it. You also need to refrigerate a cake that has this as a filling or icing – so this would not be good for an outdoor wedding in the heat. I also have come across a few people who don’t like the idea of sweetened cream cheese (I’m talking to you, Mike! *wink*).
Oh how I love chocolate ganache!! What is ganache? Basically equal parts of dark chocolate and boiled heavy cream (usually also contains some type of extract or liquor). I also add espresso powder to mine as I find that the coffee flavor compliments the dark chocolate beautifully.
Pros: Delicious!!! (If you like chocolate, which if you don’t, I’m not sure we can be friends – just kidding…kinda!). It also has a few different ways you can use it. The photo above shows a poured ganache. This is cooled slightly after all of the chocolate has melted in to a smooth texture and it is poured over your cake. You can also let it cool completely at room temperature and it takes on the texture of Nutella, which can then be spread over a cake with a spatula just like other frostings:
Cooled Ganache Iced on Top of Cake
Another use is to whip the ganache after it has cooled and use it as a mousse-like filling, as in the picture below:
Cons: I seriously can’t think of any…just kidding! Obviously chocolate, while the best thing in the world, doesn’t go with every flavor of cake. It is also brown, so color can be an issue. It is also sensitive to heat, so you would need to consider the event’s venue conditions before picking this as your icing choice.
Royal icing contains only a few ingredients. Most recipes only contain meringue powder (made from dried egg whites and a stabilizing component) and water or fresh egg whites, powdered sugar and vanilla.
Pros: This icing dries very hard! While the consistency can be thinned with water to do what is called “flood technique” as in the cookie picture above, it still dries crunchy, which makes it perfect for details on cookies that can be wrapped or handled without the frosting smudging. This is also the go-to for constructing gingerbread houses or piping any embellishment that needs to be hard and stable. Even though it is crunchy, it still tastes really amazing!
Cons: Because it dries so hard, it’s not the right choice for frosting a cake. It really has very specific uses in the cake and cookie world.
Everyone who knows me knows that I love to work with Fondant! What is it? When anyone asks, I always say that it’s like edible playdough (although I think that playdough is technically edible, but you know what I mean!). There are many options out there these days: Commercially made that you can purchase, or you can make your own regular fondant with powdered sugar, gelatin, glucose or glycerin and vanilla, or I prefer to make my own Marshmallow fondant.
Pros: I love fondant for it versatility! It can be rolled out and laid over a cake giving a perfectly smooth surface. It can also be embossed, painted on, sculpted, used in modeling figurines, tinted any color you desire, airbrushed and pressed into any food-safe mold. Making your own (especially if you use my Marshmallow Fondant recipe) is super cost-effective.
Cons: While I make my own White Chocolate Marshmallow Fondant that I think is pretty delicious, some people find it to be too sweet. Some also don’t like the texture (again, I like my marshmallow fondant recipe, but traditional fondant can feel a bit chewy).
I hope this list helps you in your journey for sweet dessert success! Comment below to tell me your favorite, or chime in with your questions!
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Owner of Cake Business School, LLC dba Angel Foods
Snarky Sweet Cake Chick, LLC