The Icing on the Cake: four must-have frostings every baker should know about

frosting

In the beginning, there was cake. Or maybe there was icing. Perhaps frosting? Wait, wait, maybe glaze came first?

Forget the chicken and the egg: think cake.

For every cake and every occasion there’s an icing or frosting that will elevate the cake to championship level. On the best days, there are several options to choose from. And on the harder days – too many choices to make an easy decision.

The good news? We’re here to show you our top four icing recipes plus tips for knowing when to use each one; which ones are fast, and which will require a little more time and patience.

Before you know it, you’ll be an icing pro  and your baked goods will really take the cake. *groan* (Sorry, I couldn’t help it!)

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First up on the hit list is Easy Vanilla Buttercream Icing. Also known as American buttercream, it’s the butter and confectioners’ sugar icing that for many of us was our first foray into frostings. Do you remember seeing recipes that basically read “1 stick of butter, 1 box of confectioners’ sugar, 2 tablespoons of milk,” like I do?

Pros:
•easy + fast, uses pantry staple ingredients
•takes bright colors well
•stiff enough to pipe, smooth enough to spread, plus gluten free to boot.
•classic, familiar flavor = birthday cake frosting

Cons:
•sweet, somewhat sugary taste
•can have a gritty texture

Use this icing for kids’ cakes, bake sale goodies, and warm weather baking (where using shortening instead of butter will allow the icing to hold up better in the heat).

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Never fear, chocolate is here. Our Super-Simple Chocolate Frosting is the ultimate chocolate icing. Smooth, rich, and intense chocolate flavor.

The icing starts with a warm cream and cocoa base that, once cooled, gets whipped with confectioners’ sugar until light and creamy. This is the frosting that makes you sigh and reach for another spoonful before you even start to ice the cake.

Pros:
•deep, intense chocolate flavor
•rich, dark color
•the “ultimate” chocolate icing

Cons:
•more involved that American buttercream (read more dishes)
•can be overwhelmingly chocolate for some tastes, especially those of children
•requires top quality cocoa, so a bit more expensive to make

Use this icing for all your “death by chocolate” needs.

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Flavors from top left: pistachio, Irish cream, apple cider, pink grapefruit )

Every now and then you’re going to need an icing that outdoes them all. Enter Italian Buttercream. This is the icing you’ll find on many wedding cakes, and topping treats in upscale cupcake shops. Smooth as silk really describes its texture best.

You’ll need a bit of special equipment for this one, namely a stand mixer and a good candy thermometer. This icing comes together in stages, as you beat egg whites, boil sugar syrup, and whip in lots and lots of soft butter.

The best news, though? It’s hard to “break” this buttercream, even with mistakes along the way. Check out Chef Susan Reid’s blog for the full buttercream experience.

Pros:
•amazing silky texture, less sweet than American buttercream
•can be flavored a million different ways
•perfect for softer, more pastel colors
•freezes well for up to 6 months

Cons:
•requires special equipment (stand mixer, candy thermometer)
•NOT for those watching calories
•1 hour+ hands-on time

Use Italian Buttercream for special-occasion cakes, weddings, anniversaries, and the like. Make large batches and keep extra in the freezer for last-minute frosting.

HI hats

Next up, ever-versatile Meringue. It’s the only icing I can think of that tops both cakes and pies, plus can be baked on its own for a cookie or dessert. A basic meringue is just four ingredients: egg whites, sugar, cream of tartar, and salt.

Don’t let the simplicity fool you into thinking this icing is boring, though. Switch up the sugar, add in flavorings and nuts, the world is your meringue-covered oyster. (Probably not the most appealing analogy I’ve ever made, eh?)

Pros:
•simple ingredients, simple techniques
•fat-free, dairy-free, gluten-free
•bright white, holds piping well

Cons:
•can be fickle in humidity
•not a “make ahead” recipe

Use meringue on lighter cakes such as angel food or chiffon, plus pies and tarts. Meringue pairs very well with fruits. Toasting meringue with a cook’s torch at the table makes for a smashing finale to dinner.

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I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at popular icings and frostings. This is just the piping tip of the iceberg, though. Perhaps you saw an old favorite here, or a new icing to add to your recipe file.

Maybe you’re shaking your fist at the screen, though, lamenting my exclusion of your treasured tried-and-true topping. I hope you’ll take a minute and share your comments with us. Personally, I’ve got a few recipe cards set aside, just waiting for your input.

 

MaryJane Robbins
About

MaryJane Robbins grew up in Massachusetts and moved to Vermont 20 years ago. After teaching young children for 15 years, she changed careers and joined King Arthur Flour in 2005. MaryJane began working on King Arthur Flour's baker’s hotline in 2006, and the blog team ...

comments

    1. MaryJane Robbins , post author

      HI Sue,
      There was a little code out of place earlier, it’s been fixed now. Thanks for letting us know! ~ MJ

  1. NancyB

    Ganache became my family’s standard on the first try–we like things less sweet, so the “chocolate plus cream”, with the intensity varied by both using different levels of cacao in the chocolate and different proportions of cream/dairy, satisfies all our chocolate frosting needs from glazes to a fluffy whipped ganache.

    Having baked my way through all of Beranbaum’s _Rose’s Heavenly Cakes_ I tried many other frosting variations, but the only one that stuck as a non-chocolate alternative to the American buttercream I too learned as a child was the cream-cheese frosting using white chocolate to provide all of the sugar. For bake sales, as you suggested, I revert to American buttercream.

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins , post author

      HI Nancy,
      Yes, ganache in all its forms can’t be forgotten either. We have plans for a second blog for all of those favorites that didn’t make Volume 1. I recently made a very fluffy cream cheese icing that I can’t wait to develop into a full blown recipe. I’ll have to try the white chocolate version too. ~ MJ

  2. Rockycat

    Italian buttercream is my absolute go-to frosting, but old-timey cooked flour frosting deserves a shout-out, too. That’s one frosting that’s too easy and tasty to be forgotten.

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins , post author

      By the time I had about 1/4 of the blog written, we had come up with several more “must-have” frostings, so there will definitely be a “volume II” blog! ~ MJ

    2. PJ Hamel

      It’s a frosting that starts with a milk/flour cooked base, then adds fat and sugar, and is beaten. You can find it in older cookbooks, Shirley – try a community cookbook or the like. We don’t have a recipe for it online here, as it can be quite tricky; tends to “break” if you beat it a bit too much. PJH

    3. The Baker's Hotline

      Hello Shirley – I have to admit, I was always skeptical of “cooked flour frosting.” Because you see, I am a lover of Italian Meringue Buttercream. When I made a cooked flour frosting for the first time, I really loved it. It was sweet (and I never minded sweet!) and the texture – somewhat thick (very stable) and proved to be super for piping onto cupcakes. I would make it again for the right job. We would be happy to send you a recipe from our 200th Anniversary Cookbook found on p. 319 called Red Velvet Frosting (it is really just a vanilla frosting). Please contact us an email with your name and physical mailing address or give us a call, 1-800-827-6836. Elisabeth@KAF

    4. Susan Reid

      Shirley, it’s a frosting where you pretty much make a roux of flour and milk, cook it until thick, then cool it. A mixture of butter and confectioners’ sugar is added to the cooled milk mixture, and there you go. You can see the method in the filling for this Cream Filled Coffeecake. Susan

  3. Kalisa

    Great article! The comparison of different icings in their taste, use, and durability is incredibly useful when trying to figure out which one to use. I usually go for the American buttercream, although now that I have a Thermapen I can try the Italian buttercream recipe! Looking forward to testing it out as I have a very enthusiastic “test group” when it comes to things like this.

    One of my surpise home-runs is a mascarpone cheese icing (found the reciepe on a blog called JustJenn, great resource for recipes!). It is super-simple to make, although not meant for hot days or long parties. The icing is not super sweet and has a very light texture so it pairs well with heavy duty sugar bomb cupcakes.

    Looking forward to Volume II!

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins , post author

      Thanks Kalisa,
      I’ve seen recipes from JustJenn before, thanks for the tip about the icing one. I can’t wait to hear how you like my favorite, Italian Buttercream! ~ MJ

  4. Sara

    I usually make cream cheese frosting. It tastes amazing with everything, including a spoon! I like that it adds some contrast in flavor and you don’t have to use as much sugar.

    Reply
  5. Christina

    When I worked in a bakery, we made buttercream by whipping butter until it was almost white, then added a cooked (and chilled) pastry cream and whipped it some more. It was a long time ago, but I think they called it French buttercream…? I just remember it as the best buttercream I’ve ever tasted.

    Reply
    1. Frank@KAF

      Hi Christina,
      The frosting you describe, Butter + Pastry Cream, is known as German Buttercream.

      French Buttercream is prepared similarly to it’s Italian cousin, using whole egg instead of egg whites. ~Frank @KAF.

  6. Sue C.

    We much prefer a whipped cream frosting as it’s lighter and less sweet! Any chance you have a recipe for this?? Thanks in advance!

    Reply
  7. Cecily Van

    American Buttercream and Whipped Cream Cream Cheese are my two go to frosting depending on available ingredients and how sweet I want the frosting. Whipped Cream Cream Cheese also doubles nicely as a fruit dip.

    Reply
  8. Roxlet

    The best frosting of them all, and one I discovered a few years ago, is flour frosting. My husband hates buttercream frosting — both the classic and the American — but he loves this. Basically, you whisk flour and sugar together with milk (or coconut milk for a coconut frosting), cook it over a medium flame until it thickens, beat with a paddle until cool, and then beat in pieces of butter until incorporated, then whip on high. The frosting can be made in a chocolate version, and a friend of mine just made it with chestnuts. It’s silky, and not too sweet. I was surprised to find several versions of this in the Baked and Baked Explorations cookbooks.

    Reply
  9. Toby

    A great article introducing key types of frosting. I wish Swiss buttercream had been included as it is my favorite. After reading this article, the comments, and Susan’s blog on Italian buttercream, I am going to give Italian buttercream another shot (and search out recipes for making French and German styles as well).

    Thank you for the baking inspiration!

    Reply
  10. Carleen

    Hi there, I wanted to ask about meringue powder, which is an ingredient in some of these frostings. I’ve never seen it in Australia, & we always make meringue from scratch. Is there a workaround if I can’t get it? Thanks, Carleen

    I can’t link to the original blog. I will ask the web team for help accessing this blog. ~JM

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Carleen, you might use our Swiss Buttercream recipe. The silky icing calls for fresh eggs. ~Jaydl@KAF

  11. Slee

    These are great, but my house votes for marshmallow. We love marshmallow frosting much more than is good for us. The recipe on your site for “super easy marshmallow frosting” is a good one. Flavoring it with coffee to put on chocolate cake…..don’t expect any leftovers!

    Reply
  12. Marlene

    My go to is the chocolate and vanilla buttercream. Everyone seems to love it and I find it pretty simple and fast.

    Reply
  13. Candace

    What’s the best frosting for cookies? Is there an easy version of Royal icing? Thanks!

    Try our hard cookie glaze. Simple to put together, and dries nice and hard so you can stack cookies on top of each other. Susan

    Reply
  14. IdaDohoney

    I have made three of the frosting you have listed, but for the life of me I cannot master meringue. I do hope with your receipe I will get it to perfection.

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins , post author

      Don’t hesitate to drop us a line or give us a call if you still have questions. Meringue can be a bear until you get it down pat. ~ MJ

  15. Bonni Brown

    I’m looking for a chocolate frosting that becomes stiff on the surface, yet remains soft and luxurious inside when you take a bite. Mostly I’ve experienced it on cupcakes with tall swirl frosting.

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins , post author

      Hi Bonni,
      You may want to look into a chocolate American-style buttercream. Our Super-Simple Chocolate frosting is also very good for that. ~ MJ

  16. 4paws2go

    My favorite ‘go to’ frosting is the type using the flour roux…most of my older cookbooks refer to it as ‘German Buttercream’. I use Carol Walter’s recipe. It’s light, not overly sweet, keeps well refrigerated/covered if you have any leftover. Most of all, it’s really simple to make! Once for my Mom, I converted some leftover ‘plain vanilla’, to chocolate by adding a couple of ounces of melted bittersweet chocolate, and she LOVED it…said it was like chocolate mousse. Easy to decorate with, too.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Thank you so much for your suggestion. That sounds delicious and my mom’s favorite icing is actually a flour roux based icing from the Amish in Pennsylvania. I’ll have to try the chocolate version next time! Happy Baking! Jocelyn@KAF

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