Fondant and buttercream are both popularly used in cake decoration. Fondant is a sculptable paste made from sugar and water that can be rolled out and draped over the cake for a smooth finish, or moulded into intricate decorations. Buttercream is a whipped, fluffy frosting made from sugar and butter that can be spread onto cakes or piped in different patterns.
Fondant icing is great for celebration cakes because it’s easy to mould, meaning you can personalise your cake with anything from a cascade of delicate flowers to a model of your child’s favourite Disney character. You may have seen it used by professionals on your favourite baking show to create edible works of art. It has a pliable, dough-like texture, and can be rolled flat and draped over cakes for a smooth, flawless finish, or used like modelling clay to add decorative cake toppers.
Fondant is made by adding sugar to boiling water until it forms a softball. This is called ‘super saturating’, and it works because boiling water can hold twice as much sugar as it can at room temperature. It may also include various other ingredients, such as corn syrup, glycerol, and gelatine, so if you’re vegetarian or vegan, be sure to check the ingredients, as gelatine is typically (although not always) made from animal products. A quick ‘cheat’ for making your own fondant is to use melted marshmallows, since they already contain most of the ingredients in one tasty package. We don’t like to brag, but we think we’ve found the best recipe for marshmallow fondant right here.
If you are using fondant for modelling, it is available to buy in a full rainbow of colours, or you can add colouring yourself at home. You can also experiment with different flavours, although as always, natural extracts taste better than synthetic flavours. Use your fondant to decorate big celebration cakes or individual cupcakes, like these festive Christmas cupcakes, each with its own fondant Santa Claus on the top.
Sometimes, particularly in Britain and France, ‘fondant’ is used to describe cakes or cookies with molten centres, usually made of a thick chocolate sauce. This type of fondant is better known as ‘lava cake’ in the US, and actually bears no relation to fondant icing. That said, if you came here looking for cakes with gooey chocolate centres, we’d hate to send you away disappointed. For that type of fondant, check out this easy French recipe for delicious chocolate fondant.
Buttercream is a sweet, fluffy frosting made by beating together butter and sugar. It may also be made with shortening to make rolled buttercream, a stiff, dough-like mixture which is similar in appearance to fondant and can be used in much the same way. There are several variations on the basic butter-and-sugar recipe for fondant, and these can be divided into six main types of buttercream, with the three most commonly used being American buttercream, Swiss buttercream, and Italian buttercream.
American buttercream is by far the most commonly used and easiest to make buttercream, and most recipes that refer simply to ‘buttercream’, tend to mean American buttercream. Made by beating together confectioner’s sugar (icing sugar) and butter, often with a touch of milk and some vanilla for flavouring, it’s simple enough to make with your kids, and sweet enough that they’ll want to lick the beaters afterwards. American buttercream is very sweet, but kids love it, so it’s great for party cupcakes, or as a filling between layers of birthday cake. If you need ideas for baking with your little ones, check out our simple and delicious recipe for American buttercream. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can try adding complementary flavours to your cupcake and icing, as in this delicious recipe for chocolate cupcakes with peanut buttercream.
Swiss buttercream, sometimes known as Swiss meringue buttercream, is a glossy white buttercream made with Swiss meringue as a base. Swiss meringue is made by simmering egg whites with sugar and beating until it forms stiff peaks, then butter is added once the mixture returns to room temperature. Swiss meringue buttercream has a light, whipped texture, and takes colour well because of its white hue.
Italian buttercream is similar to Swiss buttercream, except this time Italian meringue is used as a base. The Italian meringue base contains the same ingredients, but here the sugar is boiled with water, while the egg whites are whipped into peaks separately. The hot sugar is then added to the egg whites and the mixture is beaten again until it cools, whereupon the butter is added as before.
French buttercream is a rich, luxurious buttercream with added egg yolks. It is made in a similar way to Italian buttercream, with the sugar and water heated together, and the eggs mixed separately. French buttercream recipes, however, call for whole eggs rather than egg whites, and even additional yolks. The end result is a rich, silky topping with a classic buttercream colour.
German buttercream is made by combining sweet pastry cream, which already contains sugar, with unsalted butter. Rich, smooth and creamy, German buttercream is often used to fill pastries, cupcakes and doughnuts, and is good for using as a filling between cake layers.
Pudding-style buttercream is a more traditional recipe, made by creating an old-fashioned pudding mixture from milk, sugar and flour, allowing it to cool and then adding in butter at room temperature. This style of buttercream works well with added flavours like coffee or chocolate.
The most basic difference between buttercream and fondant is that buttercream is a frosting, while fondant is essentially a thicker form of icing. The terms ‘frosting’ and ‘icing’ are often used interchangeably, but strictly speaking, they refer to two different things. A frosting, like buttercream, is made mainly from fats like butter or shortening, and whipped into a fluffy, cloud-like consistency. An icing, on the other hand, has sugar as its primary ingredient, and tends to harden on standing. Icings are usually thin, runny mixtures used for glazing cakes and cookies, but because fondant is made by super saturating water with sugar, it forms a thick, rollable paste.
There are pros and cons to using either fondant or buttercream. Fondant is great for detailed decoration. Rolled out, it has a smooth professional finish that provides a good surface for transfers, and it is easy to mould into pretty much any decorations you can think of. However, it can be difficult to make, with a tendency to dry out and split, and even experienced bakers will usually buy ready made fondant rather than try to make it themselves. The other downside is the taste. Fondant is basically one huge piece of candy, which a lot of people can find sickly, while the thick, dry texture can be a turn off for others.
Buttercream, on the other hand, has a rich, creamy taste that most people prefer to fondant. It also couldn’t be easier to make, and if things do start to go wrong, it’s simple to correct. If the mixture is too thin, add more sugar, and if it's too stiff, add a little milk. Buttercream can’t be moulded like fondant can, but it can be piped onto the cake in attractive patterns, and it’s easier to add writing using piped buttercream, too. That said, buttercream cakes do tend to have a more rustic look than fondant cakes, and because buttercream is a wet mixture you have to be very careful to avoid smudging your work after you’ve finished.
Professional cake designers often compromise and use a mixture of the two, especially for cakes that really need some wow factor, like special birthdays or wedding cakes. Fondant is used as a professional finishing layer, and to create decorations and cake toppers, but underneath the fondant is a hidden layer of delicious buttercream, with more sandwiched between the layers of cake. This compromise combines the best of both worlds - the professional finish and intricate detailing of fondant, with the delicious taste of buttercream.