Icing and frosting are often used interchangeably, but technically they are both quite different. One thing they have in common is that they’re both used as a topping for baked goods, but frosting tends to be thick, soft and fluffy while icing is thin, hard and glossy.
Keep reading to learn more about the key differences between icing and frosting, their uses, and recommended links to methods for making both.
Icing is a sugary glaze, often mixed with food colouring to give cakes, doughnuts and cookies some added vibrancy. It is glossy and slightly transparent, as well as thin and, compared to frosting, quite hard. It will often crack or crumble when cut or bitten into but is generally less messy to eat than frosting.
Icing is often used as a more subtle and elegant decoration than frosting. However, because it spreads on thin and lucid, before drying hard and unmalleable, it can also be used to create far more intricate designs in the hands of a skilled baker or pastry chef.
Frosting is that thick, almost cloud-like substance you see piped onto fancy cupcakes, although it’s used on a whole host of other baked goods too. Unlike icing, it uses a base of shortening or cream cheese rather than sugar, although sugar is of course added to sweeten it.
Frosting can form incredibly elaborate patterns in the hands of a skilled piper, although it’s generally less suited to intricate designs. That said, it’s just as often spread over baked goods with a knife to create a simple exterior more reminiscent of fondant. It’s also frequently used as a filling – in sandwich cakes, for example.
Now that we’ve covered the basics of what both icing and frosting are, let’s dive a little deeper into the advantages and disadvantages of each, as well as their respective uses. If you’re wondering less about the frosting and icing differences, and more about which you should use for your next baking recipe, read on.
Frosting uses a base of shortening or cream cheese. As these ingredients are white, or at least very pale, this is great for creating a bright, angelic or cloudlike design. Sugar is normally added for sweetness, but the frosting isn’t completely dependent on it, giving you more control if you’d prefer something less sweet or simply need to bake for people on a low-sugar diet.
On the other hand, icing uses a powdered sugar base, meaning it will always be very sweet. Of course, it’s worth remembering that the icing will apply much thinner than frosting, so the result is not necessarily a sweeter cake. The sugar is mixed with a liquid like milk, egg white, or melted butter.
Icing isn’t suitable for piping like frosting is. You can spread it thinly over whatever you are decorating, or simply pour it over and allow it to spread naturally. Alternatively, you can make a royal icing using meringue powder, which will make it easier to pipe.
As regular icing is quite thin and very runny before it dries, you can expect it to drip and drizzle down the sides of your cake. That can make it quite hard to control, so prepare to use this to your advantage. Beginners should just leave it be and not stand in the way of whatever organic forms it wishes to create. The icing will quickly harden into a glossy finish.
Frosting is a lot easier to control, although that doesn’t necessarily mean the end result will look better. As it’s thicker and softer than icing, it’s better suited to piping. However, if you’re not confident with piping beautifully, you can just spread it over cakes with a flat knife or spatula – or else start practising your piping. There’s no time like the present.
Icing is generally more suited for minimalist designs than frosting. Frosting should be your choice for bulky, fluffy and swirly decorations. At the other end of the spectrum, however, icing is also good for intricate and detailed patterns, like feathering.
It could be that neither icing or frosting are exactly what your next cake needs. The good news is that they aren’t your only choices.
If you’d prefer something even richer, creamier, and easier to pipe than frosting, then why not consider buttercream instead? Or if icing isn’t thick and sweet enough for you – if you’re baking a birthday or wedding cake, for example – then we recommend you go for a classic
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