There is a certain kind of person I have never understood from the earliest days of having cupcakes in class for someone’s birthday: the kind of person who takes a cupcake and scrapes the frosting off, either pawning it off to one who will enjoy it, or thoughtlessly throwing it into the trash. The kind of person who gets a slice of cake and eats around the layers of frosting, askes for a middle square of a sheet cake, and is relieved when there is cake with no frosting on the side. The kind of person who doesn’t like frosting. Many of these people not only don’t like it, but I find that they abhor it. They’ll speak ill of it to no end, calling it sickly-sweet, texturally unpleasant, and an unnecessary barrier between them and cake.
Clearly, I differ greatly from these frosting-haters. The icing on the cake has always been just that for me. For a time, I was such a huge cake fan mostly for the sugary topping that came with it. Often, you can find a situation where you can just have cake, but very rarely will one be able to just get a frosting fix. I would often love to eat the contents of a can of Betty Crocker frosting straight up whenever I got the chance if there was any left over from frosting a cake (which was doubtful, given that I wanted as much frosting as possible on any cake we made). I love putting it on things that don’t always get to interact with the topping. Want to zest up a regular ol’ brownie? Get some frosting on that bad boy! Looking to do something different with your cookies? Make a frosting sandwich out of them, or just pipe it on the top. And I will always maintain that frosting and ice cream is one of the most underrated pairings of the dessert world. It’s like the chocolate and caramel swirls one loves, but better!
I have written about frosting a lot here on Scoutin’ it Out. Whenever I am critiquing a cake, the frosting work is always a make or break component. Not all frosting is the same, and certain kinds – mainly ones of the light, whipped cream variety – will ruin an entire slice for me.
But when I write about these experiences, a question comes into my mind. A question that I have neglected to answer due to my desire to let myself be linguistically free and have variety at will. But the more of it I consume, the more undeniable it is that the distinction must be made and accepted. Is there a difference between frosting and icing, and if so, what is it? Denying a difference between the terms is great for avoiding redundancy when referring to the rich, yet fluffy thing of which I often speak. But after some research, I must admit that frosting and icing are not the same thing.
Frosting is that pipe-able, buttery coating that you’ll see on a cake. While it can come in a few varieties – traditional buttercream, whipped cream, Swiss meringue buttercream, cream cheese – frosting is generally characterized by its base of either butter or cream, and stiffer texture. It has body and the ability to hold height and maintain getting piped into specific shapes.
Icing is thinner and more glossy, demanding more of a drizzling or even dipping action for application. You’re probably familiar with the basic water/confectioner’s sugar/vanilla icing made to top sugar cookies or decorate ginger bread people, or the egg-white based royal icing. This coating has the ability to set and form a hard, glossy finish that you don’t get with frosting. Its thinner quality makes it possible to ice something that has been frosted, giving it a glossy finish with the richer frosting still providing fuller texture beneath, or a drip effect that can look stylish. But putting frosting on top of icing makes a little less sense.
Further still, there is glaze, which is essentially an even thinner icing. The most popular instance of this is glazed doughnuts. The glaze merely adds a thin, sugary layer to the pastry without hardening or having a distinct color to it, and can be topped with the icing often found on doughnuts.
While each of these things certainly has its very necessary place in the confectionary universe, it is frosting that holds the dear place in my heart, and that is what I have often been talking about when I throw around the term icing here on the blog. While I love making a shiny royal icing during the holiday season to decorate my cookies in the colors of the season and give them a classy, glossy finish, frosting is the topping that I crave all on its own. I’m not gonna want to hunker down and eat some straight up sugar water, or egg white/sugar concoction. On its own icing tends to be too sickly sweet for even my taste. But give me a spoon and the right kind of frosting and I’m that kid eating Betty Crocker frosting from the can again.
But what is the right kind of frosting, in my eyes at least? I’ve certainly learned over the years that my frosting views do not always align with others, not only in liking it at all, but the desired kind for those who do like it. While I don’t want a frosting to be too stiff, with too much sugar making it grainy and not enough milk, cream, or eggs to thin it out, I don’t want it to be too light either. I want it rich, smooth, a layer than my teeth sink into. A part of a pastry you can’t just breeze through to get to the bready star, but an aspect worth savoring just as much. A chocolate buttercream should be packed with chocolate, either from cocoa powder, or melted chocolate expertly melted and mixed in. Maybe even some espresso powder or brewed coffee to help enhance the flavor. A vanilla frosting is the utter essence of vanilla. Frosting is a great serving device for a concentrated punch of flavor. That’s why it’s so important that one picks the right flavor to pair with their cake. When both are executed well, the interplay is glorious. Add a scoop of ice cream to that, and you have my ideal treat to end a day. There’s a reason it’s a birthday celebration classic.
I have talked about my feelings regarding cream cheese frosting before. The spread will often act as the fatty base when creating its frosting form, and with the addition of some sugar create a topping that is a little less sweet and more on the tangy side. It is the thing for which red velvet cake seems to exist and an admittedly perfect pairing for carrot cake. But aside from that it is never what I crave. Unless I want carrot cake, I’ll almost always be happier with a vanilla buttercream and leave the cream cheese for my bagel thank you very much.
And whipped cream frosting? Never. Never is a whipped cream frosting something I remotely want. I have only recently come around to kind of enjoying whipped cream on my ice cream. But usually, I will still forgo it. It’s a light, sugary, often flavorless nothing that just stands between me and my ice cream. Why do I want that on a cake when I know the other frosting goodness that I could have had?! This is no time for lightness! If you want something more in the whipped cream world for maybe a fruity cake at least do a meringue. The very least. But for me, any frosting that can be compared to whipped cream should be banished from being included under the term frosting and not be used for such applications.
Swiss meringue buttercream is, essentially, fancy technical buttercream. I’ve not yet attempted to make it, but it involves heat and eggs – always a tricky business – and results in a texture similar to that of buttercream but with more sheen. I truly am not sure if I’ve had it before, but I look forward to experimenting with it when I get the chance.
Moving forward I now promise to adhere to the proper terminology when discussing the frostings and icings I encounter. This will be especially helpful as we return to our regularly scheduled programing next week involving a great slice of cake that I’ve been unknowingly passing for years, with a crumb and a frosting that hit the mark. And now that you know the difference, take note as you move through your own sweet treat life where you find frosting rather than icing, maybe even in some unexpected places. And what kinds of each tickle your fancy more than others. Or maybe you’ve made it through this post and you’re that kid who scrapes the frosting of their cupcake. In which case, I’ll gladly take it.
Sedghi, Sarra. “What’s the Difference Between Frosting, Icing, and Glaze? ” MyRecipes, Meredith Corporation, 22 Mar. 2019, www.myrecipes.com/course/dessert-recipes/difference-between-frosting-icing-glaze.
Cruz, Milagros. “What’s the Difference Between icing and Frosting, Anyway?” The Daily Meal, Tribune Publishing, 21 July, 2015. https://www.thedailymeal.com/best-recipes/what-s-difference-between-icing-and-frosting-anyway.