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Frosting 101 – Different Types of Frosting

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There are so many types of frosting out there and each is wonderful in its own right. Let’s take a tour through the popular types of frosting and learn a little more about each kind.

collage of cake and frosting pictures with Frosting 101 written on it, a start to a guide of all things frosting!

In case you didn’t know, I am a bit of a frosting fanatic.  It has always been my favorite part of the cake. What makes a cookie better? Adding frosting, of course! There are so many different kinds of frosting and I am on a quest to make them all!

Today we are going to start diving a little deeper into the different kinds of frosting. We’ll get to know a bit more about the differences between Italian meringue buttercream vs. Swiss meringue buttercream. We’ll learn about fudge frosting and ganache.

Then there is cooked frosting, one of my favorites! Even simple whipped cream frostings an be delicious and versatile in their own right.

So hold on to your sweet tooth, we are getting ready to take a tour through the land of frosting!

chocolate banana cupcakes with yellow and white frosting and sprinkles on top

Buttercream Frosting

We will start our tour of frosting with buttercream because it is one of the most popular types. Plus there are so many different ways to make it.

Most are able to be piped and will hold their shape for decoration, but the ingredients and techniques can vary widely.

As a rule, buttercream is made by whipping fat and sugar together.  It really can be as simple as that, but you will see it can also be much more complicated!

Classic American Buttercream- 

American buttercream is one of the most simple frosting types.  It can be as easy as beating butter and powdered sugar until it is smooth.

Most of the time a little cream or milk is added to help make the mixture smooth.  A few drops of extract can impart a lot of flavor and the possibilities are endless from there. 

The popular sweetened condensed milk buttercream takes American buttercream to the next level by adding the richness of sweetened condensed milk.

If you want a zip of flavor, lemon sweetened condensed milk buttercream is a citrusy treat.

Hands holding container of cupcakes with buttercream flowers on top.

Whipping melted white chocolate into buttercream makes white chocolate buttercream super fluffy. The flavor is amazing too!

If adding melted chocolate seems like a bit much, you can also mix in cocoa powder for a delicious chocolate buttercream.

If a little chocolate in your buttercream is not enough, add more cocoa powder and some hot water or coffee.  The resulting fudge frosting is super smooth and luscious. It is great for piping decorations and there is no mistaking the chocolate flavor! 

Even cream cheese frosting can be considered a buttercream. It just uses cream cheese as some of the fat instead of all butter. 

If you want to try something a little different, maple cream cheese frosting is a perfect change for topping things like carrot cake!

Decorator’s Buttercream-

A frosting full of butter and powdered sugar is definitely an easy and delicious way to cover a cake, but butter can get soft in warmer temperatures. So a lot of cake decorators substitute at least some of the butter with shortening.

With it’s higher melting point, it helps the frosting hold its place a little longer at room temperature or even warmer. 

In addition to the shortening, most decorators will whip their buttercream a little less.  They don’t want to incorporate too much air into the frosting before they pipe intricate decorations.

That can lead to bubbles in the finish.

cupcakes with swirls of white sweetened condensed milk frosting piped on top.

Some bakers choose to use all shortening in their frosting, but I like to use hybrid recipes.  I want some of that butter goodness in the final product. 

The flavor and mouthfeel is so much better with butter, but sometimes a compromise is worth it if it means the frosting won’t be a puddle before the cake is served!

My crusting buttercream is one example of a decorator’s buttercream recipe. It is great for piping and holds its shape pretty well.

When I decorated my brother’s wedding cake, it was an outdoor wedding in June. So I knew I had to pull out all of the stops to keep the rosettes in place on the side of the cake.

So I developed my perfect buttercream.  I was still nervous, but am happy to report it held up. 

Swiss Meringue Buttercream-

Adding meringue to buttercream helps it to hold up to the heat without the shortening. It also allows you to get silky smooth frosting that isn’t too sweet. 

Meringue buttercreams pipe well, and have a softer finish.  They do not crust like an American buttercream, but they will firm up for easier transport if they are well chilled.

Swiss buttercream is made by whisking egg whites and granulated sugar over gentle heat until the sugar is completely absorbed. Then you whip the egg whites into big white pillowy peaks. 

Now that you have a meringue, add softened butter a bit at a time until it’s all incorporated. Add some flavoring and you are ready to pipe away!

If you don’t want to have to mess with a double boiler, you can make mock Swiss meringue buttercream using a carton of egg whites. It gives a similar texture without the effort.

Italian Meringue Buttercream-

The principal of Italian buttercream is very similar to its Swiss cousin.  The resulting flavor and texture is very similar as well. 

In this method the egg whites are whipped while a sugar syrup is being made. At just the right time, the sugar syrup is drizzled slowly into the whipped egg whites.

cupcakes decorated with bright white Italian meringue buttercream in various flower shapes

It sounds scary, but it really is quite simple if you have a stand mixer. Just drizzle the hot sugar slowly on the outside edge of the bowl while the whisk is going.

It helps to stabilize the meringue and gets it ready for the addition of butter. 

French Buttercream-

French buttercream is the richest buttercream yet, but it is so luscious and silky smooth.  Instead of drizzling sugar syrup into whipped egg whites, you drizzle it in as you whip egg yolks!

The result is super buttery, not too sweet and somehow still fluffy and delicious.

whisk in a bowl of pale yellow maple buttercream

If you are looking for bright white frosting, this is not the recipe for you. However if you are looking for buttery delicious frosting, you may want to give this a try.

Take it to the next level with my maple french buttercream

German Buttercream-

For a German buttercream, you start with a custard or pastry cream and whip in butter.  Like the meringue buttercreams and French buttercream, it allows you to get creamy sweet goodness without powdered sugar.

swirls of creamy golden custard based german buttercream

The custard base makes the resulting buttercream extra creamy and luscious. It is so smooth and not overly sweet, just enough.

Really, what’s not to love about the marriage of pudding and butter in a pipable frosting treat?

Russian Buttercream-

If long ingredient lists and complicated instructions aren’t your thing, maybe Russian buttercream is for you.  You can literally make it with two ingredients: butter and sweetened condensed milk! 

It is smooth and simple. You can pipe it as well.

cupcakes topped with swirls of creamy russian buttercream on top

I made some lemonade Russian buttercream last year that people were just fawning over. There are only 4 ingredients in that recipe and it whips up in just a couple of minutes.

I will admit I was surprised at how well it held it’s shape too. I definitely need to experiment more with Russian buttercream! 

Cooked Frosting Recipes

7 Minute Frosting

Seven minute frosting is basically a stabilized meringue. Egg whites and sugar are beaten over a double boiler for (you’ll never guess it!) seven minutes.

piece of chocolate cake topped with 7 minute frosting.

It is naturally dairy and fat free and is super fluffy.  It’s not something you normally see piped, but you can definitely make fun spikes and swirls.

Seven-minute frosting is perfect for topping a moist chocolate cake. If you are feeling extra fancy, you could even use a torch to lightly toast it. But we like it bright white and fluffy.

Italian Meringue Frosting- 

Italian meringue frosting is a bit like seven minute frosting.  Just like for Italian meringue buttercream, you whip egg whites while simultaneously bringing a sugar syrup to a boil. You drizzle the hot sugar syrup into the egg whites while whipping vigourously. 

first slice of haleakala cake coming out of cake.

This helps to stabilize the meringue and make it usable as a frosting. It is like a big fluffy cloud.  I used this technique to frost the oh so delicious haleakala cake I am still dreaming about! 

Boiled Milk Frosting or Ermine Frosting-

If you have not had boiled milk frosting you are really missing out! It is one of the two types of frosting associated with red velvet cakes. Red velvet fans have strong feelings over which frosting you should use too! 

 It is made by making a thick paste by cooking milk and flour (I like to add my sugar to this mix to ensure it’s not grainy.) Then you whip the cooled paste with butter to make a super light and fluffy frosting. 

piece of rolo poke cake with caramel, fluffy frosting and rolos

It tastes a lot like whipped cream, so much so that was the name I was introduced to it by. But whipped cream can also be a frosting, so we’ll just call it boiled milk or ermine buttercream frosting to keep from getting confused!

Whipped Frosting

I liked the texture of ermine frosting so much, I have used that as a base for a number of other frosting recipes.  They usually start the same, making a thick paste of milk and flour and whipping it into some sort of fat.  It makes for an extra fluffy whipped cream cheese frosting

chocolate pumpkin cupcake topped with smooth white whipped sweetened condensed milk frosting.

Using sweetened condensed milk instead of regular milk makes it extra luscious. Whipped sweetened condensed milk frosting was actually a riff on a recipe a reader submitted and it was a huge hit with my tasters!

Caramel Frosting-

Of course to make caramel, you have to cook sugar. So caramel frosting can find itself right at home in the cooked frosting category. 

There are so many different ways to make caramel frosting, so I will share a few examples with you. 

One of the easier ways is to start with a can of sweetened condensed milk. Cook it with a little brown sugar until it is smooth and caramelly.

Once it is cooled you can whip it into cream cheese and butter for an out of this world creamy caramel frosting

slice of devilishly good chocolate cake with caramel frosting

Using brown sugar is a shortcut way to get the caramel color and flavor without a candy thermometer.

Cook brown sugar and butter together and whip it into frosting goodness and you are sure to be pleased.  We like this caramel frosting over banana cake for a delicious treat! 

Traditional southern caramel frosting doesn’t take the shortcut of brown sugar.  It starts with actually making caramel.

You will want a candy thermometer and a bit of patience, but it is worth it. You make a hot creamy caramel mixture in a saucepan and then beat it for 20 minutes in a mixer.

By the time that’s over it is cooled down enough to spread over a cake. 

Royal Icing-

Royal icing is a perfect decorators icing.  It dries firm, so it is great for making intricate designs on cookies. 

You can also pipe designs onto parchment or wax paper and let them harden, then you can use them as appliques on cakes, cookies and more!

Royal icing is pretty simple to make. It is basically egg whites, powdered sugar and flavoring.  I like to make it even more simple by using meringue powder instead of egg whites. 

From there you can make it as colorful and fancy as you’d like! 

plate of christmas shaped peanut butter cut out cookies decorated with royal icing.

There are a ton of techniques for using royal icing to decorate. You can make it thick and pipable, or thinner for flooding to create a smooth finish.

For cookies, I generally use a consistency that is half way between. I fill up some squeeze bottles and go to town. It makes it super simple!

Whipped Cream Frosting-

Whipping a bunch of air into cold cream makes it so soft and fluffy. But you don’t have to stop there. 

You can turn whipped cream into a bunch of different frostings.  They are not always the most sturdy, but they certainly are delicious. 

Of course some cold heavy cream, a bit of sugar and a splash of vanilla makes a delicious whipped cream. Just whip it until it can hold peaks. 

Too little beating and it will be wimpy, too much and you’ll have sweet butter, but when you get it just right it’s a thing of beauty!

first slice of coffee and cream sponge cake being removed from cake

You don’t have to stop with plain whipped cream though.  Adding some cream cheese to the mix not only gives it great flavor, it also makes it more sturdy.  Cream cheese whipped cream is delicious on pound cake with berries, but there are so many ways you could use it! 

I discovered that you can whip peanut butter into whipped cream when making some no-churn ice cream and I instantly fell in love.  Peanut butter whipped cream is a perfect foil for a rich chocolate cake! 

Lifting first slice of pumpkin no bake cheesecake off of plate.

Adding a little cocoa powder to whipped cream can give it that little chocolate oomph.  There are so many delicious ways to use cocoa whipped cream and thinking of them is making my mouth water. 

If you want even a little more get up and go in your whipped cream, mocha whipped cream is for you. It has a bit of coffee, a bit of chocolate and all of the soft creamy goodness you’d expect. It’s like an entire coffeehouse treat all packed into the whipped cream topping! 

Ganache

Ganache in it’s purest form is just chocolate and cream melted together.  The results are rich and smooth and super chocolaty. 

You can play with the ration to use it as everything from a glaze to truffles. A medium consistency can be whipped and used as a frosting.

Fork piercing through ganache on top of vanilla buttercream coated chocolate and cherry black forest cake.

Or you can spread a room temperature ganache over a chilled cake as a crumb coat.  Some people prefer frosting their cakes with ganache frosting before applying fondant as opposed to using basic buttercream.

Glazes

A glaze is a simple way to top a dessert.  It is often applied a loose wet mixture that is drizzled or brushed over a dessert.  Sometimes. like in the case of cookies or donuts, the treat is dipped into a glaze for a even finish.

fudgy chocolate glaze over chocolate bundt cake

Glazes can be as simple as a little milk or water stirred into powdered sugar.  You can replace that milk or water with other liquids to change the flavor.

Lemon juice and powdered sugar make a nice brightly flavored glaze. A little apple cider and a pinch of cinnamon is perfect over a fall flavored cake.  

Spiced cider glaze is perfect over a pumpkin Bundt cake.

Of course a chocolate cherry Bundt cake needs a nice chocolate glaze. A great fudge glaze can be made with cream and melted chocolate.

A bit of corn syrup gives it a nice sheen and it is a perfect topping for a beautiful Bundt.  Plus it is part ganache and part glaze!

Whew! That was a lot of frosting!

I am confident that whether you are looking to ice fancy wedding cakes or a plate of cookies, there is an good frosting option here for you.

Be sure to factor in how you want to use the frosting before choosing one. Then have fun with it. Frosting is supposed to be tasty and fun.

If you want something tasty between your cake layers, I have a collection of great cake filling recipes as well! Happy baking!

collage of frosting images

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Jasmine v.

Thursday 14th of April 2022

Very nice article on frosting! ❤️

Carlee

Thursday 14th of April 2022

Thank you!

Janice

Sunday 20th of February 2022

Hi Carlee Used you cooked frosting icing recipe. Was so easy to understand and uncomplicated. Thank you for sharing. It was amazing and only made it to a pan of brownies. Never got to make the cake. Haha it was a big hit. Next time I will make the cake first and when no one is home to watch what I’m doing. Thank you again Miss J

Carlee

Monday 21st of February 2022

Ha! That is too funny. Hopefully the cake is extra amazing!