Frosting vs. Icing: What’s the Difference?

If you want your cakes and cookies to look and taste their best, know the difference between frosting vs. icing.

Many people use the words “frosting” and “icing” interchangeably, but pastry chefs and bakers know the difference. To get the look, taste and texture you’re going for every time you decorate a cake, cookie or doughnut, here’s what to know about frosting vs. icing.

What Is Frosting?

Frosting is thick, fluffy, creamy and holds its shape well. Its key ingredients are usually butter, granulated or confectioners’ sugar, and sometimes eggs, plus a splash of dairy and a flavored extract. You’ll need an electric hand mixer or stand mixer to make it.

You can achieve almost any color, texture, flavor and level of sweetness you desire with homemade frosting! Besides extracts, your options for adding flavor to basic frostings—and icings, for that matter—include fruit zests, jams and chocolate.

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What Is Icing?

Icing has a thinner consistency than frosting and little to no fat. Its main ingredients are usually confectioners’ sugar and a small amount of liquid: water, milk or cream.

It’s not airy, pillowy or rich. It can even be a little runny—though you can easily adjust the consistency by adding more powdered sugar to thicken it or more liquid to loosen it. Thin your icing enough, in fact, and you’ve got yourself a glaze.

Overall, icing seems to have fewer variations and uses in baking than frosting does, but it’s super simple to make. A basic icing requires no special equipment or skills. You don’t need a stand mixer or even a hand mixer. A whisk is ideal, but even a fork will do.

Frosting vs Icing: When to Use Them

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In general, frosting is best for thicker applications, and icing is best for thinner ones.

So, for example, if you’re making a classic doughnut with sprinkles, you’ll want to use icing. And while you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who’d turn down an iced cupcake, frosting is what you’ll usually find atop these treats.

Similarly, if you used icing between the layers of a cake, birthday party guests would probably be disappointed. But it’s great for pouring over a Bundt cake or pound cake.

Cinnamon rolls? It’s a matter of preference. Try our Best Cinnamon Rolls recipe if you like frosting, or these Red Velvet Cinnamon Rolls if you want icing.

Cookie decorators love to use royal icing. It incorporates egg whites or meringue powder for stability and shine. It’s thick enough to pipe, but thin enough for details.

Best Uses for Frosting

Best Uses for Icing

Popular Types of Frosting

There are so many different frostings, you could make a new one every day of the month! (Did we hear someone say “challenge accepted”?) Here are the main ones to know.

American Buttercream

A basic American buttercream is a simple mixture of creamed butter and confectioners’ sugar, slightly thinned with a splash of milk or cream and flavored with a pinch of salt and a teaspoon or two of vanilla extract.

If you’re new to making your own frosting, American buttercream is “easy to make and requires little to no specialized equipment or practice,” says Taste of Home Food Stylist Josh Rink, a cake- and cookie-decorating expert. “The downside to American buttercream is that it is typically very sweet and the surface has a tendency to dry out when left exposed to the air.”

The confectioners’ sugar makes it thicker and sweeter than many frostings, “but it’s an easier, all-purpose frosting that comes together fairly quickly and is easy to spread onto cake layers or cookies, or pipe onto cupcakes,” says Taste of Home Culinary Assistant Mark Neufang.

American buttercream is also easy to modify with butter substitutes to make treats suitable for vegans and people with a dairy intolerance or allergy.

Swiss Meringue Buttercream

While American buttercream is ideal for beginners, Swiss meringue buttercream is the way to go for the best effort-to-payoff ratio. In other words, it’s a bit harder to make, but it’s worth it.

“There are extra steps with heating the egg whites and sugar, bringing it to the right temp, and whipping this up into a frothy, heavenly, room-temp meringue before beating in the butter and vanilla—but a more luscious, delectable, easier-to-work-with buttercream you will seriously never find,” Mark says.

This silky-smooth, rich frosting is also a good option if American buttercream is too sweet for your taste.

“In order to make this frosting, you really need a stand mixer, patience and perhaps a little bit of practice. But the result is frosting that dreams are made of,” Josh adds.

Learn more about the most popular types of buttercream.

Choosing the Right Frosting and Icing Ingredients

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Confectioners’ sugar is the same thing as powdered sugar, icing sugar, 10X sugar or 12X sugar. It’s made from pulverized granulated sugar blended with a powdered starch. The type of sugar, type of starch and fineness differ among brands.

Best Powdered Sugar for Frosting and Icing

“I always choose C&H Confectioners’ Sugar. This is because they use only 100% sugar cane,” Josh says. “Some brands will sneak in beet sugar, which is not my preference.”

Mark says that conventional confectioners’ sugar can be gritty, so to get a smoother frosting, he suggests splurging a bit for an organic confectioners’ sugar. “In my own experience, it’s a little more refined and dissolves more easily into the frosting than a standard confectioners’ sugar,” he says.

For those who dislike cornstarch or have corn allergies, there are powdered sugars that use tapioca starch. One example is Wholesome Organic Powdered Confectioners Sugar, which is also vegan (many sugars are not).

Best Butter for Buttercream Frosting

As for the butter in your buttercream, you may notice a difference between using cultured butter or another higher-fat butter like Amish butter. However, since these kinds of butter can get pricey, Rink says his standard is Land-O-Lakes (and be sure to check out our Test Kitchen’s favorite butter brands).

Using half butter, half shortening can be beneficial when you want a frosting that’s less expensive, more stable at room temperature, fluffier or less buttery. Using all shortening can be a way to accommodate dietary concerns or preferences.

For most applications, however, you’ll get a better flavor and mouthfeel using all butter or a vegan butter substitute like Miyoko’s vegan butter or Earth Balance vegan buttery sticks.

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Amy Fontinelle
Amy Fontinelle has been an online content creator since 2006. Her work has been published by Forbes Advisor, The Motley Fool, Business Insider, Investopedia, International Business Times, MassMutual, Credible, and more. Amy cares about making challenging personal finance topics easy to understand so people feel empowered to manage their finances and don't get taken advantage of. She wants everyone to experience the peace of mind and freedom that come from financial security. Amy spends much of her free time in the kitchen making her own pizza dough and ricotta cheese.