Don’t know your ganache from your fudge buttercream? Hazy on the difference between glaze and royal icing? Don’t worry. This guide to different kinds of icing, glazes and frostings has you covered, providing an education on all sorts of toppings and fillings that take the cake.
From rich, chocolatey ganache to pretty and sophisticated fondant, this visual guide explains the differences between the many different types of icing, as well as exploring some of the best ways in which they can be used in your cake decorating. Bookmark this page as a reference for future cake decorating projects!
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One of the most common and versatile cake toppings and fillings, buttercream actually covers an array of cake toppings.
Buttercream’s base is fat (often butter, but not always) and sugar. However, the ingredients and methods used can vary. Here are some of the most common types of buttercream.
This is what most people think of as a classic birthday cake frosting. Made primarily from butter and powdered sugar, this buttercream can be tinted or flavored in a number of different ways.
Crusting buttercreamCrusting buttercream is a twist on American buttercream that’s made with part shortening and a little more sugar than usual so that it’s soft when made, but sets firm. This type of buttercream is especially popular for cakes featuring piping, as the designs are a bit sturdier against the elements.
Also called boiled milk frosting, cooked milk buttercream or ermine buttercream, flour buttercream is unique because it’s made by boiling a mixture of flour, sugar and milk until it thickens to a pudding-like consistency. It’s then cooled and beaten with butter and flavorings to make a silky, delicious buttercream that visually resembles an American buttercream.
Cream cheese frosting
Cream cheese frosting is a type of American-style buttercream that uses cream cheese instead of or in addition to butter (or other fat). It’s a common frosting for carrot cake, Hummingbird cake and red velvet cake.
Meringue buttercream prominently features egg whites. The most popular meringue buttercreams are Swiss buttercream (egg whites and sugar cooked and then whipped with butter), Italian meringue buttercream (where boiled sugar is slowly poured into an egg white meringue mixture then beaten with butter) and French meringue buttercream (where uncooked egg whites are mixed with sugar and cream of tartar).
This buttercream is a cross between boiled milk buttercream and French buttercream. A pastry cream is combined with butter and/or powdered sugar to a spreading consistency. This type of buttercream is best for a filling, but when enough sugar is added, it can be piped.
Not to be confused with French meringue buttercream, this rich cake topping and filling is made with hot sugar combined with egg yolks rather than whites. Since the eggs are not cooked, they can be pasteurized before making this type of buttercream to reduce the chance of food-borne illness.
Some American-style buttercreams contain chocolate, either melted chocolate or cocoa powder). Not to be confused with fudge icing, which is boiled, this is a buttercream that starts with either melted chocolate or cocoa powder combined with butter, which is then cooled and whipped with sugar and flavorings to a fluffy consistency.
Often made with shortening, this is a buttercream with much higher amount of sugar, giving it a clay-like consistency that can be rolled. It is not quite as flexible as fondant, but can be used for some of the same applications. Check out our popular recipe here.
2. Caramel icing
The process of making this icing is similar to the process of making candy. A brown sugar and milk mixture is boiled, and combined with butter and sugar until it reaches a spreadable consistency. This icing is best applied to a cake right after it is made, as it will set firm.
Is ganache a cake topping? Pastry filling? Glaze? Chocolate filling? The answer to all of the above is yes.
One of the most common types of ganache is made using equal weights in cream and chocolate. It’s made by bringing cream to a simmer, pouring it on top of chopped chocolate, then mixing until smooth. The mixture starts out quite liquid, but firms as it sets. It can be used as a drizzle, or as it becomes thicker as it cools, it can be used to cover an entire cake. Once firm, it can be used as a filling for chocolates.
Powdered sugar glaze
This simple glaze is made using powdered sugar with a small amount of liquid added (often milk or water). It can be quite viscous or more thick, like a syrup, depending on the ratio of sugar to liquid. It is often used as a drizzle (for instance, on top of a quick bread) or as an all-over translucent topping (for instance, glazed doughnuts).
A chocolate glaze is a pourable chocolate topping. It can range from translucent to opaque, but it is typically thin enough that it can be poured. A ganache could be used as a chocolate glaze, but a number of varieties exist. This easy version includes butter, corn syrup, and chocolate.
5. Gum paste
Gum paste is a pliable dough which is often used for cake decorating. It is made using egg whites, confectioners’ sugar, and shortening. It can be rolled quite thin and is ideal for creating hand-modeled flowers or other intricate decorations. While fondant will remain soft, gum paste dries quite hard and is better suited for decoration on a cake than for, say, covering an entire cake.
Check out our gum paste recipe!
Generally when it comes to cake decorating, rolled fondant is the type in question. Rolled fondant is a pliable, dough-like icing that’s made of sugar, water, gelatin and food-grade glycerine. Its smooth appearance gives cakes a polished look, and rolled fondant is also flexible and workable enough to mold into shapes, which is very effective for decorating cakes.
A variation of fondant that remains at a pourable consistency and has a glossy finish once dried. Poured fondant is often used on top of cakes or cupcakes.
7. Fudge icing
Milk or cream, cocoa powder, sugar and other flavorings are brought to a boil and cooked until they thicken to make this icing. While it’s pourable and spreadable at first, it will firm to a fudge-like consistency as it cools, so it is best used right away. This is similar to caramel icing, but made using cocoa powder instead of brown sugar.
This mixture of almond paste, sugar, and flavorings is an elegant addition to cakes. Thick and pliable, it can be molded into cake decorations, rolled and used like fondant, or used as a cake layer or filling.
9. Mexican paste
This paste is somewhat similar to fondant, but firmer and with a glossier finish. This is primarily used for creating sculpted or cut out elements for a cake, but can be difficult to work with if trying to cover an entire cake.
10. Modeling chocolateModeling chocolate is a chocolate paste made by combining melted chocolate with corn syrup or simple syrup and then kneading it until it reaches a stiff, pliable consistency. Used like clay, this modeling chocolate can be molded into a variety of shapes that are not as easily performed with the softer fondant. Modeling chocolate can be made from white, dark, semi-sweet or milk chocolate.
Similar to fondant, but without any of the ingredients to make it soft. This will set hard (not firm) and is best used for sculptural elements on cakes. It is often used in highly stylized works of cake art such as the ones featured in Craftsy course High-Fashion Heels. Check out Craftsy instructor Elisa Strauss’s recipe for pastillage.
12. Royal icing
This simple mixture of egg whites, confectioners’ sugar, and often a touch of lemon has a consistency that can be piped, but it dries hard. It is often used to create ornate cookie decorations. It can also be used to pre-make flowers or other cake decorations to be used at a later date, and it’s also what you use to make homemade sprinkles. Check out our easy royal icing recipe.
13. Simple syrup
Simple syrup is made by combining equal parts sugar and water, sometimes with flavorings, and then heating the mixture until it reduces to a syrup-like consistency. This can be used as a glaze, or it can be used to keep cake layers moist.
Looking for other uses for simple syrup? This post details how to use it creatively.
15. Whipped cream frosting
Whipped cream can be used as a frosting or filling for cakes. Typically, the type used for cakes is a stabilized whipped cream, which is enforced with marshmallow, butter, or gelatin for a more firm texture that won’t melt as easily.
Check out our guide to how to stabilize whipped cream.
What is your favorite cake topping?
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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in December 2015 and was updated in December 2017.