They're both delicious, but they're not the same.
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The frosting versus icing debate isn't a regional expression turf battle. Though it may seem the choice to say you want cake with frosting or cake with icing is similar to "I say tomato, you say tomato," the truth is frosting and icing just aren't the same thing, no matter how you slice it.

Now don't get us wrong. It's easy to mix up the two because both are commonly used for decorating baked goods like cakes and cookies. Plus, for most of your life, odds are you have heard the terms frosting and icing used interchangeably.

But despite what you've been told or might have thought previously, frosting and icing are very different — and each serves a different purpose when the time comes to decorate your desserts.

Here, we will break down the frosting versus icing differences, explain how you can determine what you're eating (or licking off the spoon), and even explore the various types of both frosting and icing.

chocolate or caramel frosting spread across the whole photo and whipped in swirls
Credit: Meredith

What Is Frosting? What Is Frosting Used For?

Frosting is most identifiable by its thick and fluffy consistency. Because frosting holds its shape and is opaque in color, you'll see it often used and called for when you are decorating cakes and cupcakes.

Another trait that sets frosting apart from icing is that it is always whipped, and unlike icing, its main ingredient is fat, such as butter or cream.

Key qualities of frosting:

  • thick and fluffy consistency
  • holds its shape when spread
  • opaque
  • main ingredient is a fat (such as butter or cream)
white cake being frosted with chocolate frosting on a cake stand
Credit: Meredith

Types of Frosting

While there are many varieties of frosting, the four most common types of frosting include:

1. Buttercream Frosting

Buttercream frosting is what is commonly used to top birthday cakes and is made from fluffy creamed butter and confectioner's sugar. The two are mixed until the frosting becomes creamy and light.

This is the simplest kind of frosting, but there is the option to build on the already existing "butter" flavor, by adding vanilla, chocolate, or even lemon to the frosting mixture.

Cream cheese frosting is uses many of the same ingredients as buttercream frosting; however, some of the butter is replaced by tangy cream cheese. This frosting is most often used to top red velvet cakes, carrot cakes, or lemon cakes.

3. Whipped Cream Frosting

Whipped cream frosting is made by whipping heavy cream and powdered sugar together until the frosting becomes creamy. You'll commonly see this frosting paired with black forest and pineapple cakes. Sometimes, cream cheese or other ingredients will be added to this frosting to add body or stability, but traditional whipped cream frosting does not have them.

4. Meringue Frosting

Meringue frosting beats egg whites and sugar until the mixture becomes airy in texture, like a marshmallow. Since this is the most advanced frosting to make, you'll often see this paired more with elegant cakes.

What Is Icing? What Is Icing Used For?

Unlike frosting, icing is thinner, glossier, and flows more due to its consistency. It's great for drizzling. Icing doesn't hold its shape like frosting and is regularly used in decorating as an accent to its frosting counterpart (a drizzle on top of a layer of frosting, for example). It is also used as the sole decoration or coating for pastries or donuts.

To make an icing, you just need to mix its main ingredient (powdered sugar) with a liquid (such as water, cream, milk, liqueur, or even citrus juice). Whisk to make it smooth enough to coat the surface of a cookie or pastry.

Icing also tends to be more translucent and only hardens and becomes more opaque as it cools down. Like frosting, icing can also be flavored with vanilla, chocolate, or lemon.

Key qualities of icing:

  • thinner, glossier with a more liquid-like consistency
  • doesn't hold it's shape when spread
  • translucent when wet, more opaque once hardened
  • main ingredient is powdered sugar

There are a few varieties of icing, but the two most common are:

1. Royal Icing

The most universal icing is royal icing, which is frequently used for cookie decorating or even used as the glue for your holiday gingerbread house. In addition to powdered sugar, this type of icing also includes egg whites to give the icing more stability.

2. Fondant

A more advanced icing is called fondant, which has a dough-like consistency. You can pour or roll out fondant, cut out shapes, and create elaborate details to decorate elegant cakes for special events and celebrations.

Can You Substitute Frosting for Icing and Vice Versa?

As much as we want them to be, frosting and icing are not really interchangeable. While it might seem like a minor recipe substitute, when the time comes to dig in, you'll quickly realize that your dessert's outcome is very different than what you originally intended. Since both require similar ingredients, it shouldn't be hard to whip up whatever your recipe calls for with a well-stocked pantry.

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