By Allrecipes Editors
May 25, 2015

It's easy to make delicious homemade frosting for cakes, cupcakes, and cookies. Or do we mean icing?

The words frosting and icing are often used interchangeably. And that's fine. Certainly you can call 'em as you see 'em, but we think there's a difference with an actual distinction.

Frosting is thick and fluffy with a butter or cream base, and you spread on with a knife or spatula or pipe it through a pastry bag. Frosting is sturdy enough to hold up decorations on cakes and cupcakes.

Icing is more delicate, thinner than frosting, glossy, with a sugar base. It's the sugary topping on pastries, coffee cakes, and such. It's thin enough to drizzle on; although icing is actually thicker than a glaze, which has staked out its own territory.

Sugar Cookie Icing_Flowers | Photo by ekennedy

And, uh, we won't even mention fondant. Not here, anyway. (Over here, however, we discuss fondant freely and openly.)

OK, so with that semi-settled, let's get to the frosting! We're making a tangy cream cheese frosting.

This recipe made enough frosting to spread on one dozen cupcakes. If you'd like to pipe the frosting on your cupcakes, double it.

Tangy Cream Cheese Frosting:

  • 8-ounce package of cream cheese
  • 1/3 cup butter
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 1/3 to 1 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar (add the larger amount of sugar for a stiffer consistency)
  • Pinch of salt

1. Before you begin, you want your ingredients to be at cool room temperature -- not refrigerator-cold but not soft enough to spread on toast. If the cream cheese and butter are too cold, they'll be too firm to mix easily; if they're too warm, your frosting will be very soft and may be difficult to use.

2. Start by beating the cream cheese until smooth. You can also use a food processor to make frosting instead of an electric mixer.

3. Add the butter and beat to combine, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.

4. Beat in the confectioners' sugar and the pinch of salt. Ingredients such as powdered sugar and cocoa powder should be sifted before you add them to the mixing bowl.

5. Add the sour cream and vanilla extract. Beat until smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl.

And it's as easy as that -- your frosting is ready to use. If you need to refrigerate it before using, bring it back up to room temperature, return it to the mixer, and beat it for a minute or so for the best consistency. In between uses, keep frostings and icings covered with a damp cloth and some plastic wrap.

Frosting too thick? You can easily thin frostings to the desired consistency by adding milk, juice, water, or other liquids.

Now you know how to make frosting, let's see a few different ways to pipe with it, and make your cupcakes look professional.

OK, so how about icing? It's essentially the same process to make icings...except without the butter and cream. So you end up with a glossy, glazier look. To enhance that smooth glossy finish, warm the icing slightly in a microwave, or in a bowl over a pan of simmering water. Stir frequently so that a crust does not form on the top.

VIDEO: How to Make Icing

This recipe for sugar cookie icing combines confectioners' sugar and milk with light corn syrup and almond extract. Mix 'em up and add food coloring to create pretty iced cookies. See how it's done.

Flavors and Colors

Adding flavors and colors takes frostings and icings to the next level. Flavorings such as vanilla, lemon, orange, or almond extracts are available in grocery stores. You can also substitute fruit juices like lemon and orange for the liquid in a recipe; they're generally not as intensely flavored as extracts.

Food-safe colors come in liquid and paste form. Liquid food coloring is commonly available in grocery stores, but for brighter, more intense colors, use paste food coloring -- available at craft and kitchenware stores. When adding color, first mix the color into about 1 tablespoon of icing, and then blend that into the rest of the icing.

Once you have your colorful icing or frosting ready, it's time to get creative. Here are some tips on How to Decorate Cookies.