How To Make Frostings and Icings

Learn the difference between frosting and icing, how to make them, and how to use them.

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.

What Is Frosting?

Frosting is thick and fluffy with a butter or cream base. 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. Frosting stays soft and fluffy, and is best suited for cakes, cupcakes, and cookies that won't be stacked one one top of the other.

How to Make 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 a thick swirl on top your cupcakes, double the recipe.

Basic 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.

What Is Icing?

Icing is thinner and more delicate than frosting. It is usually glossy, and it's made with a sugar base. Although icing can be thick enough to pipe on with a pastry bag, it can also be thin enough to flood an area with a thin coating of color. Think of it like this: You'd use thick icing to outline a design on a flower, and thin icing to color it in. (See the example in the photo of Sugar Cookie Icing below.)

close up of sugar cookie cutouts decorated to look like flowers

Icing can dry to a hard, shiny, unsmudgeable finish, especially if it's royal icing, which is made with egg whites or meringue powder. Icing made with corn syrup will also dry to a hard, shiny finish.

A very thin icing can also be used as a glaze, which is thin enough to drizzle over pastries, coffee cakes, and Bundt cakes.

How to Make Icing

Making icing is essentially the same process as making frosting...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.

This recipe for sugar cookie icing combines confectioners' sugar and milk with light corn syrup and almond extract. You can add food coloring to create pretty iced cookies. Watch the video to see how it's done.

Adding 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.

Browse our entire collection of frosting and icing recipes.

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