If you think solving the Da Vinci code would be easier than find the right frosting for your dessert, I feel for you. There is an overwhelming abundance of different frosting options out there. Simply weeding through them all is an exhausting task- and you can forget about figuring out which one is right for your specific dessert!
I know exactly what you’re feeling.
I’ve frosted one or two desserts in my day. So trust me when I say- I’ve been there and done that. And now I’m here to offer what I’ve learned about frosting over the years!
Now let’s see if we can’t get you to start having fun decorating your dessert!
The Easy Out:
Before we get knee deep in confectioners’ sugar, I have one quick note:
Typically, desserts that are intended to be frosted come with a frosting recipe attached. So my first suggestion is to follow the recipe! Make the frosting that the recipe creator recommends. I can’t imagine why following the recipe would be a bad decision. However, if there is a particular ingredient that offends you, consider omitting it. Or substituting it with some else that’s more to your liking.
That said, if you feel like making your own informed frosting decision, keep reading. (And power to ya!) Or, if you’re just curious about the ins and outs of pairing a recipe with a dessert, then this will help with that too. Or (and I hope this isn’t the case) if I just panicked you by telling you to omit and substitute frosting ingredients, just keep reading. I promise I’ll enlighten you about how, exactly, you go about doing such things.
Compare and Contrast:
But before we go any further, let’s talk terminology! What exactly is the difference between a frosting and an icing? Two things: butter and consistency.
Frosting uses butter and has a consistency that you can pipe into shapes with a piping bag. Think of frosting as a sugar-based, edible Playdough. It should be firm enough to mold into cool shapes. And thick enough that the shapes stay just how you leave them. Getting your consistency right will be a very important factor later on, when you’re using it to decorate. Frosting is ideal for decorating cakes and cookies with beautiful designs. And it’s malleability is all due to the fat in the butter.
If you remove that fat, you not longer have frosting. You have something else entirely: Icing.
Icing is a lot runnier. And since it doesn’t have any butter in it, it hardens when it dries. When I think icing, I imagine the consistency of a puddle- I’m talking straight up sugar soup. It’s best for dipping your dessert into or drizzling over your dessert. Which makes icing ideally suited for cookies. Simply dip them face first into the liquidy icing and then decorating with sprinkles. You’ve probably heard of one of the most famous types before- Royal Icing. It’s special because it’s made with meringue powder in addition to confectioners’ sugar and water.
And if you want to go another degree simpler than icing, you can.
Then you have a glaze. Now, a glaze is literally just confectioners’ sugar and water. So think icing, but even runnier! And it’s even simpler to make! The first example that comes to mind for when you’d use a glaze is donuts. That sweet, sugary film that dries so stiff that it’s almost sharp- that’s what I’m talking about right now. But, this isn’t really applicable to our conversation today, since this isn’t nearly as common a decoration as frosting and icing.
Phew! That’s a lot of info. Feel smarter yet? Awesome…
Now I need you forget everything that I just told you about icing and glazes!
Because today’s all about frosting- and nothing else!
Now that we’re all on the same page about frosting is supposed to look like, let’s go a little deeper. But from here on out, we’re leaving icing and glazes in the dust; and we’re focusing solely on frosting.
Ready to dive in?
Now the most basic of frostings are both sweet and straightforward.
The skeleton key of all frostings is powdered sugar, butter, milk, and a dash of vanilla for flavor. Simply beat the soft butter with the confectioners’ sugar, adding small splashes of milk until you’ve achieved the desired consistency. That is the most basic, easiest way to make frosting that I know.
And the best part?
If you make a mistake with your consistency, it’s super easy to adjust! In fact, you can continue to tweak the consistency almost indefinitely until you’re happy. How? By adding more confectioners’ sugar to make it thicker, or adding more milk to make it thinner. Of course, be aware that if you double the amount of milk and sugar, you should throw in some more butter in order to keep the ratio of your ingredients proportional.
Ready to Spice Things Up?
Once you know the basics, it’s as easy as adding extra ingredients, or substituting existing ones, to make your frosting more unique! The options here are limitless, so I’m not going to waste your time offering every different flavor combination that I can think of. And even if I did, I bet my list would be lacking. Guys, you’re truly only limited by your imagination here!
Oh! And don’t forget to taste test, to be sure you’re happy with your experiment!
Now, logistically, you don’t want to add doubles of any of your ingredients. So I recommend you make a 1:1 substitute for any new liquid ingredients. And if you’re adding extra dry ingredients, simply add less confectioners’ sugar to the mixture. This should keep the ratios in check. But, if at any point you’re unhappy with your consistency, you know how to adjust it. (Scroll up two paragraphs.)
Let’s brainstorm additions! Try adding cocoa powder to make homemade chocolate frosting. If you plan ahead, you can actually change the flavor of your confectioners’ sugar! Just combine the sugar with some dried lavender buds a day or two in advance. The oils will rub off on the confectioners’ sugar and actually infuses the it with the aroma and flavor of the lavender! Then simply strain out the flowers before making the frosting. (No one likes lumpy frosting! Ew!)
And while it does nothing for the flavor profile, you can always add food coloring to give your frosting some extra pizzazz!
Ready to talk substitutions? Try substituting the milk for coffee- or even alcohol like whiskey, brandy, or Kahlua. Or replace the vanilla extract with any number of different flavored extracts to completely revolutionize the flavor of your frosting. For example, instead of the prescribed vanilla, add lemon extract to make your frosting citrusy. Or mint. Or maple extract- serious, the sky’s the limit!
In fact, you could even replace both the milk and the butter with dairy-free alternatives to make a dessert that everyone can enjoy. This works great if you’ve been struggling to feed a vegan friend. Or if someone in your life has serious food allergies and intolerances. Because dessert should be inclusive- and frosting should be no different!
Of course, some frosting recipes get even more creative than just swapping out the vanilla extract for a different flavored extract. And you aren’t limited to just making frosting one way either. In fact, the last thing I want is for you to lose your curiosity! Get out there and learn new techniques. Find cool new recipes and give them a try!
But, before you go reinventing the wheel, there are some absolutely classic dessert-and-frosting pairings that you need to know about!
Here are just three examples off the top of my head:
Cream Cheese Frosting is always a good choice! It pairs especially well with carrot cake and pumpkin based cakes and cookies. Cream cheese frosting isn’t super stiff. Instead, the additional fat from the cream cheese makes for a wonderfully supple consistency. But it is smooth and rich, with a slightly bitter tang that’s the wholly due to the titular ingredient. And unlike some other frostings, cream cheese frosting isn’t overwhelmingly sweet, which leaves room for the dessert to shine.
Chocolate Frosting on top of a chocolate dessert may be predictable, but it’s always tasty! Whether made with cocoa powder or melted chocolate, chocolate frosting is always luscious and rich. Plus, it also pairs well with the unexpected! So if you’re feeling adventurous, try sprinkling a little sea salt on top of your confection. Or pair your chocolate frosting with an orange-flavored cake for a complex, flavorful surprise.
Buttercream is a fantastic choice for decorating with frosting. When you’re piping decorations on a cake, you need a frosting with a firm consistency that will hold it’s shape. And buttercream excels at this! In fact, it’s my go-to frosting for all my decorating needs. It’s super rich since it uses a lot more butter than other frosting recipes, and super sweet because it calls for a ton of confectioners’ sugar. But it’s so thick that it stays exactly where you put it and it pairs well with just about every dessert under the sun.
Whoa. So, that was a lot.
I hope I didn’t overwhelm you too much. I promise I was trying to educate and inform- not just short-circuit your brain. But yeah, apparently there’s a lot to say about frosting. And I don’t think I even exhausted the topic!
Frosting, man. You’ve gotta love it!
In fact, now that I’m think about it, frosting is really the rare exception in the baking world.
So many times I find myself saying, “Don’t change the recipe! Take liberties at your own peril! Don’t get too creative, now…” And today I can breathe easy- cause I don’t have to do that! I can’t think of anything else quite as flexible and forgiving as a frosting recipe!
And how sweet is that?!