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What Is the Difference Between Frosting and Icing?
The terms are used interchangeably, but frosting is generally thicker and fluffier than icing, which tends to set quickly and harden when dry. Icing is generally not spreadable like frosting—it needs to be poured, spooned, or drizzled over baked goods. If you need to cover an entire cake, opt for smooth, thick frosting and use an offset spatula. Icing, such as royal icing, is used to decorate sugar cookies, cinnamon buns, and hot cross buns.
10 Common Cake Frostings
Some cake frostings are as simple as powdered sugar, vanilla extract, and unsalted butter and/or whipping cream, but the flavor possibilities are endless.
7 Necessary Items for Frosting the Perfect Cake
- The cake: You can adapt these instructions for any type of cake recipe, from a three-layer cake to a sponge.
- The frosting: Use a frosting that is smooth and easy to work with, such as Italian meringue buttercream.
- Cake turntable: A revolving cake stand makes it way easier to frost, since you can move the turntable instead of the cake itself.
- Offset or straight icing spatula: A rounded knife used to spread frosting.
- Piping or pastry bag and a large icing tip
- Bench scraper or icing smoother
- Cup of warm water: For rinsing the icing spatula.
10 Tips for Frosting a Cake
- Make sure your cake is completely cool: warm cake will melt frosting.
- Use room-temperature frosting, since cold frosting can be difficult to spread.
- If your cake layers are uneven, level the tops with a sharp serrated knife before assembling and frosting.
- Frequently rinse your icing spatula in warm water to make frosting easier. You can keep a cup of warm water by your cake-decorating station and simply dip the knife in it between rounds of frosting, shaking off excess water.
- Work quickly so that the frosting does not dry out.
- To fill a piping bag more easily, insert the tip into the bag, then place the bag in a large cup. Fold the end of the piping bag over the rim of the cup and fill the bag with frosting. Push the frosting down to the tip of the bag, remove the bag from the cup, and twist the top of the bag. The twist is where you should simultaneously grip and squeeze the bag as you pipe.
- Use even pressure when applying frosting.
- Make sure not to get loose crumbs in your frosting, so you have a smooth, clean-looking cake.
- If you’re going to pipe decorations, practice your designs on a piece of parchment paper before working on the cake.
- If you want different colored icings for decorating purposes, mix a small amount of food coloring into your favorite frosting recipe.
4 Common Cake Decorating Tips and How to Use Them
- Rosette: Use an open star tip to pipe rosettes as a decoration or to cover an entire cake. Position the bag straight up (at a 90° angle) and squeeze to form a star. Maintaining pressure, raise the tip slightly and to the side, then pipe back towards the top of the star. Pipe a semicircle to connect to the start of the rosette and then decrease pressure as you close the rosette. Release pressure right before you connect the rosette, then pull away.
- Grass or fur: Use a multi-opening tip (also called a grass tip—a tip with little holes in it) positioned the bag straight up (at a 90° angle) and squeeze until strands are desired length. Release pressure before pulling away. To make grass or fur look more natural, pull the tip slightly to the left or right and form clusters that are close together.
- Writing: Use a rounded tip positioned at a 45° angle to write words. When you reach the end of a line, gently touch the tip to the surface of the line and pull away. Clean tip between letters if needed.
- Ribbons: Use a petal tip to pipe ribbons or ruffles.
Step-by-Step Guide to Frosting a Layer Cake
- Cool the cake completely and bring the frosting to room temperature.
- Line the outside of your cake plate by overlapping four strips of parchment paper along the edges of the plate, leaving a small square of space in the very center of the cake plate. The paper should hang off the edges of the plate.
- Place the first layer in the center of the cake plate.
- Fit a piping bag with a large tip and put some of the frosting in the bag. You’ll need about ½ cup frosting for each layer. Fill the bag to the level you’re comfortable with and stop to refill as needed.
- Trace the edge of the top of the cake with frosting, spiraling in toward the center of the cake.
- Use the icing spatula to spread the frosting all over the top of the cake, letting some spread down to the sides.
- Place the second layer on top, upside-down (or cut side down if this layer has been trimmed). Trace the edge of the top of the cake with frosting, spiraling in toward the center of the cake. Use the icing spatula to spread the frosting all over the top of the cake, letting some spread down to the sides.
- Place the final layer on top, upside-down (or cut side down if this layer has been trimmed). Gently press down and make sure layers are even. Generously trace the edge of the top of the cake with frosting, spiraling in toward the center of the cake.
- Rinse the icing spatula in warm water. Use the icing spatula to spread the frosting into a thin layer over the top of the cake, spreading extra frosting down the sides of the cake. Hold the icing spatula vertically and spread the frosting over the sides of all three layers in one sweeping motion. The side of the cake should be lightly coated with frosting. Add extra frosting if needed. This is called the crumb coat. Refrigerate to let the crumb coat set, 10 minutes to an hour.
- Remove the cake from the refrigerator. Trace the edge of the top of the cake with frosting, spiraling in toward the center of the cake. Trace the sides of the cake with frosting. Rinse the icing spatula in warm water and use it to spread the frosting evenly over the top of the cake. Rinse the icing spatula in warm water and hold it vertically to spread the frosting on the sides of the cake so that the frosting is evenly thick around the cake and the cake is no longer showing through the frosting.
- Use a bench scraper to smooth the frosting: Hold the scraper vertically against the side of the cake at a 45° angle and apply light pressure while spinning the cake stand until the edge of the cake is smooth. Rinse the bench scraper in warm water and use the bench scraper to scrape frosting from the outside edge toward the center of the top of the cake. Smooth out the layer of frosting across the top of the cake with the bench scraper.
- Remove the parchment paper strips. Refrigerate 1 hour to set frosting.
How to Frost Cupcakes
To frost cupcakes with a large swirl:
- Using a medium open-star tip, pipe a large dot in the center of the cupcake. Pipe a circle around this center dot.
- Pipe increasingly smaller circles on top of each other to create a spiral of frosting. At the top of the swirl, lightly press down and pull the bag away.
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