The Icing On The Cake

When most people think of cake, the first thing that comes to mind is a fabulous creation decorated with beautiful icing. Icing is used on everything from cupcakes to cookies to cakes, and it is the finishing touch on a masterpiece. While some cakes do just fine without icing, others would be nothing if it weren’t for a few artistic flowers, a nice glaze or some fancy borders. In all, there are seven basic types of icing used for cake decorating. Any combination of these types of frostings can produce a spectacular cake; the choice depends on what the final result needs to be.

Buttercream Icing

The most common form of cake frosting is buttercream icing. Buttercream is what we normally find in cans on the grocery store shelf or on ready-made cakes. This type of icing is easy to make and easy to work with. The base ingredient is either butter or shortening mixed with confectioner’s sugar.

Depending on what type of texture you want, you can add milk or eggs to thin out the icing. Be very careful to only add a small amount of milk at a time. You don’t want to add so much that the icing becomes watery. If you do go too far with the milk, thicken the mixture again with a touch of confectioner’s sugar.

For an even finish, take an icing spatula and dip it in cold water to smooth out the surface. While this technique won’t give you the same flawless finish a fondant icing would, you can still achieve a flat surface for writing.

Buttercream is often used to create flowers and other decorations you would make from a pastry bag. The icing is thick enough that it will flow easily through the bag to form flower petals or writing. If you are making icing roses, put them in the freezer before placing them on your cake. Freezing the flowers will make them easier to handle.

Buttercream icing is easily stored in the refrigerator and won’t get hard like some of the other icings will. If you do make this icing ahead of time, let it sit at room temperature before using.

Foam Icing

This type of icing is the kind you find on lemon meringue pie or Baked Alaska. Foam icing is made from egg whites beaten into froth. When you lift the beaters from the foam, the icing should stand up in stiff peaks. You can add flavoring or coloring to the meringue depending on the type of pie or cake you have in mind. Foam icing isn’t meant to be used as an icing for creating intricate designs, and you won’t be able to manage it through a pastry bag like you would buttercream. You might be able to sculpt the foam to a certain extent, but don’t expect to get too detailed.


Fondant icing is very popular among pastry chefs who design wedding cakes and other cakes meant for big, showy occasions. Made from sugar, water and cream of tartar or glucose, this type of icing is very thick, with a consistency like cookie dough. The cream of tartar or glucose causes the sugar to crystallize in such a way as to give the fondant a smooth, silky texture.

Unlike the previous technique of a cold spatula on the buttercream icing, using fondant will give your cake a flawless surface with soft, rounded edges. How do pastry chefs achieve this elegant look for their cakes? Well, it’s not simple. Working with fondant icing is an art and takes practice, and it is not an icing intended for a beginner to use. Be prepared to eat a lot of failed experiments before you get the decorating right.

If you want to give it a try, first create an even surface on your cake. Any imperfections will show through the fondant. If you have bubbles on the cake, level them out with a knife. Holes can be filled in with extra icing. Also, round off any sharp edges on your cake with icing from a pastry tube, unless you want a “boxy” look to your final piece. Take care, though; too sharp of an edge will cause the fondant to crack, and then you will have to start your decorating all over.

Whether you have one layer or seven, you will have to anchor the cake’s bottom layer to the board or platter. Take a few dabs of icing and place them on the board or platter before you place your bottom layer of cake on it, and then gently press the layer into place.

To get the fondant to stick to the cake, you have to use what is called a “crumb coat.” This could be a thin glaze or jam in any flavor you want. Add the first layer, let it dry, and then add a second layer, but don’t let the second layer dry completely. You want that final crumb coat to be tacky.

Fondant is like alabaster, and it has a translucent quality. If you are using a white fondant icing, give your cake a thin layer of buttercream icing first so the white fondant maintains its brightness and so that the crumb coat doesn't show through.

Next, roll out the fondant with a rolling pin. Sprinkle your counter or rolling mat with cornstarch to keep the icing from sticking to the surface. Knead the fondant first, and then roll it to the size you need. Your fondant is ready to roll when you have a smooth, well shaped ball of icing. If you drop the ball on the counter, the fondant should spread slightly but still remain firm. Be sure to keep any extra fondant covered in a bowl while not in use or else it will dry out.

When rolling fondant, you want it to be no thinner than ¼ inch thick. Any thinner will enhance the cake’s imperfections. As you roll out the icing, turn the fondant several times, but don’t flip it over. You don’t want to have both sides coated in cornstarch. Never pull on the fondant either or it will tear.

Fondant dries quickly, and you only have five minutes to roll it out and get it on the cake. Make sure that you have enough fondant to touch the board once you’ve draped it over the cake. After you’ve applied the fondant to the cake, you won’t be able to adjust it. If you do, you will end up pulling off chunks of cake with the icing.

Remove the excess fondant icing from the base of the cake. You can use scissors or a knife, depending which you are more comfortable with.

A decorative border of buttercream around the base will hide any ragged edges and add a professional finish to your cake.

Fudge Icing

Fudge icing can be made from chocolate, almond, peanut butter or mint. This type of icing is usually very thick and uses both butter and shortening.


A glaze frosting is a thin, watery icing that will harden into a shell after it is applied. This type is generally used on pastries. Not only do glazes look nice and taste good, but they also help to keep the pastry moist.

Flat Icing

This type of icing is similar to a glaze, only it’s thicker. When decorating a cake, flat icing is made from confectioner’s sugar and water and drizzled onto pastries.

Royal Icing

Another type of flat icing, royal icing hardens after it has set. This type of icing is a popular choice for decorating cookies or making flowers, sugar sculptures and garnishes for cakes.

With so many options and applications, you can take any combination of the basic seven icing techniques to create a masterpiece.  It will take a lot of experimentation and practice to get them right, but the results will be worth it and the trial runs will make a tasty treat!

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