All About Buttercream, Frosting & Icing

Buttercream, frosting, icing, whatever you call it, it’s the crowning glory and beautiful finishing touch for your cake creations. I’ll explain about the different types of frosting and give you suggestions for which frosting pairs best with which cake recipe.

a vanilla frosted cake on a glass cake stand.

What’s the difference between buttercream, frosting and icing?

Well, there is no “legal” definition of buttercream, frosting or icing (as far as I know).

As the name implies, buttercream has butter as the main ingredient.

A recipe that uses vegetable shortening rather than butter can also be called buttercream. Whether it includes butter, vegetable shortening or a mix of the two, you can call it “buttercream”.

So what is a frosting or icing? I call anything that you use to cover a cake “frosting” or “icing”. Any buttercream can be a frosting or icing, but not every frosting or icing is buttercream. Ganache, whipped cream or meringue can be used as a cake frosting.

Which Frosting Goes With Which Cake?

Ultimately, the perfect frosting for your cake is the one which you like best. I will guide you with a full description and pairing suggestions for all my frosting recipes.

Which frosting is the best for Carrot Cake? I think you can probably guess. Which is best for Red Velvet Cake? You might be surprised. How should you frost a delicate Vanilla Genoise or Old Fashioned Buttermilk Cake? There are plenty of great options.

A Comprehensive List Of Frostings & Buttercreams

Italian Meringue Buttercream (IMB)
Meringue Buttercreams are the stars of the buttercream world. Light, fluffy and not too sweet, they are my personal favorite for special occasion and wedding cakes. This Italian Meringue Buttercream is the exact recipe I used for over 10 years in my custom cake business.
Some folks find meringue buttercreams a little "buttery", especially if they prefer sweeter American Buttercream.
Italian Meringue Buttercream is a little fussier to make than it's Swiss cousin but I find the meringue is more stable and the resulting buttercream is super silky and luxurious.
IMB can be tinted, flavored in any way you'd like and you can use it to pipe roses and intricate borders. This buttercream pairs well with any cake.
Check out this recipe
beauty of of italian meringue buttercream
American Buttercream Recipe
American Buttercream is a simple yet delicious frosting. This is the easiest buttercream to make with absolutely no cooking needed. A hint of milk and a drizzle of corn syrup make this buttercream frosting especially luscious and smooth.
ABC is the sweetest buttercream and is a good choice for a child's birthday cake. It pairs well with Vanilla Buttermilk Cake and Vanilla Butter Cake.
Check out this recipe
a vanilla cake with a scoop of vanilla buttercream
Ermine Frosting Recipe
Ermine Frosting is the Goldilocks of buttercream. It's less sweet than American Buttercream and a little sweeter than Meringue Buttercream. This old-fashioned frosting is juuuust right!
The process for making Ermine frosting starts with a "pudding" made from milk, sugar and flour. Because the sugar is cooked into the pudding base, you don't have the grittiness that you get with American Buttercream.
Ermine is the traditional frosting for Red Velvet Cake. Add coconut flavoring and it's the perfect topping for Coconut Cake.
Check out this recipe
a spatula dropping ermine frosting onto a red velvet cake
French Buttercream Recipe
French buttercream is made exactly like Italian Meringue Buttercream, except that you use egg yolks instead of egg whites. The yolks make a lovely yellow colored frosting and add a rich, custard flavor.
This is a wonderful frosting for Classic Vanilla Genoise or Chocolate Genoise. It's also a great way to use up extra egg yolks.
Check out this recipe
Seven Minute Frosting
Seven Minute Frosting is a veritable cloud of a frosting. Even better, you need just a handful of pantry ingredients and about 7 minutes to make this recipe.
Seven Minute Frosting is, basically, a stabilized meringue. That means this is the perfect frosting for Lemon Meringue Cupcakes.
Check out this recipe
Cream Cheese Frosting Recipe
Cream Cheese Frosting is another variation of American Buttercream, the main difference is that cream cheese replaces some of the butter.
There is a better way to make cream cheese frosting than the standard recipe. This frosting whips up lump-free and doesn't become runny. It has a great cream cheese flavor.
Of course this is the perfect frosting for Carrot Cake, and it's also often paired with Red Velvet Cake. For a real treat, put Cream Cheese frosting on Buttermilk Spice Cake or Zucchini Cake.
Check out this recipe
cream cheese frosting
Old Fashioned Chocolate Frosting
This chocolate frosting is a variation of American Buttercream, so it is very easy to make. Cocoa gives this buttercream a lovely fudgy flavor that cuts through the sweetness.
This frosting pairs well with Old Fashioned Chocolate Cake or Chocolate Butter Cake.
Check out this recipe
old fashioned chocolate icing
German Buttercream Recipe
German Buttercream is the rich European cousin of Ermine Frosting. Instead of starting with a milk & flour pudding, this frosting starts with a milk and egg custard base.
Like Ermine Frosting, German Buttercream is less sweet than American Buttercream and a little easier to make than Meringue Buttercreams.
I love the "ice-creamy" flavor from the custard base. Pairing this frosting with a light and delicate Vanilla Genoise really allows the custard flavor to shine. This also pairs wonderfully with tender Vanilla Butter Cake and soft Vanilla Buttermilk Cake. The custard flavor also works well with Spice Cake.
Check out this recipe
Swiss Meringue Buttercream Recipe
Swiss Meringue Buttercream is a little easier to make than it's Italian cousin. The sugar and egg whites are heated over simmering water, whipped until light and airy, then the butter is added.
Swiss Meringue buttercream can be tinted, flavored in any way you'd like and you can use it to pipe roses and intricate borders. This buttercream pairs well with any cake.
Check out this recipe
a bowl of swiss meringue buttercream
Malted Chocolate Frosting Recipe
Malted Chocolate Frosting is a version of Ermine Frosting. It's made with whole milk and malted milk powder for a deeply satisfying, old-fashioned flavor.
Malted Chocolate Frosting pairs well with Old Fashioned Chocolate Cake, and is wonderful with light and airy Chocolate Genoise or a tender Chocolate Butter Cake. My favorite way to use Malted Chocolate Frosting is on Malted Milk Brownies.
Check out this recipe
a spatula piling malted chocolate frosting onto a brownie
Chocolate Whipped Cream Recipe
What’s better than whipped cream? Chocolate whipped cream! Use it to fill cake layers or as a topping for ice cream or hot chocolate.
This chocolate whipped cream is made with melted chocolate instead of cocoa. The cocoa butter in the chocolate makes the whipped cream very stable and it will hold it's shape for several days.
Light and airy Chocolate Whipped Cream is perfect with Chocolate Genoise Cake,
Check out this recipe
Chocolate Whipped Cream in a chocolate sponge cake
Chocolate Ganache
Chocolate Ganache has all the pure chocolate flavor of a really great square of bittersweet chocolate but it has a soft and creamy texture. It’s like eating chocolate silk.
Ganache can be melted and poured over a Marjolaine Cake or it can be whipped up and used to frost a Chocolate Ganache Cake.
Check out this recipe
a bowl of chocolate ganache with a spatula

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  1. I love your recipes! I stumbled on your Perfect Cake recipe and love how thorough and detailed all your posts are. You cover everything which is super helpful! I’m a hobby baker and have very little experience. I want to work my way through your frosting recipes and wondered if you have a suggested progression? I have only ever made American buttercream and didn’t know there were other options! I’m a little intimidated by the meringues and other cooking techniques, but I’m eager to learn and experiment.

    TL;DR: What is the best progression to try all these frostings and gain experience if you have only ever made ABC frosting?

    1. After ABC I would try the Ermine Frosting, then the German Buttercream, then either the meringue or French Buttercreams. Don’t be intimidated by the meringue frostings. They are really quite forgiving and not nearly as fussy as you might imagine. The Swiss Meringue is a little easier than the Italian Meringue. Have fun.