Your Guide to Icings
Updated: Jun 29
In the cake world, there is an abundance of different icing and frosting types. When ordering a cake, what do you even ask for? This guide outlines the most commonly used types of icing used by cake makers in the UK and how they are used.
Each filling and covering has its advantages and complement different types of cake. They have different tastes, textures and finishes so the choice of icing largely depends on the design of the cake as well as the flavours.
A cream dream
Butter. The essential ingredient of a traditional buttercream, once known as “butter icing”. With a variety of margarines and vegetable fat spreads widely available, it is easy to end up with an economy version.
Buttercream is the most versatile filling and is easy to flavour. It’s a sweet, creamy filling that sticks the layers of cake together. And there are different types of buttercream too!
English buttercream, which you may know as American buttercream, is the sweetest tasting. No surprise as it’s made from butter and icing sugar – sometimes with a splash of milk or water. The low liquid content makes it a really sturdy icing meaning it will hold its shape. It’s what my mum used at home for decorating our childhood birthday cakes – yum!
Meringue-based buttercreams are another popular choice and our favourite at Holly Dolly Cakes. Butter is added to a meringue base creating a wonderfully light and silky buttercream. There are different variations, each with its own complexities requiring a certain level of skill, including Swiss and Italian meringue buttercreams.
Best for: Sandwiching layer cakes, piped decorations and softer finishes.
A firm favourite
A luxurious icing that is used for filling as well as covering cakes and pairs particularly well with chocolate cakes. Made by combining chocolate with cream, it is more costly than buttercream.
Ganache is a firmer covering which is why many cake makers, including us, coat their cakes with an initial layer of ganache. It helps create perfectly straight sides and sharper edges whilst maintaining the cake’s structure.
Ganache can also be used to finish cakes and is popular for chocolate flavours. And like buttercream, can also be piped for decorating. You’ll also find ganache widely used within the pastry kitchen from filling chocolate truffles to filling chocolate tarts!
We use dark chocolate ganache to fill our Decadent Chocolate Cake, a client favourite for weddings. It adds a rich depth of flavour which is pure indulgence.
Best for: Supporting the cake structure, rich filling, finishing and piped decorations.
Sugarpaste or Fondant
A stand-up option
Sugarpaste, as we call it in the UK, is known as fondant across the rest of the world. Not to be confused with the liquid fondant that fills our creme eggs; sugarpaste is the dry covering widely found on novelty cakes.
The shelf life of cakes is vastly improved by being completely covered in sugarpaste. It’s a dependable icing option when an intricate design is called for that requires time to create. Though it is dry to the touch, it is soft to eat and, in most cases, won’t harden completely when used as a cake covering.
It can’t be piped but can be used for decorating. Adding a hardener means it can be firm enough for modelling. You’re likely to have seen biscuits and cookies decorated with sugarpaste as it is so easy to work with.
Sadly, it doesn’t keep well in the fridge and gets sticky from the humidity. That is why fresh cream, or mousse cakes are rarely decorated with sugarpaste. We advise all customers to keep their sugarpaste cakes at room temperature.
Best for: covering cakes that don’t need chilling, decorating biscuits or cookies and simple modelling.
A solid choice
Not to be confused with glacé icing, found on iced buns and Bakewell tarts where the only ingredients are water and icing sugar. Royal icing is made with egg whites.
Pasteurised whites or egg white powder are commonplace in recipes today as they’re safer for everyone to eat.
Royal icing was the trend for wedding cakes back in the day. It dries rock solid and when a cake is completely covered in royal icing, it creates a hard exterior. It’s far less common these days although I did have a customer once request a traditionally royal iced cake that could break his teeth “just like the old days”! Sounds like cake cutting could have qualified as an Olympic sport back then!
It's a great medium for sticking things together or affixing to a cake. It can be used to pipe intricate details and you’ll find it on many decorated biscuits and cookies.
Best for: your dentist, intricate piped detailing and decorating biscuits or cookies.