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The Icing on the Cake: An Exploration of Icing, Frosting and Even Glaze

Glaze, Icing, Frosting
There are times in life when we find ourselves confronted with serious questions; in seeking answers, we might just have a defining moment or two. This is one such time: we are now going to discuss the question of icing versus frosting

Is there a difference between the two, and if so, what? Ingredients? Consistency? Or are the terms interchangeable, as in the way some say "pop" and some say "soda"? And going even further...what is a glaze? Here's what we found:
Our first stop, naturally, was the The International Dictionary of Desserts, Pastries, and Confections, which, while noting that there are many different types, ultimately tells us "the term icing is interchangeable with the term frosting". For shame, sweet dictionary--certainly it can't be that simple, can it? 
And so we moved on toNancy Rommelmann's fantastic book Everything You Pretend to Know about Food and Are Afraid Someone Will Ask, which (thank god!) has a whole section entitled "What's the difference between frosting and icing?". The section reads:
Often used interchangeably, frosting and icing are in fact different. Frosting tends to be thick and gooey, with a cream or butter base. It is slathered on cake layers, or applied in fluffy waves. Icing is thinner, sometimes with simply a sugar base, and creates a glaze on cakes and pastry, such as the kind you find on coffee cakes.

This idea is backed up in a Williams-Sonoma release simply entitled Cakes, in which it is noted that icing is "used to coat and/ or fill a cake...similar to a frosting, and the terms are frequently used interchangeably"...but ultimately "an icing is generally thinner and glossier" than frosting, which is "a thick, fluffy mixture, such as buttercream, used to coat the outside of a cake." Of course, the book even goes on to even differentiate a glaze from the two as being "thinner than either a frosting or an icing"...which makes the slope all the more slippery--but does further define the difference between these sweet toppings.

OK--so to review, with pictures:

Cinnamon Roll, Nielsen's, Queen Anne, SeattleTop Pot Doughnut (Purchased at Top Pot Belltown)
GLAZE: Thinnest type of sugar topping, often made with just a sugar base. Usually translucent. Common on cinnamon rolls, doughnuts, and heavier cakes like pound cake that don't need a lot more on top.
Bittersweet, ChicagoMini Flower CakesLe Fournil, SeattleChaos Theory, Chicago
ICING: Thicker than a glaze but not always opaque. Can be made with a sugar base or may also include egg whites, butter or cream. The term "icing" is often used interchangeably with "frosting". Coffee cakes and cookies are often "iced" rather than "frosted".
Magnolia Bakery CupcakesCloseup of Wedding Cake from Layers in Monterey, CAFrostingFrosting the Cupcake
FROSTING: The thickest of the lot, opaque and fluffy; think buttercream frosting on a birthday cake.

Of course, regardless of a picture chart, what became clear during our research is that while there are some ways to discern whether it may be a glaze, icing or frosting atop your sweet treat, it really is a fine line, and one ought not worry unduly about the difference. Because really, whether it's the sweet glaze on your doughnut, the fluffy frosting on your cupcake or the icing on the cake--it's the taste that counts.


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Reader Comments (42)

Thank you! I just had this discussion with myself the other day, trying to figure out the difference.

great post :) Kind of want to go eat straight out of a can of frosting. Or is it icing?

January 13 | Unregistered CommenterHayley

Ha! I had the same discussion with my editor for my book (I had inadvertently used "icing" in lieu of "frosting" in a couple paragraphs. We ended up changing all to "frosting," but it was touch and go for awhile.) Thanks for the enlightenment!

January 13 | Unregistered CommenterChic Cookies

oh lordy - you just killed me with those shots.

January 13 | Unregistered CommenterCarrie Leber

I can barely read your entry without going into the kitchen and whipping up something tasty!! thnx

January 13 | Unregistered CommenterMegExpressions


January 13 | Unregistered CommenterCheryl

I completely agree. In my mind, it's always been:

frosting- thick
icing- thinner
glaze- thinnest

Thanks for clearing it up in your charming, fun way!

Courteous: Ha! It's one I have often too :-) As you can see!

Hayley: Depends on your viewpoint, but I would consider that frosting!

Chic Cookies: HA! So the dilemma goes all the way to the top...to the serious wordsmiths! :-)

Carrie: Aww, thanks!

Meg: Ha! That is a good thing!

Cheryl: *waves smelling salts*

Stickygooey: That's the way I think of it! We win!

January 13 | Unregistered CommenterCakespy

Ah, interesting!

It's also a geographically difference. In Australia (and I'm pretty sure it's the same in the UK) we don't use the term frosting, only icing. Frosting is seen as an Americized term.

January 14 | Unregistered CommenterSewChic

Well, in the land of Tara, I can eat all three with a spoon for my breakfast. Daily. Yum.

January 14 | Unregistered Commentermama4life

I use frosting and icing interchangeably...now I know better. Thanks for the info!

January 14 | Unregistered CommenterVeron

I'm pretty sure I had that terminology down ok. But it can be rather puzzling. I've often changed the name of recipes that I've tried... like 'pumpkin cinnamon rolls with caramel frosting'... well when I went to make these cinn. rolls, the 'frosting' was clearly 'icing!' Crazy recipe developers.

January 14 | Unregistered CommenterRecipeGirl

This post is great! And I'm glad to learn I was pretty much right in my thinking, although the picture tutorial helped a lot!


thanks for sharing this info . Really interesting :)

January 14 | Unregistered CommenterSnooky doodle

Melisser: Isn't it? I've always been curious. :-)

SewChic: Oh, that is a great point! Is the term frosting ever used if referring to american-style treats? Curious!

Mama4life: Ha!! Good answer.

Recipgirl: Yup--I do think all things considered, it is still a very open-ended subject--but most important is consistency--in recipe form or in texture of the sweet stuff! :-)

Not another Omni: Ha! Pictures always help, don't they?

Snooky: Glad you enjoyed!

January 14 | Unregistered CommenterCakespy

Ooo! I vote for Icing... I'm always the one that likes to eat the fondant, and people think I'm weird for that! I <3 it!

January 14 | Unregistered CommenterMichele

I think I always used glaze and icing interchangeably, but not frosting. Now I've got myself set straight. I also now want a Top Pot doughnut.

January 14 | Unregistered Commenternoisy penguin

I'm with SewChic - frosting is definitely an American term. We don't use it at all. It's icing all the way!

January 14 | Unregistered CommenterEmma

My teeth are aching just looking at all this sugar. More please!

January 14 | Unregistered CommenterEB of SpiceDish

I would have thought the cake and ice cream cone cookies were fondant, something I know very little about. Very interesting, although I've only made frosting. I need to bake more.

January 14 | Unregistered CommenterJeanna

I saw a tv show the other day that featured Top Pot. Are they as awesome as their store looks. If I come to Seattle one day, I hope you show me around all those streets of sweets.

January 14 | Unregistered CommenterBakerella

Tough debate, i can't decide!
Can i have mine with a glaze topped with icing topped with frosting?

Thanks! :-)

January 14 | Unregistered CommenterZen Chef

*amy thinks of glazed donuts*


*amy looks at photos of glazed donuts*

*drowns in own drool*

(Also, thanks for clearing this up. Me not being a baker AT ALL I still kinda sorta knew that icing was usually referred to wedding cakes - which is marginally different than the sorry excuse of forsting i make for my sorry excuse for cupcakes!)

January 14 | Unregistered CommenterAmy Nieto

I'm with the geographical thing - I wasn't sure you Americans used "icing" for anything, I thought it was always frosting. I'm in the UK and traditionally it's "icing" over here.

"Glazed" and "frosting" I've always thought of as American terms. They are creeping into the language now because US food and snacks seem to becoming ever more popular over here (we have Krispy Kremes now).

When I was a lass, and when such Americanisms hadn't even been thought of, we only every iced cakes with butter icing (what you guys call frosting), or glace icing (which is a thicker plain glaze). I'd never heard of frosting, or glazing or ganache or other lovely lovely things! But now I am educated in the way of cakes and love that I can make something better than butter icing! Yuk!

January 15 | Unregistered Commenterflurogoddess
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