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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)

Mmmmm, I love the frostings and icings. Never been much a glaze person myself, unless it's caramel. Thanks for the informative post!

January 15 | Unregistered Commenterabbie

Doesn't it vary across the country what you call it? I say frosting but I guy I dated from Kansas always said icing.

January 15 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

Michele: I love fondant too. If it's wrong I don't wanna be right.

Noisy: Ah, now that is interesting! So is a glazed doughnut iced? I guess icing can refer to the process too...

Emma: Interesting. Not even when referring to american-style goods?

EB: HA! Ditto!

Jeanna: The cake is fondant, and I think the cookies are royal icing. But no matter what, DO bake more! :-)

Bakerella: Top Pot can be a polarizing subject in Seattle, because they have started wholesaling to Starbucks, which really heightened their production and some said quality was lost. PERSONALLY though, I am a fan. My favorite is their Pink Feather Boa: http://blog.seattlepi.nwsource.com/cakespy/archives/158705.asp

Zen Chef: OK, ok! :-)

Amy Nieto: You had a homer simpson moment there!!

Fluro and Jamie: Mmm, interesting. I was checking out an american bakery in London (Outsider Tart) http://outsidertart.com/main.asp?sec=menu

and they do refer to it as frosting, which would support it being an American phenomenon. Very interesting! I'm curious about the regional aspect now, based on your comment and also the one from Jamie too.

Abbie: I could go for some caramel glaze myself!

January 15 | Unregistered CommenterCakespy

Love glaze. It's awesome on donuts and poundcakes and cookies and pies! Sweet enough to give you want you need without clogging your mouth. :)

January 15 | Unregistered CommenterThe Duo Dishes

Thanks for this, as a brit I never really understood where frosting came in, we call everything 'icing'!!

January 15 | Unregistered CommenterJennywenny

You're the best for doing these informative posts! I can survive without frostings, glazes or icings but they can't do me any wrong either!

January 15 | Unregistered CommenterClumbsy Cookie

This illustration reminds me of Springtime! Lovely illustration.

Funny this icing/frosting terminology thing, I tend to prefer icing; nice and light.

January 15 | Unregistered CommenterSophie

this is something I've never thought of before, but it all makes sense!!

January 16 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah

Your photos look amazing.

I love to decorate cakes although I'm clearly a novice! I'll be trying your techniques cause my hubby and I are celebrating our 8th year anniversary next Wednesday!!! Thanks for sharing!

January 16 | Unregistered CommenterKim

I completely agree with your definitions, but - for interest's sake - I thought you might like to know that when I was younger we never used the word 'frosting' - just buttercream or 'butter icing'. I suspect it's only since I've become an internet food junkie that the word 'frosting' has crept into my vocabularly as a way to further differentiate... showing that despite my efforts, even I've become Americanised. Le sigh...

January 17 | Unregistered CommenterIndigo

Great article! For me:
frosting: Yum! Baking is just an excuse to cover something with frosting!
icing: Ho-hum.
glaze: Better than nothing, I guess.

Off to buy the book...

January 17 | Unregistered CommenterMaggie

Love your post and your magnificent drawing!

January 17 | Unregistered Commenterpastry studio

Darn it all, now I want a glazed doughnut. Grrr.

January 17 | Unregistered CommenterPeabody

Wow this is a great reference that I'm going to bookmark. I might buy one of those books as well. Thanks for writing this!

January 20 | Unregistered CommenterChef Edwin

this is my first time coming across your blog and oh my. yummy treats galore!

January 23 | Unregistered CommenterRaquel Raney

Okay, now, what's the difference between stuffing vs. dressing?
Yankee husband calls it turkey stuffing, and I refer to as dressing.

August 9 | Unregistered CommenterShirley
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