Buttercream vs. Frosting What's the Difference

By: Bob's Red Mill | May 1 2021

Whether you're an advanced baker or recently took up baking as a hobby to pass the time during quarantine, baking and decorating a cake is an art that requires quite a bit of skill. When decorating cakes, it's essential to know which ingredients work best. Two of the most commonly confused ingredients are buttercream frosting and icing. If these ingredients sound like the same thing to you, you're not alone. Many individuals confuse buttercream for icing and vice versa. However, there's actually a big difference between the two. Take your cake decorating skills to the next level by learning more about these ingredients and when you should use each. To help clear up the confusion, we've called in our Bob's Red Mill baking experts. Continue reading as they walk you through a complete guide on buttercream frosting.

Frosting vs. Icing

Wondering if you just decorate your cake with the "icing on the cake" or frosting? When decorating cakes, many recipes either call for frosting or icing, and while it might not sound like a big difference, confusing one for the other will drastically affect the outcome of your cake. So, how do you know when to use icing and when to use frosting? It all depends on what you want your cake to look like in the end. Frosting usually has a thick and fluffy consistency and is used to coat all sections of a cake. Icing features a much thinner consistency and is more commonly used for glazing and decorating baked goods in detail.


Simply put, icing is usually a combination of confectioners' sugar (powdered sugar) and a liquid (cream, milk or citrus juice). This combination is mixed into a smooth consistency that creates a thin glaze. Thick enough to coat a cake, cookie or muffin, applying this glaze to baked goods makes a sweet, smooth layer that's often transparent.

Royal Icing

Piping white snowflakes with royal icing

Royal icing is one of the most conventional icings used to decorate desserts. Like regular icing, royal icing uses egg whites or meringue powder to give it more stability. Royal icing also dries a bit harder than traditional icing, yet still holds a shiny finish. Many bakers love royal icing because it's easily customizable and can be made thinner or thicker depending on your specific needs. Royal icing is also commonly used as a dessert “glue” and is especially popular around the holidays when creating desserts like gingerbread houses. 


If you're searching for a more buttery taste, frosting is the way to go. Instead of using a sugar base like icing, frosting usually starts with butter, hence the name "buttercream." The thicker ingredients used to create frosting result in a thick and fluffy result. Frosting's stability makes it a favorite amongst dessert decorators worldwide, as it can hold shapes and create unique decorations like flowers to add to your baked dessert. Frosting is most commonly used to decorate cupcakes and cakes. However, its cloud-like consistency makes it a fun cookie topping as well.

Buttercream vs. Frosting

Now that you know the differences between frosting and icing, you're likely wondering what makes buttercream unique? In short, buttercream is a type of frosting used to take treats like cake and cookies to the next level. This being said, not all frostings are buttercream, and can be made with a variety of cream bases like cream cheese and whipped cream. Buttercream, however, is the most popular variety of frosting and can be made in several different ways.

Whether you're hoping to decorate, ice, or fill your cake, there's undoubtedly a buttercream that will meet your needs. Keep scrolling as we cover a few of the most common buttercream varieties and explain when to use each.

Traditional American Buttercream

Easy Buttercream Frosting

The chances are that you've used traditional buttercream before. Easy to make from scratch, this type of buttercream is used in several dessert recipes. A mixture of butter, shortening, confectioners’ sugar and vanilla extract produces a taste and texture loved by all. Additionally, this buttercream can be made quickly, making it the perfect frosting choice if you're on a time crunch. Customized to your unique baking needs, traditional buttercream can easily be softened, stiffened and tinted. It's an excellent base for adding flavor to cakes and can be used for piping decorations. 

For a simple-to-make frosting, follow this recipe and make Easy Buttercream Frosting from scratch.

Swiss Meringue Buttercream Frosting

Searching for a light and flavorful frosting that won't weigh your cake down? Try your hand at making Swiss buttercream! To make this frosting, egg whites, sugar and butter are whipped into a light and airy texture that can be used on nearly everything. Because this buttercream is so soft, we don't recommend using it for piping or decorating. However, it's an excellent choice for frosting cakes and filling layers.

Italian Meringue Buttercream Frosting

Italian buttercream is the perfect mix between traditional and swiss buttercream. Light and durable at the same time, the ingredients used to make Italian buttercream are the same as Swiss, just in varying proportions. Because this frosting is a bit more study than others, it works well when used between cake layers and as a frosting decoration. Best enjoyed the day it's made; if you plan on whipping up a batch of this frosting, be sure to dive into it as soon as possible.

Add buttercream to your cupcakes, and make these Peach Cupcakes with Peach Buttercream.

French Buttercream Frosting

Salted Almond Fudge Cake

Rich, creamy and oh-so-dreamy, French buttercream is the dessert you didn't know you've been missing. French buttercream boasts a taste and texture similar to pastry cream or custard and is not as sweet as traditional buttercream. Made with sugar and pasteurized egg yolks, it tastes great when combined with decadent cake recipes like this Salted Almond Fudge Cake. Like Italian buttercream, this frosting is easy to spread and great when used as filling between layers, cake decorating and piping. Note that because pasteurized egg yolks are used, French buttercream often has a yellow tint to it.

German Buttercream Frosting

If you're a fan of whipped frostings, look no further. German buttercream is a light, decadent and whipped frosting that you will love. To make this buttercream, a custard base is combined with butter to create a mildly sweet frosting perfect for topping any cake recipe. Because it's less sweet than traditional frostings, it's a great alternative to those who enjoy a lighter treat. One thing to note about German buttercream is that it will melt at room temperature. Because of this, after frosting your cake, you'll want to place it in the refrigerator until you are ready to enjoy it. 

Ermine Frosting

Banana Layer Cake with Banana Buttercream Frosting

Ermine frosting is a lesser-known type of buttercream that is ideal when you want to switch things up. It holds a smooth and rich texture and tastes similar to cream cheese frosting, also known as flour buttercream or boiled frosting. Made by cooking flour and sugar with milk, it's then whipped into softened butter until it is light and fluffy. Vanilla and salt can be added to this buttercream for flavoring. When making this buttercream allow the mixture to be completely cool before combining it with butter. If storing before use, place plastic wrap on the surface of the frosting to prevent a skin from forming.

Step out of your comfort zone and make this Banana Layer Cake with Banana Buttercream Frosting. This cake also tastes delicious when topped with traditional Ermine frosting!

Vegan Buttercream Frosting

Wondering how a buttercream frosting can be vegan? Fortunately, there are many vegan butter alternatives on the market.. When making vegan buttercream, we encourage you to get creative and try out different milk options. Flavored almond milk, coconut milk, oat milk and soy milk are all excellent choices. 

And there you have it! A complete guide outlining the difference between buttercream vs. frosting and icing. While there may not be much of a difference between the two, there are countless varieties that you can make. From traditional American buttercream to German buttercream, the frosting types on this list will surely take your baked goods up a notch. The next time you're baking in the kitchen, step outside of your comfort zone and try something new. We can't wait to see the many beautiful desserts you bake. From everyone at Bob's Red Mill, happy baking! 

Have a buttercream recipe you want to share with us? We'd love to hear about it. Let us know your favorite type of buttercream in the comments below!



  1. Ro
    Thanks for this but pls. i just want to be clear on something. i got a recipe on butter cream making from a particular site which are: pasturized egg white,powdered sugar, softened butter,vanilla and salt. will i call these (SWISS MERINGUE ?)
    1. Whitney Barnes
      Hi Ro - From that ingredient list I would guess you're making Swiss Meringue Buttercream. There are a lot of similar recipes (with similar ingredients) but the technique can change the outcome. Here are two great recipes for both Swiss Meringue Buttercream and Swiss Meringue.

      Serious Eats: Swiss Meringue Buttercream
      Serious Eats: Swiss Meringue
  2. Candice
    I'm planning on making a pineapple cake and wanted to do a nice frosting but the store bought frosting is a little bit too sweet for my taste. And would I add the pineapple pieces in the frosting once made then spread? Thank you!

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