These days, people seem to use "frosting" and "buttercream" interchangeably. While they're used similarly, the difference between frosting and buttercream all boils down to one ingredient with a big impact: butter.
Frosting vs. buttercream... what's the difference?
Both buttercream and frosting are made with powdered sugar, fat, flavoring and sometimes milk or water. What makes them difference is the type of fat they use.
In terms of ingredients, frosting doesn't contain butter. That's the big difference between buttercream and frosting!
Frosting is usually made with shortening or cream cheese. That's why frosting is a good option if you want a bright white cake — buttercream often has a yellowish tint.
However, shortening-based frostings can have a slight chemical taste. This is because unlike butter, shortening has no flavor, making it easier to taste any artificial flavorings from colorings or other additives. Always use the highest quality extracts, essences or vanilla bean pastes when making frosting!
As you may have guessed, buttercream is a butter-based frosting. The butter gives this icing a richer and creamier taste, and it can also cut down on the sweetness.
For silky smooth buttercream, make sure your butter is at room temperature. Chilled butter can be harder to cream.
A few unusual exceptions...
What about cream cheese frosting?
Popularly paired with red velvet cake, cream cheese frosting can use only cream cheese as the fat, but some recipes call for a bit of butter, too. If the recipe calls for butter, it's technically a cream cheese buttercream — but it's not too important what you call it!
When it comes to making cream cheese frosting, we have two tips:
- Never over mix cream cheese frosting or it will start to look grainy.
- Opt for full-fat cream cheese. Lower-fat cream cheese often contains a higher ratio of water, which means less stability. Your cream cheese could end up a sloppy mess!
What about buttercream frosting?
Well, truth be told, "buttercream frosting" isn't really a thing! Frosting is sometimes used as a catch-all term to mean any kind of soft, sweet cake covering or filling.
It's kind of like the word "cake" — you could be more specific to differentiate between a sponge cake and a pound cake, but saying "cake" probably does the trick.
Can I use frosting for a recipe that calls for buttercream?
Remember, most recipes are just suggestions, not rules. It all comes down to a matter of taste.
If you're out of butter and want to use a shortening-based frosting instead, go for it. If you're short on time and want to grab a can of frosting from the store for your homemade cake, that's OK. The end result should still be a fairly similar texture.
Tip: Want to make store-bought frosting taste more homemade? Add the frosting to the bowl of a stand mixer, quickly whip, then add about 2 tablespoons of butter, and high-quality vanilla extract or bean paste. Mix. Taste test and add a little more butter if you think it needs it.
Is buttercream better than frosting?
We're on team buttercream, but it depends on what you prefer. It's always best to test things for yourself to see how you like to work.
We find that buttercream has more stability, tastes better and can be super silky. When we've worked with shortening-based frosting, we've found them to be a little greasy, odd in texture and at times a little prone to lumps.
Hopefully, we've helped clear up the great frosting vs. buttercream debate! When it comes to filling and covering your cakes, remember to test and experiment first! It's so much easier, in the long run, to first establish what you like and don't like about a method.