Are you Team Buttercream or Team Fondant ? If you're not sure, you may want to know a little more about the pros and cons of each type of icing. And what about royal icing , you may ask? We'll cover that, too.
What fondant can and can't do
Fondant is a dough made of powdered sugar, corn syrup and water (sometimes with added gelatin, melted marshmallows or some type of fat). The ingredients are melted together and then formed into a paste that is squishy like clay.
Fondant is crazy versatile. You can roll it out and cover a cake with it for a smooth, polished look, and it's especially good for transfer methods. Make cake toppers, cut out decorative shapes, and have some fun.
But fondant can't be your everything — you really can't use it for piping or as a cake filling. It takes some time and effort to make (although it's easy to purchase, and many cake pros rely on store-bought). Fondant can also dry out easily, possibly leading to (sob) cracks and tears in your beautiful cake. Because of this, fondant must be stored properly, or it will harden and become unusable.
And then there's the flavor factor. Some people complain that fondant tastes too much like candy. (An easy fix for this is placing the fondant over a layer of super-delicious buttercream. Aren't you clever!)
What about buttercream?
Buttercream is made of butter and powdered sugar, whipped together until soft and creamy. Some recipes include egg whites, such as Swiss meringue buttercream . You can color and flavor it in a zillion ways, and use it as as both a cake topping and filling.
Buttercream is easy to load into a pastry bag and it's perfect for piping borders, patterns and flowers. It also pipes beautifully for lettering, so for "happy birthday," (and any other sweet message!) buttercream's your BFF.
The formula for making buttercream is very forgiving. If you add too much sugar and the mixture is stiff, you can thin it with a little milk, cream or water. If it's too thin, simply add more sugar. Keep tinkering until you get what you want.
Also, buttercream is made with far more fat than fondant, which gives it a rich taste and luxurious texture that many people prefer.
However: even the most carefully spread buttercream will never look as perfect as a layer of fondant. And you really can't make a cake topper or decorative shape with it.
Plus, buttercream doesn't do well in hot, humid weather. A crusting buttercream (one that sets firm) is sturdier, but you may still have a minor freakout if the heat is on.
Don't forget royal icing
Royal icing is a glossy icing made primarily from egg whites and powdered sugar. It starts out soft, but sets hard to the touch.
The great thing about royal icing is that you can make decorations in advance that will dry firm and last for a long time. Think piped flowers or even homemade sprinkles.
Yet, tragically, royal icing can crack. This makes it ill-suited for icing a whole cake or any kind of curved surface. Because royal icing dries very hard, it's also not a great choice for filling a cake unless you like your cake crunchy (that's a joke — don't try it.). But even though it doesn't do well on cakes, royal icing is perfect for cookies.
As for flavor, royal icing is all about one taste: sweet. That's fine for a garnish but you wouldn't want to eat huge amounts of the stuff.