Every Type of Frosting, Ranked by Difficulty

Every Type of Frosting, Ranked by Difficulty

There's a whole world out there beyond standard buttercream.

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We’ve already established that every day is a good day for cake. Still, buttercream burnout is real. There’s nothing wrong with a classic buttercream—but not every cake calls for thick, sugary-sweet, lightly crusted frosting. Sometimes you want a light, airy frosting; sometimes you need a dense, pliable layer of fondant. The truth is that there’s a whole world of frosting varieties waiting for you. With that in mind, get your offset spatula ready, meditate on your ideal cake-to-frosting ratio, and get ready to bake. Here are all the types of cake frosting, ranked from basic to fancy.

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Classic buttercream

Classic buttercream

We’ll start with the obvious: Buttercream frosting, otherwise known as American buttercream or simple buttercream, is dense, very sweet, and quite thick. It’s also a snap to make. All you need is some type of fat, usually unsalted butter or vegetable shortening, and a powdered sugar base. Since buttercream is so thick, it can develop a thin crust over time. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—just something to keep in mind if you’re planning to enjoy the cake over a longer period of time or preserve it for later.

Difficulty: Beginner

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Cream cheese frosting

Cream cheese frosting

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Cream cheese frosting is another easy one, known for its tangy, sweet flavor and thick, smooth texture. It’s less cloying than buttercream since it relies on cream cheese instead of butter, and its signature tang makes it a great pick for dense, moist sponges like red velvet and carrot cake.

Difficulty: Beginner

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Flour buttercream/ermine buttercream

Flour buttercream/ermine buttercream

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Trick question: what kind of frosting is pictured above? While the Duncan Hines formula is labeled as “creamy home-style frosting,” it’s likely closer to an ermine, or flour buttercream. This type of frosting is egg-free and involves cooking flour and sugar with butter, oil, or milk to make a sweet paste. (For that reason, you’ll sometimes see it referred to as a “roux frosting.”)

Most store-bought frostings are technically ermine frostings made with oil, which is why so many of them are vegan. Ermine frosting is also similar in consistency to Swiss meringue buttercream, which is more challenging to prepare and isn’t vegan-friendly.

Difficulty: Beginner

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German buttercream

German buttercream

Bit of a deep cut for you: German buttercream, also known as custard buttercream, is less ubiquitous on the commercial baking scene. It requires a custard base, and thus is more complex than a classic buttercream—but the result is a mellow, mild sweetness that serves as a great alternative. Just keep in mind that this one has several additional steps, including whipping up a rich pastry cream that serves as the base of the frosting. That custard base makes German buttercream more prone to melting, so be careful if you live in a warm climate.

Difficulty: Intermediate

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Swiss meringue buttercream

Swiss meringue buttercream

Swiss meringue buttercream is subtle, elegant, and incredibly smooth, making it a great choice for complex cake designs. It incorporates a handful of egg whites and requires close attention to temperature; for those reasons, it’s quite a bit more challenging than standard buttercream. Still, if you can keep it from curdling or separating on the stove, you’ll be left with an incredibly forgiving, versatile frosting that is a true pleasure to pipe.

Difficulty: Intermediate

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Ganache

Ganache

Ganache isn’t quite a frosting, and it’s not quite an icing, either. It’s more of a coating, ideal for dipping doughnuts, drizzling over cakes, and topping off chocolate truffles. Ganache requires a warm liquid, like heavy cream, combined with dark, milk, or white chocolate. Some ganache recipes are easier than others; regardless, we’re ranking this one as intermediate because you’ll need to keep an eye on the temperature.

Difficulty: Intermediate

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Italian Buttercream

Italian Buttercream

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If you encounter an elaborate wedding cake, there’s a good chance it’s frosted with Italian buttercream. Italian buttercream is the workhouse of the commercial baking industry, known for being shelf-stable in the face of hot summer buffet tables. But that kind of stability doesn’t come easy—Italian buttercream is tough to perfect, requiring utter precision in terms of egg separation, cooking temperature, and mixing speeds. Finally, though Italian buttercream is similar to Swiss meringue—both types of buttercream involve egg whites—it requires a hot sugar syrup and, thus, the careful use of a candy thermometer.

Difficulty: Tough and fancy 

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French buttercream

French buttercream

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The French took one look at Italian buttercream and said, “Not challenging enough!” French buttercream is the richest of the buttercream family, incorporating egg yolks instead of egg whites. Like Italian buttercream, French buttercream requires a hot sugar syrup, which needs to be monitored very closely. It’s also not a good choice for piping—French buttercream is unstable and melts quickly. It is, however, an excellent choice for simple frosted cake layers.

Difficulty: Tough, fancy, and French

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Fondant

Fondant

Fondant is less of a frosting and more of a paste. It’s thick, firm, and pliable, which makes it a great choice if you’re crafting an incredibly lifelike toilet paper cake. Basically, fondant is edible clay that turns bakers into sculptors. And while most fondant recipes aren’t terribly complicated, the fondant must be completely smooth to avoid unsightly ripping and wrinkling.

Difficulty: Requires serious elbow grease

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