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Different types of icing: The comprehensive guide every baker needs

Baking a cake this weekend? Read this before you start on the icing!

by: Katelyn Williams of The Kate Tin | 28 Feb 2020
woman piping a cake with buttercream

Cupcakes are just muffins without it, cakes are prettier with it and let’s be honest, it’s the best thing to lick from a beater! But what if I told you there’s an entire world of icings that stretches further than the standard mixture of butter and icing sugar? In fact, there are over 13! Check out our guide below – you’ll be surprised at just how many types of icing there are (heard of Korean buttercream before?) and hopefully one of them will inspire you to try something different.


Buttercream icings are a light, smooth mixture of fat and sugar. Sometimes they may contain eggs to make the icing even lighter. There are a few different kinds of buttercreams:

Simple buttercream (also sometimes called American buttercream) is made by creaming together 1 part fat and 2 parts sugar. The fat can be butter or cream cheese. It’s a super stable buttercream that stands up well in heat. Great for: carrot cakes, cupcakes and sheet cakes.

Swiss meringue buttercream is made by gently heating egg whites and sugar in a bowl over a bain marie and then whipping it to form a meringue. Unsalted butter is then gradually added to form a light, satiny icing that pipes like a dream. Unfortunately it’s not great in hot conditions as it melts extremely easily. Great for: light cakes such as chiffon and Swiss roll. 

chocolate cupcakes with buttercream

Italian buttercream is similar to Swiss meringue buttercream, but a sugar syrup is poured into beaten egg whites to form a meringue before unsalted butter is added. It’s also not ideal for hot temperatures. Great for: piping, and on light cakes where you want the cake to simply float off the fork.

French buttercream is made by beating a boiling sugar syrup into beaten egg yolks. Soft butter is then added to make a light but very rich icing. French buttercream is definitely the tastiest, but isn’t great for piping or decorations. It also has a slight yellow colour, meaning its colour can’t be changed as easily as with white buttercreams. Great for: chocolate cake, as a filling inside a layer cake or as a filling for a tart. 

German buttercream starts with a pastry cream/custard to which softened butter is added. It’s a cheaper option, as less butter is used, and it’s also more stable. Great for: cake fillings or cupcake toppings. 

GG glossy buttercream is a brand new Korean buttercream invented by Kang Joo Hee (GG) from G.G. Cakraft. It uses a similar technique to the Italian meringue but forms a denser buttercream. Designed specifically for piped buttercream flowers, it’s easier to use, realistically transparent, heat-stable and doesn’t go crusty. Great for: buttercream flowers.


Foam icing is nothing more than a cooked meringue that can be used to cover a cake. It’s perfect if you want a perfectly white icing that isn’t too rich or sweet. There are two kinds:

-Plain boiled icing is essentially Italian meringue. It can only be used on the day you’re serving the cake, but makes a pillowy white cake covering. Great for: red velvet cake, wedding cakes and cupcakes.

- Marshmallow icing is made by whipping melted gelatine into plain boiled icing. Great for: S’mores cupcakes, sweetie pies and cake fillings

birthday cake with candles


Not to be confused with the horrid white plastic icing that covers wedding or Christmas cakes. Fondant icing is the kind you see on petit fours – it’s a smooth glossy glaze that is heated and poured over cakes. It sets into a thin, shiny non-sticky coating – meaning you won’t get a sugar overload, but the result will still get marks for prettiness. Great for: chocolate éclairs, petit fours and icing shortbread cookies.

Fudge icing is something you don’t see very often, as it involves quite a lot of work. The recipe reads like making, well, fudge – boil sugar and milk together then crystalise it by stirring. Then add butter, salt and vanilla. Great for: spreading on cupcakes, loaf cakes, sheet cakes or melted to use as a coating.  

Flat icing, also known as water icing, is simply a mixture of icing sugar and water. Great for: glazing bundts, pastries and rolls.

Royal icing is mostly used as a decorator’s icing, as it is thick enough to pipe with. Similar to flat icing, it’s made with egg whites and icing sugar, which dries to a hard, brittle consistency. Great for: decorating cookies or piping intricate designs on wedding cakes.

Glazes are thin, glossy, transparent coatings that give a shine to baked goodies and help stop them from drying out. The simplest glaze is a sugar syrup, but can also include chocolate or gelatine. Great for: fruit tarts, charlottes, cake tops and pastries.

ALSO READ: Baking hacks - how to make your own homemade pre-mix

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