Despite commonly known phrases, the real ‘cherry on top of the perfect cake is the part we all remember – the icing. The perfect sponge cupcakes come out – fluffy, airy and full of flavour, or you could empty the baking tin to reveal the perfectly dense, sticky chocolate cake, but what happens next is going to be the determining factor on just how fantastic your dessert is. Not only is the icing the first thing people notice, but as the top, or the outer layer, it is also often the first thing people taste. Too heavy means too sickly, too light and it won’t stand out, too thick and it takes away from the cake, too thin and it can leave your cakes tasting drier than people may like. Then you have the ingredients necessary to get the perfect taste – we have all heard various myths. Do you use whipped cream? Meringue powder? Softened butter? Hard butter? Vanilla extract? Cream cheese? Almond extract? On top of the taste and texture test, pressure can come from the consistency and make-up of your whipped icing. Too runny and it won’t hold, too firm and it could rip up your cake, and that doesn’t even go to mention the temperature of the room and the cake and how this will impact the finale. One of the main questions bakers often ask is whether there is a difference between buttercream frosting and whipped icing, and if so, which is better to use and why?
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What is whipped icing?
To really compare buttercream frosting with whipped icing, first we need to properly understand what they both are. Traditionally, the icing was made with powdered sugar, also known as icing sugar, and water, or sometimes lemon juice or egg whites (as this helps it to bind more). This mixture is still used often and is known as ‘royal icing’. From here, you can then add any food colouring or flavouring, although royal icing doesn’t tend to be flavoured unless with lemon juice, as it is more of a visual aid for cakes. You will find royal icing is used to decorate things like gingerbread houses, or as the outer layer of wedding cakes. This is because it dries hard, fast, and evenly as it sets, so it is great to use as a base for further decorations. It also provides a slightly sweet taste but doesn’t take away from the cake or biscuit itself. However, this mix is also very runny before it sets and so it is not an icing that you can pipe or shape.
As a result of this, people developed whipped icing. The ingredients are the same (traditionally powdered sugar and egg whites or water), however, as the name suggests, the mixture is whipped as opposed to stir, and this brings more air through the mixture causing it to become lighter and thus possible to pipe and shape, but still ultimately dries hard and flatter. For whipped icing, it is recommended to whip by hand with a hand whisk, as an electric whisk can add too much pressure and remove the air bubbles necessary for the desired consistency. It is less successful to make it with water as the weight of this doesn’t quite allow for the correct air bubbles to form. Alternatively, some people add meringue powder, as this helps to combine the mixture and creates a slightly stiffer, more desired consistency, perfect for shaping. Similarly, you can add any colouring at this point ideal for creating visuals.
Typically, people use whipped icing to decorate on top of royal icing layers, such as buttons or faces on gingerbread men, but it is mainly used to create individual decorations, like decorative flowers or letters, to then add to their cakes after. This is because the mix can be piped, but still dries hard so it is easy to transfer and will remain stable.
What is Whipped Cream Frosting?
Often, people may confuse whipped icing with whipped cream frosting. The whipped cream frosting is in fact very dissimilar to whipped icing, so make sure to double-check which type your recipes call for. Whipped cream frosting is made from heavy whipping cream and powdered sugar, and may have other flavours added depending on the product you are making. You begin by beating the heavy whipping cream until it is stiff and fluffy, and then you mix in your powdered sugar. The air from beating the heavy cream will create an extremely light texture, similar to usual cake frosting. However, the mixture is in fact as light as it looks and has a very delicate consistency, so it cannot take much pressure. You may be able to pipe it through a wide nozzle, but any smaller decorating nozzles will flatten the bubbles and your mixture will become runny.
In addition, you won’t be able to use this mixture in the middle of a layer cake, as the weight of the sponge will flatten the cream. It is recommended to keep the whipped cream frosting at room temperature or chilled conditions, as the cream can begin to melt. Working with chilled whipping cream can help to strengthen the whipped cream frosting, but ultimately this is an icing best used for the top of cakes and desserts.
So, with royal icing having a very runny and thin consistency, whipped icing drying solid and therefore not ideal for cake layering or coating, and whipped cream frosting being too light to take the pressure of intricate piping and cake layers, a creamy but firm alternative really is a necessity.
What is Buttercream Frosting?
Buttercream icing (as it is known in the UK) is often referred to as just ‘frosting’ when a recipe requires American buttercream and is very similar in appearance to whipped cream frosting. However, buttercream and whipped cream have very different flavours and consistencies. Buttercream serves a very different purpose to whipped icing due to the difference in texture, consistency, flavour and versatility. The whipped icing vs buttercream icing debate really depends on the use of the icing. Unlike whipped icings, buttercream is not a sugar-based product. Although it is also made with powdered sugar, the base ingredient is a type of fat – usually unsalted butter, but margarine or shortening can also be used. This is then mixed in a large bowl with powdered sugar, usually some vanilla essence, and then any colourings or flavours you also desire. Small spoons of milk can be added to loosen the mix if it becomes too firm.
The sturdiness from the butter combined with the dry powdered sugar means that the whipped buttercream can reach the perfect consistency for coating an entire cake, but can also be made even firmer and used to pipe the top of cupcakes or to create piping borders or lettering as decoration. Similar to whipped cream frosting, it is important to work with buttercream in a room temperature or a chilled environment to prevent the butter from melting. If the icing is room temperature, I would recommend popping your cake in the freezer for a few minutes between each coating of icing (if you are coating the entire cake), as this helps to prevent the crumbs from coming loose and mixing in with the buttercream frosting and gives a smoother appearance.
Further to these benefits, the creamy texture and buttery flavour means that it is the perfect base to create flavour buttercream. Whether that be vanilla frosting with some vanilla essence, chocolate buttercream frosting with some cocoa powder, lemon frosting with lemon zest (be sure to use little to no lemon juice as this will curdle with dairy), or even cream cheese frosting is made with a buttercream base by simply adding the correct quantities of cream cheese and removing some of the butter.
Whipped Icing vs Buttercream Frosting
So, the real debate really comes down to whether whipped icing is better than whipped buttercream icing. In terms of flavour, buttercream carries a stronger, creamier and more desirable taste. However, if you are someone who isn’t so into the sickly sweetness of a delicious icing, then whipped icing is a lighter, more manageable alternative. If you are looking at texture, then the airiness of whipped icing is a lot less filling, and buttercream can be quite heavy and rich, however, these differences also allow buttercream to be a lot more versatile. The strength of buttercream means that it is ideal for not only layering your cakes but also coating your cakes and even then decorating the cakes. However, the dairy in this icing means that it needs to be worked with at specific temperatures and it will also never properly harden, so may need more protection.
Meanwhile, the delicate texture of whipped icing means that whilst it can be used to ice a cake, the most successful use of whipped icing is to pipe it into cake decorations and use it this way once hardened. The harder texture of whipped icing can make it more desirable as an icing for smaller cakes, like cupcakes, as it provides a lighter layer and doesn’t take away from the flavour of the sponge.
When it comes to making the icing, whipped icing can be a lot easier to get right and calls for less ingredients, making it slightly more accessible and a choice to go for if baking with kids or beginners, similar to royal icing.
The Icing on the Cake
It comes without saying that buttercream frosting takes the lead. you can ice an entire cake with nothing but buttercream frosting, whereas this would not be possible with whipped icing. Whilst whipped icing may be a better alternative for goodies like cupcakes and cookies, and when decorating specific treats like gingerbread men and houses, piped buttercream can still suffice for the same role. On top of this, if you are seeking delicious, flavorful icing, then buttercream frosting works as a more effective base to mix in any other flavours. Therefore, to ice a cake the right way, I would recommend using buttercream for your layers and coating, and for any intricate details, you could make separate decorations with whipped icing and combine the two for the perfect finale!