An investigation. 

By Sarra Sedghi
March 22, 2019
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Photo: Kelsey Hansen; Food Styling: Emily Nabors Hall; Prop Styling: Audrey Davis  

Since Easter’s coming up, pretty much all we can think about right now at MyRecipes is cake. We’ve hunkered down and compiled our best box cake mix recipes, easy cake recipes, and pound cake recipes. We’ve been singing the praises of this German Chocolate Cake and this impressive (but non-scary) sheet cake.

And what is cake without its saccharine, fluffy, and sometimes crispy exterior? Nowhere near as good as it could be, that’s what. And no matter whether you call it icing, frosting, or glaze, it’s a crucial part of every cake.

But what’s the difference between those terms? After bothering a bunch of my coworkers, it seems like the difference in cake- topping nomenclature comes down to texture, ingredients, cooking process, and human speech. Some people got flustered and irritated, others were staunch on their opinions, and one said there was definitely a difference but couldn’t explain what it was. 

Watch: How to Make Margarita Cake

 

A lot of this debacle comes down to language. As nouns, “frosting” and “icing” are often used interchangeably, and to be honest, I don’t think I ever wrote “frosting” until some style guide told me to. Geography and dialect may play a role in this, with northerners calling it “frosting” and southerners saying “icing.” 

Consider the verb forms of these words, however, and you’ll see a bigger difference. You frost a cake, ice a cookie, and glaze all kinds of things that aren’t desserts, like salmon or ham. But you can also ice a cake, and the idiom “the icing on the cake” brings us right back where we started. 

Staffers in our test kitchen told me that frosting, icing, and glaze usually have different sets of ingredients. Frosting typically has a butter or cream cheese base, while icing and glaze are made from powdered sugar and water, juice, or milk. So if the taste is fattier or creamier, it’s probably frosting. But some icing also contains butter, so where does that leave us?

Everyone could agree on one thing, though: texture matters, especially when it comes to application. Frosting is the thickest and has to be spread on with a spatula. Icing and glaze, however, are thinner and more fluid. While you certainly don’t pour icing on items like cookies, that’s how it’s applied to some cakes. And once icing cools down, it leaves a hard, somewhat cracked texture, whereas cake glaze is rock-hard and has a more marbled appearance. 

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