icing and frosting

In the meat post, I mentioned making Nigel Slater's recipe for 'ginger cake with clementine frosting'--which appropriately raised the question of why I hadn't marked frosting as AmE. I've changed it now to 'orig. AmE'; since Slater is a BrE speaker one can see that frosting has made inroads here.

But the AmE frosting = BrE icing equation is one of those things that is more complicated than one might assume. That's because icing is AmE too--it just refers to something more specific (at least for me and some others, as we'll see below). To illustrate, here are the ingredients lists (though I have abbreviated the measurements) from two recipes in my Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook.

Creamy White FrostingPowdered Sugar Icing
1 cup shortening
1.5 tsp vanilla
.5 tsp lemon extract
4.5 to 4.75 cups sifted powdered sugar
3 to 4 Tbsp milk
1 cup powdered sugar
.25 tsp vanilla

First thing to note is powdered sugar, which is also called confectioner's sugar in AmE, but is called icing sugar in BrE. (I'd say powdered if it were on a doughnut, but confectioner's if I were using it in a recipe. According to the British Sugar website, powdered sugar is not as fine as icing sugar.) Second thing to notice is that the frosting recipe has a big hunk of fat in it (butter is usually used, cream cheese is another option), and the icing recipe doesn't. Now, I do not claim that this is always the case in every AmE speaker's use of icing and frosting, but it is the distinction the (orig. AmE) cookbook (BrE cookery book) seems to make, as neither of the icing recipes has any fat other than some in the milk. Without investigating the recipe, I can tell the difference between frosting and icing (in my dialect, at least) in that frosting (due to its fat content, no doubt) isn't hard or smooth. A glaze would have to be an icing, not a frosting. The UK also has a hard kind called royal icing and makes much more use than US of soft, roll-out fondant icing—all of which would be frosting in my dialect.

CakeSpy has an excellent article on the topic in which they take issue with the many (even expert) claims out there that frosting = icing. Here's an excerpt--remember, this is referring to American English:
This idea is backed up in a Williams-Sonoma release simply entitled Cakes, in which it is noted that icing is "used to coat and/ or fill a cake...similar to a frosting, and the terms are frequently used interchangeably"...but ultimately "an icing is generally thinner and glossier" than frosting, which is "a thick, fluffy mixture, such as buttercream, used to coat the outside of a cake." Of course, the book even goes on to even differentiate a glaze from the two as being "thinner than either a frosting or an icing"...which makes the slope all the more slippery--but does further define the difference between these sweet toppings.

I think that frosting the word is making its way into BrE because frosting the (fatty) thing is making its way in too. The standard cake topping in AmE is a buttercream frosting--but not so in BrE, where one of the most 'classic' cakes, the Victoria sponge, has jam and whipped cream in the cent{er/re}, but just some sugar on top. Christmas cake has royal icing, which is made with egg whites. The UK has taken to many American treats in recent years, such as the (orig. AmE) cupcake (click on the link if you want to bemoan the fate of the (BrE) fairy cake) and cream cheese frosting on carrot cake. I think that the more frequent use of frosting on these shores reflects an appreciation that it's a different kind of thing from icing, and therefore deserves a different name.

Before I go (to bed), a few items of 'any other business':
  • I'm finally making use of my Twitter account (lynneguist), which I'm going to use for linguisticky/cultury kinds of reflections/observations/incidents (saving the other stuff for Facebook). Having followers means something much more mundane these days than it did a decade ago, doesn't it? At any rate, you're welcome to become one...
  • My tweets today were about the fact that I was on (AmE) tv/(BrE) the telly--BBC One, no less--for a few minutes in the context of an hour-long documentary on Scrabble. If you're in the UK and interested, it's one of the better representations of Scrabble on the screen and can be seen on BBC iPlayer for the next week. (Of course I have my quibbles, particularly that they couldn't spell my name right. Sigh. But it was possible for even Scrabble scenesters to learn something from the international perspective in this one.) Rest of World readers, I'm afraid the site won't let you watch, as you don't pay into the BBC pot. (When are they going to stop linking (BrE) Television Licences to television ownership, I wonder?)
  • A sweet side note on Grover's linguistic development: She's a big fan of Cookie Monster, and sings 'C is for Cookie' with gay abandon, but it only struck me the other day how English my little girl is. She helped me cut out Christmas cookies, and when they were baked was eager to have one. She took her first bite and said with wonder '(BrE) Biscuit!' I don't know what she thought cookies were before this point, but now she's able to translate it into her own dialect. (Second birthday coming up in four days--wayhey!)
  • Merry/happy Christmas!


  1. The distinction that you are making (and some experts don't) is exactly the one I (L1 AmE) grew up with: icing is thin and water-based, and sets up hard(ish) and smooth; frosting is fluffy and fat-based, and sets up stiff (but still creamy) and textured. But there is apparently substantial regional variation; some AmE dialects use one word or the other, and either don't distinguish, or call the one I call "icing" "glaze".

    There's also some disagreement over what exactly "buttercream" consists of. Some (e.g., Alton Brown) define buttercream as having egg yolks and being sweetened with a simple syrup, whereas for others (like Whole Foods' central bakery), your "creamy white frosting" would count as a buttercream if butter were substituted in place of the grease. Of course, lower-end supermarkets will use a disgusting chemical mixture they call "bettercreme" (presumably, "better" in the sense of "cheaper and almost but not entirely unnatural").

  2. People have been having many, many arguments about this in various fandom circles:



  3. So what is the happy vs. merry story? AmE has merry, and clearly BrE used to have it too, or AmE wouldn't have inherited it, but AmE speakers are under the impression that BrE uses happy exclusively. And yet the Brits I've talked to deny this, and claim that they use merry personally, thankyouverymuch, even if commercial sources tend to use happy.

  4. I love Grover's aha moment. Little kids can be so convincing in their fluency that it's easy to assume that they understand what they're singing, reading, or saying.

  5. I think that frosting the word is making its way into BrE because frosting the (fatty) thing is making its way in too.

    Not sure about that... that kind of thing has been familiar in Br cooking at least since my childhood in the 70s (it's standard on eg. coffee-and-walnut cakes), but we called it "butter icing" or "buttercream icing". I think the term "frosting" has recently invaded, rather than the substance itself, which was already here.

  6. I agree with Mo on this one, butter icing is exactly what I would call it (ScE speaker but influenced by an English mother).

  7. I was watching the documentary and wondered if that was you, so to speak - I was knitting, and must have looked down at the wrong moment when they put your name up. Great programme/show, though.

    I (BrE, Southern) call it butter icing - icing sugar, marge or butter, flavouring of some kind and a little milk, coffee or booze to mix. The water/icing sugar mix is glacé icing, and what goes on Christmas cakes on top of horrid marzipan is Royal icing.

    Have a lovely Christmas! Will follow you on Twitter forthwith (Facebook, incidentally, keeps suggesting I friend you on there, which I have thus far not done because you don't know me!).

  8. @Anon1: Yes, I was aware of the regional variation as I wrote (which was why I tried to be careful about saying 'in my dialect' etc.), but I foolishly keep my Dictionary of American Regional English at the office and blog at home...I think I might have to bite the storage space bullet and invite it to live with me.

    @Anon2: Perhaps someone should link this contribution to those discussions?

    @John Cowan: See the comments back back here.

    @Mo et al.: Yes, indeed, there have been fatty icings/frostings around for a while, but I think that there is a general influx (often with misinterpretations/mistranslations) of American baked goods these days, and that frosting is a part of that. (See: cupcakes, muffins, cookies, brownies...) I think American baked goods and words for them have connotations of richness and indulgence...

    @Mrs Redboots: I'm still a bit irked that they spelt my name wrong. And they call me 'professor' and list me as a 'psycholinguist', which will probably get up some people's noses. But oh well--it was (mostly!) a well-made program(me). I am happy to have longstanding commenters as 'friends' on Facebook--it's a certain kind of friendship, isn't it? But if twitter suffices, then that's great too.

  9. My Irish mammy's Christmas cake is topped with "American icing", which is softer than "royal icing" but certainly not buttery-soft.

  10. I too saw the Scrabble programme and recognised Lynne.

    To John Cowan - Certainly we use "Merry Christmas" in the UK, but it is perhaps not appropriate for all recipients. You might wish someone a happy day while knowing that they will not be in a position to indulge in much jollification.

    Kate (Derby, UK)

  11. @Mo - I too would say 'butter icing'. 'Buttercream' sounds American to me, though.

  12. I [Southern BrE] grew up with "buttercream" as one of the 3 basic icings (along with glace icing and royal icing), but I suspect that is heavily influenced by the BeRo book.

    I was somewhat puzzled the other day to see an American on the internet offer, as a "little-known tip", that a "fake royal icing" could be made by mixing powdered sugar with a little water (and, being American, vanilla extract). Apart from being somewhat ridiculous (this doesn't really fill the role of royal icing, and royal icing is so easy to make if you have an egg in the house), this puzzled me because it suggested a basic unfamiliarity with glace icing.

    Is it really the case that a typical American who cooks would be unaware that a simple icing can be made by mixing powdered (icing) sugar with water?

  13. I (AmE, central Texas, 33 years old), always grew up with the word "icing". My mother used to decorate cakes, and we always talked about icing. In fact, when I saw store-bought containers of 'frosting', the word seemed quite foreign to me. I understand it, but it's not in my active vocabulary.

  14. I do remember my mother's cookbooks having recipes for things called 'frosting' in the UK 30 years ago, but they were a novelty and definitely American. They always seemed to me to be much more complicated recipes than those I knew for icing, involving more ingredients and more processes. The icings that we would normally make at home were glace (icing sugar plus water, or possibly lemon juice), butter icing (icing sugar plus butter and flavouring), and royal (icing sugar plus egg white). Easy.

    I was surprised that you identified fondant icing as a British phenomenon. In my experience, the traditional icing for wedding cakes here is royal icing, and although many people are now moving towards fondant icing, I have assumed that is under American influence. Certainly my perusal of Cake Wrecks would suggest that American bakers use fondant regularly.

    The 'buttercream' I've eaten on US storebought cakes doesn't usually appear to have any butter in it at all and is quite nasty in my opinion.

    Oh, and I would always use buttercream and jam to fill a Victoria sponge, rather than whipped cream.

  15. The word "frosting" has appeared in a television advertisement recently in Australia, where I believe most people would use the word "icing". Maybe commercial interests drive some word invasions.

  16. I was brought up (UK) on my mother's delicious fairy cakes or sponge cakes, topped with butter icing, made from icing sugar and butter with a little vanilla. No milk. Good butter is essential, and intensive beating helps to absorb the sugar! When I first encountered carrot cake (Ohio, 1971)the topping was cream cheese beaten in a similar way with sugar, and had a distinct cheesy flavour. It has become sweeter over the years, especially at the lower end of the commercial market.

    The comments above about the Be-Ro baking book brought back memories - we had a post-war booklet with all the basic recipes, using Be-Ro flour of course. With a Good Housekeeping Cookery Encyclopedia, the newly-wed (my mother) was set for life!

    In the UK we wish you a Happy Christmas, or a 'Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year' to avoid repetition. 'Merry' here implies goodwill, bonhomie, perhaps a little too much food and alcohol .. as in 'God rest ye merry, gentlemen'. On Christmas cards or banners we may now see the compromise of 'Season's Greetings' or (sometimes) 'Happy Holidays'.

  17. "(AmE) tv/(BrE) the telly" ... er? TV has always been BrE in my experience. 'Telly' was current in the 60s I think, but now it's one of those many words that Americans like to think English people use all the time (bobby, top-hole, pip-pip, ad nauseam).

  18. I don't know where you live, Graham, but the Brightonians and Londoners whose circles I run in (including the one I live with) say telly all the time...

  19. Yep, I'd say telly's pretty current. In fact I make a point of trying to favour telly to 'TV' because the latter sounds so American. I think prefixing it with 'the' is your AmE inclinations fighting through tjough Lynneguist- I'd have just said 'you were on telly'

    Moving on, cream cheese? On cake!? Grim.

    [I know some among you will be horrified by the exclamation/question mark/point combo, but I stand by it. It's useful gosh darn it!]

    I'd agree that glace and fondant are your basic icings, buttercream goes in a Victoria sponge, a glaze is thinner, often flavoured and probably harder than icing and frosting is a fatty American confection distinct from all of the above and most commonly found in/on shop-bought chocolate cakes. I'd never put milk in icing either. Weird.

    Cupcakes are horrible too, likewise American muffins. Just endless mouthfuls of dry, doughy and largely flavourless calories. Poor old fairy cakes. Although supermarket fairy cakes are certainly no better.

    @biochemist: I've never heard 'Happy Holidays' over here. The phrase just makes me cringe. It it doesn't really make sense as we don't use holiday(s) in that way.

    A happy and prosperous New Year to you all.

  20. My family used to own a chain of bakery stores in the UK. The traditional icing for a wedding cake in the UK is royal icing, not fondant icing. Fondant icing started gaining in popularity during WW2 because royal icing requires egg white, which was unavailable.

    In my view it is still a poor man's icing and should not be used on a quality wedding cake. The tradition is to send wedding guests away with slices of the cake, and send absent friends a piece in the post. I don't know whether you can still buy the boxes made specially for the cake. Upper tiers of the cake used to be kept until the first wedding anniversary. Royal icing will last almost indefinitely but fondant icing will not.

    The term Frosting always used to be used for American recipes which involved heating or boiling the mixture. British recipes do no more than melt and warm the ingredients.

  21. @Jane: I will make a correction re fondant icing--I was going by looks alone, not using the stuff myself.

    Your comments re the use of 'frosting' are interesting, since I've never known a frosting recipe that involved boiling. All of mine just call for ingredients to be mixed, with the obvious exception of chocolate frostings, which require some melting first.

  22. I wonder if AmE has caster sugar?

  23. I've definitely seen frosting recipes that call for boiling, but I put them in the same category as cake recipes that call for boiling - TOO MUCH EFFORT.

    Cake is actually pretty easy to make, so any effort is too much :)

    As for me, I use all three terms with a distinction - frosting is thick and creamy and has a fat (typically butter) in it, icing has no fat in it and is generally harder - suitable for making colored designs on cookies or words on cakes, and glaze is thinner than icing and therefore softer, but is otherwise the same.

  24. @Paul Danon: No, we don't have caster sugar, and I meant to mention it, so thanks.

    Caster sugar is a white sugar that is finer than regular granulated, but not so fine as a powder. It's used for topping things, often. I had to buy some in order to do an almond-raspberry roulade once... (And I don't know that I've ever heard roulade in AmE either--would probably have called it a (fancy) jelly roll--in the AmE sense of jelly, of course.

  25. I hope no one thinks that the stuff in supermarkets is typical American cake! Any bakery or home cook can prove otherwise. I refuse to eat supermarket cakes. A cheap cake mix (with some whipped cream or buttercream frosting) will generally be much better and a quarter the price.

    The storebought things labeled "muffins" are a sort of cupcake hybrid, and not a muffin at all. Adding bran or oatmeal to cake mix does not make it a muffin.

    I (California) did not grow up with the word "icing." There's frosting, and then there's glaze.
    Frosting could be a cooked confection, but much more often is a homemade buttercream. This consists of a pound of powdered (confectioner's) sugar beaten into a quarter-pound of butter, with a little milk or cream, just enough to make it soft and spreadable, and a flavoring of choice (vanilla, cocoa, etc). All beaten together with no cooking. It's soft when you spread it, but quickly develops a bit of a crust.

  26. My British compendium of cake decorating lists a couple of recipes for "American frosting". These all involve cooking, and the result sets fairly hard on the outside, like meringue. (And quickly too -- the book counsels working fast before it goes too stiff.) The frostings are intended for use on informal cakes, as they can't be piped or worked intricately, only spread into soft swirls or peaks.

    Here's a typical British recipe for cake with American frosting:

  27. As an American adult, living in Texas, I've bought a grocery store cake with "imperial icing" (or frosting - not sure) this is lighter than the other option of frosting of the store-bought cake. It (imperial icing) tastes like sweet whipped cream, basically, but is made with a frighteningly long list of chemicals, apparently. I'm amused thinking that "imperial icing" is some kind of derivative of the "royal icing" of Britain.

    I have British lineage, ancestors, and so think that a fair number of our family traditions are British. The plum pudding for instance that my mom makes (and lights) and the hard sauce that we scoop and drop on top of our serving of plum pudding is probably English. The hard sauce is made with butter, confectioners sugar and brandy, or bourbon or rum. Called hard sauce for the same reason hard cider is called hard, because of the alcohol content - (and it is not runny like the things I would usually call sauces). My Gran, when she was a girl spontaneously called it "fairy butter" - so the story goes. We have always thought this was a great name for it. - Anyway, I'm curious if you put something like this on plum puddings, those of you, any of you, who have plum pudding, and what you call it. It seems to have many of the same ingredients of various icings frostings that have been mentioned.

  28. @Robbie: I looked at that recipe and tried to figure out the "American icing." First tipoff that it's not really American is that it calls for caster sugar.

    There are lots of recipes for cooked frosting(icing), but I don't know that anyone actually makes the stuff. There is that mysterious substance that comes in cans from Betty Crocker, but I've never bought it. I suspect that most people use that with their cake mixes. (Hardly anyone makes cakes from scratch, either.)

    I have only one recipe for cooked frosting in my book, and that calls for corn syrup. My mother used to make it, once in a great while, but I have never made it successfully. Haven't tried in many years. It stays gooey forever, and does not firm up. You can't pipe it or anything.

  29. So here's what I was taught in culinary school in the US. A buttercream made with Italian meringue is generally known as Italian buttercream, and a buttercream made with egg yolks and softball stage syrup is a French buttercream. An uncooked buttercream with just butter, sugar, and flavoring is a decorators buttercream. At least here in the the midwest the "buttercream" in low end grocery store cakes is known as butRcream, and is disgusting. Aside from being cheaper, using shortening in buttercream helps it stand up to heat and sun, since commercial shortening has a higher melting point than butter. Professionally royal icing isn't used much to ice whole cakes in the US, but it is used to make flowers and other decorations and as adhesive (like with a fondant cake). Everyone loves the rolled fondant now, but it is a pretty recent thing. I was led to believe it has a little more history in the UK, but hey, maybe not. Personally I think it tastes like Lucky Charms marshmallows (bleh!). I wish it would go away, cake are for eating not looking at!

    Anyway after all that, I actually grew up (in Boston) saying icing not frosting. When I moved to the midwest everyone said frosting. Weirdly though, all my school teachers say icing, so maybe there's some professional thing that I'm missing somehow. But honestly in all my cake decorating classes no one has ever made a distinction between a frosting and an icing. I never thought they were two different things growing up either. Frosting was just the thing "other people say".

  30. (Hardly anyone makes cakes from scratch, either.)

    Which doesn't make any sense, given that cakes are really super easy to make. They're flour, a liquid, an oil, and a leavening. And sugar.

    But honestly in all my cake decorating classes no one has ever made a distinction between a frosting and an icing. I never thought they were two different things growing up either. Frosting was just the thing "other people say".

    Ooh, it's like sucker and lollipop all over again!


  31. @Maggie, I'm sorry to burst your bubble, but that 'imperial icing' sounds absolutely nothing like 'royal icing' which has only a few natural ingredients and is rock-solid once dry.

    We tend to call it 'Christmas pudding' these days, but plum pudding is still commonly eaten at this time of year and served either with a hot white sauce flavoured with brandy, or with 'hard sauce' which is more commonly called brandy butter. You can also get versions with different kinds of alcohol (rum, whisky...)

    I may be wrong about this, but it was certainly my impression that cake mixes are used much more in the US than they are here in the UK. I don't think I knew anyone in America who would bake from scratch - they would either buy a cake from a bakery, or use a packet mix. Whereas in the UK, I don't think I know anyone who uses packet mixes. Mostly we either buy cakes or bake from scratch.

  32. Well, Ros, now you know me. I bake exclusively from scratch. Why would I use a mix when I have everything I need for cake on my pantry shelves? And I don't know anybody who gasps in amazement when told that their cake I made is from scratch, so I can't be alone in this.

  33. Just back from a few days with the Aged Parents (Dickens ref!) for Christmas, I was about to report that my mother now has the 40th edition of the Be-Ro booklet (from Morrison's supermarket, now contains references to microwaves and freezers) when I saw that the icing/frosting discussion has moved on to hard sauce.

    According to my recipe book for catering students, hard sauce contains ground almonds, vanilla essence, butter and icing sugar: brandy butter is a variation in which the spirit replaces the almonds. The supermarkets also sell brandy cream for Christmas - but (in parallel to cake-baking) why would you buy something with only those two ingredients instead of whipping it up at home?!

    This book also contains a recipe for 'American icing' in which a stiffly-whisked egg white is mixed into a hot sugar syrup, so it's no wonder that it must be used quickly. Gosh.

  34. @biochemist

    That's really funny that it's called American Icing, because that's exactly what I would call an Italian Buttercream.

    Though for the record the egg whites are cooked and it is perfectly safe to leave such a buttercream out for a few days.

  35. Growing up (in Sydney, Australia), we always topped our cakes with icing (made with icing sugar and water), but occasionally we were specially allowed to ice a chocolate cake with frosting, which we made with icing sugar (and cocoa) and butter, creamed together.

    When we moved to the USA in 2003, the term "frosting" applied to what I had always known as frosting, and the term "icing" did not appear to exist!

    People in my circles do not seem to ice cakes any more - it's all frosting these days!

  36. Um, Elizabeth, that 'American icing' contains no butter - the hot syrup cooks the egg white and so it's a kind of meringue, but since it sets quickly one has to work fast to get it on the cake. I'm almost tempted to try it myself to see what happens!
    Why would we call it 'American'? Perhaps the profligate use of egg whites ... the mid 20th-C UK diet contained a lot of sugar (to provide energy in a world without central heating) but we were always very careful to use up spare yolks or whites of eggs.

  37. "Anyway, I'm curious if you put something like this on plum puddings, those of you, any of you, who have plum pudding, and what you call it. It seems to have many of the same ingredients of various icings frostings that have been mentioned."

    It's called brandy butter here - you melt a spoonful on to hot Christmas (plum) pudding, but honestly, what is delicious but far too rich is to spread some on a slice of cold Christmas pudding next day - Boxing Day treat, that used to be! It doesn't go on cake, as it has too much butter and not enough sugar to count as an icing rather than a sauce.

    @biochemist - my sister rather horrified me by producing bought brandy butter, but her family actually prefer custard on theirs (strange people) so perhaps she was pandering to my father's and husband's tastes!

  38. Okay so if it didn't have butter in it at all was it just Italian Meringue or did it have other stuff in it? It must have something else in it since Italian Meringue wouldn't set up like that unless you torched it. Honestly I'm really curious as I spend way too much time thinking about baking. Besides while one could use it to ice a cake, I wouldn't call that icing/frosting of any kind, just meringue.

    My point was merely that both had a country name attached to them, but Italy and the US, not exactly the same place.

  39. @solo:

    I'm not sure why "TV" should sound American to you.

    A Google search finds more than 100 times as many hits for "TV" in the .uk domain, as for "telly".

    It's true that "telly" is, in general, only used in Britain, while "TV" is shared by both British and Americans -- but then so are most words in the English language.

  40. I love to bake, so I found this topic very interesting. I have to disagree with the people who said Americans don't have "icing" or caster sugar.

    I'm an American and my Mom (who's in her 60s) is from WV, though I grew up in CO. So I don't know if it's a Southern thing, but we called any substance used in or on a cake "icing." (And used the phrase "icing on the cake," which no one's mentioned yet.) Mom only made two kinds of cake when I was growing up, one had what's properly called a ganache I think, made in the blender with (granulated) sugar, a can of evaporated milk, and unsweetened chocolate, which we called "chocolate icing." The other cake had a glaze made of powdered sugar and orange juice, which we called "icing." We also (occasionally) bought cupcakes from the grocery store, which used the icky hydrogenated-oil-and-powdered-sugar icing mentioned by Anonymous (1st comment) and Elizabeth. I only learned to call things "frosting" after being exposed to the Betty Crocker frosting in a plastic container that goes along with cake mixes from a box (which I always thought was gross, because yes, we baked everything from scratch in our house). And when I got older and started baking a lot more, I learned the standard American culinary school definitions already described by Elizabeth. A recipe for a buche de noel I use from a cookbook with an American author calls for a "buttercream frosting" made with egg whites, sugar, butter, and brandy, but I still call it icing and I "ice" cakes, I don't "frost" them.

    And we do have caster sugar, but we don't call it that. I've seen it packaged as "super-fine sugar" and is granulated sugar, not powdered sugar (which often has an anti-caking agent of some kind in it). I've used it to make spun-sugar decorations and it's also used for making hard candy.

  41. I'm from NY and I've always used the term "icing", while frosting isn't necessarily odd, I've heard both and never assumed "frosting" was used more on the other side of the pond.

  42. frosting reminds me of the victoria sponge with a doily used for the pattern on the top and just icing sugar powder to make the pattern that the doily will produce from the open pattern in the doily

  43. For as long as I can remember I've enjoyed eating and later making cakes topped and filled with butter icing – butter and icing sugar creamed together and flavoured with vanilla essence, coffee or lemon juice – so the idea of a fat-based cake covering isn't a particularly recent introduction. Butter icing isn't the same as buttercream; butter icing is quite firm while buttercream is much softer, although it is also used for embellishing cakes.

  44. I grew up (in New England) with the glaze/icing/frosting distinction, and the stuff you put on cakes generally called frosting. That being said, the idiom was always "that's just icing on the cake," and looking at Google search results on US websites, that seems to be typical. 'Frosting' gets about 42 million hits on US websites, whereas 'icing' gets 45 million - so pretty even (and it's worth remembering that people who use 'frosting' for cakes may still using 'icing' for other purposes, so the 'icing' numbers may be inflated). "Just frosting on the cake" only gets 225,000 hits, however, while "just icing on the cake" gets over 4.7 million. So despite regional differences in terminology, the idiom is largely unaffected.

    And just to cover what the regional differences are, the American Heritage Dictionary notes, "Although the terms frosting and icing are both in widespread use, people in New England, the Upper Midwest, and the Western United States tend to put frosting on cake. In Pennsylvania, New Jersey, the Lower Midwest, and the South, the preferred term is icing. There is some overlap, especially in upstate New York, Michigan, and California, but the regions in which the two words predominate are surprisingly distinct. Some in the South call it filling, even when it goes on top."

    @Mo: The term 'frosting' is not a recent invasion. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it's been around since 1756. 'Icing' isn't all that much older, having first appeared in 1723.

  45. As a lifetime inhabitant of the states and fluent speaker of AmE, the difference in "frosting" and "icing" has always been as simple as northerners say "frosting" and southerners say "icing" to me.

  46. In Canada, the term "frosting" is understood, but never spoken of as such. This is due mainly to US-based canned frosting that's been on the market for about the past 30 years. However, one "ices" a cake with this tinned "frosting", and the finished product, either home-made or store-bought, is called icing.

    My Canadian-born mother of Eastern European extraction never called it "frosting". It's always been called icing in my extended family.

    Incidentally, in Canada there's also no such thing as confectioner's sugar. It's always been marketed as icing sugar, as it is in the UK and Australia. It's likely a Commonwealth thing. I had to Google it to find out what it was.

  47. In Canada, the term "frosting" is understood, but never spoken of as such. This is due mainly to US-based canned frosting that's been on the market for about the past 30 years. However, one "ices" a cake with this tinned "frosting", and the finished product, either home-made or store-bought, is called icing.

    My Canadian-born mother of Eastern European extraction never called it "frosting". It's always been called icing in my extended family.

    Incidentally, in Canada there's also no such thing as confectioner's sugar. It's always been marketed as icing sugar, as it is in the UK and Australia. It's likely a Commonwealth thing. I had to Google it to find out what it was.

  48. If anyone still notices these older posts anymore -- a question. I'm an American, booked on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway's "Pullman Dining Service" for the end of May. We *may* be celebrating my partner's birthday then so I looked into the railway's "Gifts and Treats" menu, which includes this description:

    Homemade Carrot Cake with Frosted Icing - £17.50.

    Um, what?! I'm one of those Americans for whom frosting and icing are interchangeable (what New Englanders distinguish as "icing" I would call a "heavy glaze"). Any guesses on what the combination might mean?


    Oh, and PS on cooked frosting/icing. My grandmother was inordinately fond of something called "7-minute icing/frosting," which I remember as too toothachingly sweet even for my 8-year-old self. It's very much like a meringue. Martha Stewart provides a version here.

  49. It might mean that it's applied with a knife, in the style of American frosting, rather than being rolled on (like royal icing) or a glaze.

    I found another example (from Ireland) here with a photo.

  50. I think frosted icing is a way of getting across the idea of American frosting to Brits who don't really know what it means, but do understand the word icing.

    When I was a boy what my mother put on cakes was either icing or butter icing. I suppose what she she actually used was margarine until the end of butter rationing in the fifties.

    Too me, that recipe in Lynne's link uses 'butter icing with cream cheese instead of butter'.

    I'd guess that the reason frosting hasn't caught on more here is that frost in Britain is a word used for frozen condensation on a surface, not for frozen snow. I suspect wasn't alone in expecting (until told otherwise) that frosting was something thinner than icing.

  51. David--that's exactly how I'd use 'frost' in AmE. Frozen snow is just snow. Or ice.

  52. Lynne

    OK, I was misled by a google hit which I thought was describing the stuff on the side of tree trunks as frost. It looked like frozen snow to me.

    My basic problem is that I see frost as something no thicker than a millimetre. This may be a generational thing.

    I don't really have a word to describe the thick white stuff that accumulates in parts of a fridge. It doesn't feel like frost to me, but I suppose that's what you call it.

  53. David--that person's use may have been idiosyncratic. I'm still with you on the meaning of 'frost'.

  54. David--that person's use may have been idiosyncratic. I'm still with you on the meaning of 'frost'.

  55. @lynnguist and @David_Crosbie, thanks for the replies! (I still don't know how to configure blogger to follow individual posts and replies, so sorry for the delay).

    Both explanations make sense to me, and I would imagine that both occur. What doesn't -- entirely -- work is using "frosting" or "icing" to describe what's going on with that yogurt cake. I'm realizing that for me at least, both words imply that that the top *and sides* of the cake are covered. The delightfully misnamed Boston Cream Pie is naked on the sides, but its topping is a glaze, not a frosting/icing. Seems weirdly out of proportion to have a very thick buttery-cream-cheesy-slab atop a single layer of cake....

  56. Christian

    You used to be able to subscribe to Blogger posts, but Google scrapped that facility. There are apps which allow you to subscribe to various things including Blogger postings. I use one called on called Leaf. It works fine for me, so i can recommend it. But there again you might find something that suits you better.

    I think what lies at the heart of all this is that icing and frosting have become semantically divorced from ice and frost.

    When I hear the word icing I think of a sugar-based cake topping at room temperature. Only if I hear icing on the wings do I connect the word with actual ice.

    As far as I can tell, the same obtains for this who use the word frosting. Some think of what i call icing. Some think of what I call sort-of butter icing. Some think of both.

    Confusion comes if you hear a word you're not used to. Until recently I was completely unused to the word frosting so when I heard it I associated it with frost. I guessed that it must be something thinner and less opaque than icing — even when it obviously referred to some sort of cake topping.

    I think there must be other British English speakers like me and that some suppliers of cakes an cake recipes are aware of us. So they don't use the American term frosting but they don't use the single word icing either for that thick stuff which is similar to but probably not the same as our butter icing.

    I think the position on the cake of the icing/frosting has become irrelevant. You keep the name even when when you put it somewhere other than the top. When i was a little boy my favourite of my mother;'s cakes was a chocolate sandwich sponge with the same chocolate butter icing (?=frosting) covering the top and also (spread more thinly together with a spread of jam) between the slices.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)