Get to know your icings

By Shannon Peare

24 July 2020

Ganache? Buttercream? Swiss meringue buttercream? There are so many different icings out there to decorate your bakes with. My first experience with icing was of course, the water icing! Decorating my ‘S’ biscuit in Granny Redmond’s kitchen. I expanded my horizons from there. Once you know the difference between each icing, you’ll be able to play around with the various types on your bakes.

Water icing

Also known as glaze icing, is a smooth, runny and glossy icing. Made from a simple mix of icing sugar and water. As a beginner baker, this is usually the start of your decorating journey. This icing is perfect for decorating sponges, fairy cakes, cookies, biscuits and iced buns. As it dries, it will set semi hard. Depending on what you are decorating, you can adjust the thickness or runniness of the icing by adding more icing sugar or water. As this icing is pure white, it takes food colour very well. Add your food colouring by dipping a toothpick into your liquid or gel food colouring, adding it gradually.

Royal icing

Royal icing is an icing made from egg whites, icing sugar and lemon juice/water. The difference between water icing and royal icing is texture. Water icing will form a hard shell once set but is still quite soft, whereas royal icing hardens to a solid state. I see it as the glue of the icing world. It is perfect for piping, decorating biscuits and is the cement for any gingerbread house. Those decorated biscuits we all gawk at in cookbooks and magazines are definitely iced with royal icing. You can make the royal icing thicker or thinner by adding more icing sugar or lemon juice/water. To ice biscuits, you want the icing to be a honey like consistency. Royal icing can dry out easily so while you are working, cover the bowl with a damp cloth. You will get the best results using this icing fresh, however it can last for one week in an airtight container in the fridge.


Buttercream is a smooth and fluffy icing. It is a simple mix of icing sugar and softened butter. This icing needs a good beating to get it smooth, it can be grainy if not beaten enough. I like to add in some milk or hot water to loosen the icing, depending on what I am decorating. It is perfect for icing cupcakes and decorating cakes. It can be flavoured by adding in different flavoured essence, chopped fruits, zest of citrus fruits, cocoa powder, chocolate etc. This icing can last up to two weeks in the fridge in an airtight container. Buttercream icing can also be stored in the freezer. Remove the icing from the freezer the day before use to allow it to defrost. Once the icing has defrosted, give it a light beating with a spatula and you are good to go. This icing is always a crowd pleaser as it is sweet and light.

Cream cheese icing

For those that don’t have as big of a sweet tooth, cream cheese icing is the way to go. This icing is made of icing sugar, softened butter and cream cheese. It is beaten together to form a deliciously light icing. It is commonly used for carrot cakes, red velvet, cupcakes and sponges. This icing is much creamier than buttercream icing, due to the added cream cheese. You can flavour this icing by adding in essence, zest of citrus fruits, cocoa powder etc. Any bake decorated with cream cheese icing will need to be stored in the fridge. The icing can last one to two weeks in the fridge and can also be kept in the freezer.

Swiss meringue buttercream

Okay, the best way to describe this icing…it’s like eating a cloud! Swiss meringue buttercream is made from cooked egg white, sugar, butter and vanilla extract. The egg whites and sugar are cooked over a bain marie. They are whisked until they have cooled and reached stiff peaks, like a regular meringue. Softened cubed butter is then added. This icing is out of this world creamy! It does rake a bit more time but I can assure you it is worth it. It is perfect for cakes and cupcakes. It can also be used to pipe buttercream flowers and other designs. This icing will last a day or two at room temperature, 2 weeks in the fridge and 3 months in the freezer. Be sure to store it in a airtight container or freezer bag.

Italian meringue buttercream

This icing is light, silky and not too sweet…basically another type of fluffy cloud icing. This is very similar to Swiss meringue buttercream, however the sugar for this icing is cooked in a pot to 115˚C. Egg whites are whisked to stiff peaks before the boiling sugar is slowly streamed in. Butter is then slowly added to created this fluffy and delicious icing. If you don’t have a sugar thermometer to make this icing, look for the “soft ball stage” when cooking the sugar. Add a teaspoon of the boiling sugar to a glass of cold water. When the hot sugar hits the water it should form a soft ball that feels like sap in your fingers. If the sugar forms a hard ball in the water, it has gotten too hot so allow to cool down. This pipes beautifully and is delicious on cupcakes or to decorate cakes.

Whipped chocolate ganache

So “ganache” is just a fancy word for chocolate and cream that have been melted together. It has a smooth and silky texture that will melt in your mouth. Chocolate ganache is a very versatile icing. It can be used for a drip cake, to pour over a whole cake, whipped to make a pipeable icing and even to make truffles. For decorating cupcakes, I decided to whip it. Adding melted chocolate or cocoa to make any chocolate icing gives a nice flavour, however whipped ganache is much richer. It can be made with milk, white or dark chocolate. The hot cream melts the chocolate, once mixed it has silky smooth consistency. Allow it to cool slightly, before whipping to make this light and fluffy icing.

There are so many icings out there and even I’m still learning more as I go along. Don’t be afraid to play around with some of these icings on your favourite bakes.

Check out our recipes for the 7 most popular icings:

7 recipes of the most popular icings