Icing 101 (With Taste Test) ~ An In-depth Analysis

Overview (Prepare Yourselves for Icing Overload!)

If you read my Battle 1.2: Strawberry Cupcakes post, you will see that we decided not to put frosting on those mouthwatering morsels. Well, that just isn’t acceptable for the masses, since a cupcake is soulless without its icing and decorations. I would be shamed if I showed up to a family gathering with naked cakes. Plus, it ruins the fun of piping my own icing! So, in order to avoid castigation, I am determined to find the perfect icing for strawberry cupcakes. I am doing an icing taste test in order to decide on the best way to ice future batches of these marvels.

The Goal

  • These strawberry cupcakes are so full of berry flavor that you can actually smell it when you open the container that I’ve stored them in; it hits you like a wall! So, I am determined to find an icing recipe to that tastes great, but isn’t overpowering. This will be a mighty battle.

Narrowing the Field

    There are a lot of options when it comes to types of cupcake icings:
    • Whipped cream:
      • Ambre – Not my favorite. It just doesn’t have that classic icing flavor, density, and texture that I love.
      • Tristan – Whipped cream is ~40% fat and 60% water. This large amount of liquid increases the chances of the cupcake getting soggy. In general, whipped cream icing does best when paired with other foods that also have a high liquid content (e.g. fruit, ice cream sundaes, puddings, etc.)
    • Cream cheese:
      • Ambre – We used this on the strawberry cupcakes in Battle One. The flavor totally (and unacceptably) eclipsed the berry flavor.
    • Fudge:
      • Ambre – People love strawberries dipped in chocolate, so chocolate might have some potential, but overall I think this type of icing would be too heavy and thick and risks overpowering the subtle cupcake flavor.
    • Ganache:
      • Ambre – Ganache would probably offer a good alternative to fudge. We explored the idea of a white chocolate ganache, but… (see below)
      • Tristan – To correctly make ganache, you must have the correct chocolate to cream ratio (2:1). Since we can’t easily buy unsweetened white chocolate, we can’t control the sugar content of this recipe. We don’t want an icing that is a lot sweeter than our cupcakes so this isn’t a “safe” option.
    • Meringue/cooked:
      • Ambre – This icing is too delicate for my tastes and requires constant refrigeration to stay food safe. Plus, this is one of the more complicated types of icing to make.
    • Buttercream:
      • Ambre – This is arguable the most popular type of icing and for good reason. You can play with your butter:shortening ratios here to get a specific/personal taste. Plus, you can add or reduce the amount of sugar to make it as sweet as you want it to be. A lot of buttercream recipes call for egg whites, but you can actually cook the eggs before use, in order to improve the flavor and kill salmonella. This is definitely our icing winner. Next we have to decide what buttercream icing recipes to taste test!

The Contenders

  1. Wilton’s Buttercream Icing recipe.
    • I cannot believe that this baking conglomerate actually has recipes and that those recipes are very well reviewed. This buttercream icing has 4.6 out of 5 stars, with almost 1000 reviews!
  2. The Piggly-Wiggly’s adaptation of Cook’s Illustrated’s Easy Vanilla Buttercream Icing.
  3. Cook’s Illustrated’s Classic Vanilla Buttercream Icing, from: The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook.
  4. Betty Crocker’s Whipped Butter Cream Icing (we had to try out at least one common store brand for comparison’s sake).

The Results

  • I made reduced batches of each icing type (except Betty’s obviously) using Tristan’s microscale. Some of the ingredients I measured were ridiculously small, 2.1 grams of vanilla extract for example.
  • Tristan did a blind taste test of the icings both with and without cupcake.
  • In the picture below:
    • Upper Left is # 2 (Easy Buttercream adapted from Cook’s Illustrated)
    • Upper Right is # 3 (Classic Buttercream from Cook’s Illustrated)
    • Bottom Left is # 4 (Betty Crocker)
    • Bottom Right is # 1 (Wilton’s)


Tristan’s Ratings

  • Without cupcake, Tristan’s icing preference was (from best to worst): Betty Crocker (#4), Easy Buttercream (#2), Classic Buttercream (#3), and Wilton’s (#1)
  • With cupcake, Tristan’s preference was (best to worst): Classic Buttercream, Easy Buttercream, Betty’s, Wilton’s


My [Biased] Ratings

  • Without cupcake (best to worst): Easy Buttercream, Classic Buttercream, Wilton’s, Betty’s
  • With cupcake (best to worst): Classic Buttercream, Wilton’s, Easy Buttercream, Betty’s

Clearly, when tasted with cupcake, Cook’s Illustrated’s Classic Vanilla Buttercream Icing is the winner!

In-depth Results Explanation (for those who care)

  1. Wilton’s: Positives – didn’t mask the cupcake flavor / Negatives – Too gritty (Tristan said, “I could polish something with that.”) and sweet, texture of the confectioner’s sugar too prevalent, Tristan said, “You can’t taste the butter or shortening at all; they are just acting as a vehicle to hold the confectioner’s sugar together.”
  2. Cook’s Illustrated’s Easy ButtercreamPositives – Good mouth feel, only slightly gritty, B+ or A flavor / Negatives – Masks the cupcake flavor, flavor is good, but too strong
  3. Cook’s Illustrated Classic ButtercreamPositives – Ultra smooth, fantastic flavor that isn’t too sweet and doesn’t mask the cupcake flavor  / Negatives – Some might think that this icing is almost too buttery in texture and taste
  4. Betty Crocker’s: Positives – Smooth, easy to make: just remove the container’s lid / Negatives – Too sweet, the artificial butter flavor (which is about a C+) is obvious and masks the cupcake flavor