What’s the difference between frosting and icing?

Fair warning: this post is full of pictures of baked goods. I can’t claim responsibly for any impulsive cake-baking that may result from reading further.

This is the second post in this series. The first half, here, focused on responses to whether “frosting” and “icing” were different things, or different words for the same thing. This post gets a little more in-depth. In the first part, I was just asking people what they thought they said. In the second part, I was asking them to pick words for specific pictures. It’s not a perfect design–by asking people what they think they saw first I primed them pretty heavily–but it does reveal some interesting patterns of usage.

The main thing I was interested in was this–did people who said frosting and icing were interchangeable for them actually use them as if they were the same? Why is this a good question to ask? Because  it turns out that a lot of the time people aren’t the best judges of how they use language. Especially if there’s some sort of “rule” about how you’re “supposed” to do it. For example, there’s something of a running joke among linguists how often people will use the passive voice while they’re telling people not to! I don’t think anyone would intentionally lie about their usage, but it’s possible that respondents aren’t always doing exactly what they think they are.

I split my dataset into people who said they thought the words “frosting” and “icing” meant the same thing and those who thought they were different. In the charts below these groups are labelled “same” and “different” respectively. For this stage of analysis, I left out people who weren’t sure; there weren’t a whole lot of them anyway.

Matcha-cupcakes (6453300119)

So this picture was a pretty canonical example of what people brought up a lot–it’s on a cake, and it’s been both whipped and piped. For a lot of people, then, this should be “frosting”. So what did people say?

cupcakeChartThe results here were pretty much what I expected. (Whew!) People who thought the words meant different things pretty much all thought this was “frosting”. And there was a pretty strong different between the groups. But this still doesn’t answer some of my questions. Is it the texture that makes it “frosting” or, as the AP Styleguide suggests, the fact that it’s on a cake? After all, you can definitely put buttercream on a cookie, as evinced by Lofthouse.



Next I had some doughnuts. A lot of people, when I first started asking around, brought up doughnuts as something that they thought were iced rather than frosted. So what did people say?


That does seem to hold true.There was no strong difference between the groups, but there were also a lot of write-in answers. (“Glaze” was especially popular, which, for the record, is probably what I’d say. ) So there seems to be more variety in what people call doughnut toppings but there is a tendency towards “icing”.

Cake with fondant

Sao Valentim 2013 (5)

Ok, so this image was a bit of a trick. The cake here is covered in fondant. Which, to me, isn’t really frosting or icing. But if it’s really “being on a cake” that makes something “frosting”, we should see a strong “frosting” bias from people with a distinction. fondantAnd that’s just not  the case. There’s also a pretty big difference between the groups here. Interestingly, people who thought “frosting” and “icing” are different things were more likely to write in “fondant”. (Remember that level of baking knowledge had no effect on whether people said there was a difference or not, so it’s probably not just specialized knowledge.)

Bundt Cake

Lemon bundt cake (2), January 2010

I included this image for a couple of reasons. Again, I’m poking at this “on a cake” idea. But I also had a lot of people tell me that, for them, the distinction between the words was texture-based. So responses here could have gone two ways: If anything on a cake is frosting, then we’d expect frosting to win. But, if frosting has to be fluffy/whipped, then we’d expect icing to win.


And icing wins! This is no surprise, given the written results summarized in my previous post and the responses for the cake pictures above, but for me it really puts the nail in the coffin of the “on cakes” argument. (Take note, AP Styleguide!) Even on this one, though, people with no distinction are much more likely to be able to use “frosting”.

Sweet Roll

Delicious orange roll

So this is an interesting one. I included it because, for me, cinnamon rolls are synonymous with cream cheese frosting/icing. Since several people I talked to said specifically that cream cheese had to be frosting and not icing, I was expecting a large “frosting” response on this one.


That was definitely not what I saw, though. (Although people with no distinction were much more likely to be able to say “frosting”, so I guess I came by it natural.) Most people, and especially people with a distinction, thought it was “icing”.


So there are two main takeaways here:

  • There’s a strong difference in usage between people who say that “frosting” and “icing” are different things and those who say they aren’t. (For most of the pictures, these groups responded significantly differently.)
  • If there is a difference, it’s got everything to do with texture and nothing to do with cake.

That’s not to say that these things will always hold true; no one knows better than linguists that language is in a constant state of flux. But for now, these generalizations seem to hold for most of the people surveyed. So if you’re going to make a usage distinction between these words, please make one that’s based on the actual usage and not some completely made-up rule!

A final note: if you’re interested in seeing the (slightly sanitized) data and the R code I used for analysis, both are available here.



Is there a difference between frosting and icing?

So recently, the Associated Press Stylebook posted this on Twitter:

This struck me as 1) kind of a petty usage distinction and 2) completely at odds with my personal usage and what I knew about the dialectal research.  The Dictionary of American Regional English, for example, notes that “Frosting” is “widespread, but chiefly North, North MidlandWest“. “Icing”, on the other hand, is found all over,”but less freq North, Pacific“. As someone from Virginia but currently living in Seattle, I have no problem using either frosting or icing for a nice buttercream. I’m hardly the only one, either. This baking blog post even says “I use lots of different icings to frost cupcakes”.

Chai white chocolate cupcakes (2)
Frosting or icing, I’ll take a dozen.

BUT when I posted about this Twitter, some people replied that they did have a very strong distinction between the two words. And the same thing happened when I brought it up with different groups of friends. A lot of people brought up texture, or that they’d say that some things are frosted and others are iced. This was really fascinating to me, both as a baker and a linguist, so I did what any social scientist would and set out to collect some data to get a better idea of what’s going on.

I set up a survey on Google forms and got 109 responses. First I collected info on where speakers were from, how old they were and how knowledgeable they were about baking. Then I asked them for both their general impression of use and then used pictures to ask what they’d call the sweet topping on a variety of baked goods. To avoid making this blog post absolutely huge, I’m going to split up data discussion. The first half  (this one) will look at whether people make a distinction between frosting and icing and whether that’s related to any of their social characteristics. The second half (I’ll link it here when it’s done) will focus on responses to specific images.

Are “frosting” and “icing” different, or are they different words for the same thing?

The first question I asked people was whether frosting and icing were different, or just different words for the same thing. Most people (over 60%) thought that they were different things, while about a third (27% ) thought they were different words for the same thing, and the rest weren’t sure. So it does look like there’s some difference in how people use these words. But in and of itself, that’s not very interesting. What I want to know is this: how do people with different social characteristics use these words? (You may remember that I wrote a while ago that this is the central question in sociolinguistics.)


The first thing I wanted to look at was region. I was expecting to see a pretty big difference here, and I wasn’t disappointed. Once I broke down the data by the states people were from, I found a definite pattern: people from the South were far more likely to say that frosting and icing were different words for the same thing. (Virginia isn’t really patterning with the rest of the South, here, but that may be due to bit of sampling bias–I recruited participants through my social network, and a lot of my friends are from Northern Virginia, which tends not to pattern with the South.)

Most people in the South thought frosting and icing were the same thing, while outside of the South more people thought they were different things. (The darker the blue, the more likely someone from that state was to say that they were different things–black states I didn’t get any respondents from.)

Why is there a distinction? Honestly, I’m not really sure. My intuition, though, is that people from the South probably have pretty wide exposure to both terms. (Since books, TV and movies tend to come from outside of the South, there’s plenty of chances to come across other dialectal variants.) However, people from outside the South historically had less exposure to one of the terms–icing–when they started to come across it they decided that it must refer to something different. As a result, the meanings of both words changed to become more narrow. (This is actually a pretty common process in languages.) I don’t have strong evidence for this theory right now, though, so take it with a couple shakes of salt!


Another thing I wanted to look at was whether the age of respondents played a role in how they used these words. If younger respondents seem to use the word differently than older respondents, it might be because there’s a change happening in the language. Given time, everyone might end up doing the same thing as the younger people.

While it looks like there’s a slight tendency for younger participants to say there’s a difference between frosting and icing, the effect isn’t strong enough to be reliable.

I didn’t find a strong pattern, though. Again, this might be due to sampling problems, since most of my respondents were roughly the same age (21-30).  But it could also be that there’s simply not anything to find–that this is neither an on ongoing change, nor one where younger people and older people do things differently.

Baking Knowledge

Ok, so it looks like people are varying by region, but not by age… but what about by level of baking knowledge? Maybe you don’t care about the difference if you almost never make or eat baked goods. It could be that people who know a lot about baking make a distinction, and it’s only people who don’t know a beater from a dough hook that are lumping things together.

Baking knowledge also isn’t closely tied to how people use these words. So it’s not just that people who don’t know a lot about baking say they’re the same.

But that’s not what I found. People at all levels of baking knowledge tended to have a pretty even balance between the two uses of the words.


I also collected comments from people, to get more information on what people thought in their own words. Two big themes emerged. One was that the most consistent thing people pointed to as the difference was texture. The other was that people tended to say that one of them was for the cake and the other wasn’t… but which one was which was pretty much random.

Just under half of the comments mentioned texture. I’ve compiled some of the differences below, but the general consensus seems to be that frosting is thick, fluffy and soft, while icing is thin and hard. Take note, AP Stylebook!

Frosting Icing
creamy or buttery syrupy, like a glaze
plasticy looking
spread squeezed or piped
thick and creamy thin, hardens as it dries
thicker clear crust, dried
fluffy thin
thin layer, smooth, glossy
more solid, less flowing watery, gooey
stays soft hardens once it sets
thicker, softer thinner, harder
thick, textured thin, flat

Six people did specifically mention how the words could be used for cake toppings in their comments. Two people said cakes could be either frosted or iced, two said that cakes could only be iced, and two said that cakes could only be frosted. Here’s an example of an icing is for cakes comment:

icing is for cakes! frosting is for all the other deliciousness. usually.

And someone who suggests frosting is for cakes:

I usually apply the word frosting solely to cakelike goods (cupcakes, regular cake) and then icing to everything else.

So… if you are going to claim there’s a difference between frosting and icing, pulling the “it goes on cakes” card is pretty likely to start a fight.  You’re much safer talking about texture. Unless you’re in the South, of course; then you can pretty much say what you like.

Is there a difference between frosting and icing? It looks like the answer mainly depends on where you are. But there were also some pretty interesting differences between different baked goods, so stay tuned for that part of the analysis.

P.S. If you’re interested in seeing the (slightly sanitized) data and the R code I used for analysis, both are available here.