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.


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