The world of cake icings is complex and varied, but there are two types of icing that you’ll hear most commonly: fondant and buttercream. What are they, how are they different, and when should you choose one over the other?
When you see a cake icing that is unbelievably smooth, it is most likely fondant. Fondant icing is a very smooth, firm sugar icing, made from a play dough-like sugar paste that is usually kneaded until silky and pliable, rolled out, and draped over the cake tiers. It remains fresh for days if refrigerated, can be colored any hue, and can be shaped into figures, flowers, and other shapes. Fondant icing can be really sweet and have a gummy texture that guests likely will not enjoy, but it is incredibly beautiful!
Buttercream frosting is a soft, satiny frosting that is spread over the cake and can be piped into patterns. Buttercream can also be used as a filling, can be flavored or tinted, and more easily melts than fondant. There are two main types of buttercream frosting: basic and meringue.
Basic buttercream frosting is made by whipping confectioner’s sugar with butter or shortening. It is the sweeter of the two buttercream types and is common on birthday cakes and as cupcake toppings. Basic buttercream icing can be colored vibrant hues and kept at room temperature for a day. Meringue buttercream, on the other hand, is made by boiling beaten egg whites and sugar into a soft ball that creates a smooth, stable, and spreadable texture. Meringue buttercream can be flavored, colored to softer hues than basic buttercream, and should be covered and refrigerated until just before serving, when it should be allowed to come to room temperature. Meringue buttercream can get very hard when cold, but is also the most delicate icing and can melt or slip if too warm.
Ask your cake decorator which type of buttercream recipe they use, as some can hold up better than others. Your cake decorator can also let you know how long the cake can stay outside, if you have an outdoor venue, and give you tips depending on temperature and weather. If your wedding is outdoors and yours is a buttercream cake, you might want to plan to cut your cake as soon as you enter the reception; that way, if anything happens to the cake from heat or humidity, it can be taken away.
For fondant cakes, many cake decorators apply a layer of buttercream beneath the fondant. This gives the cake the extremely smooth finish, but as fondant is very sweet and chewy, this also allows guests to peel the fondant away and still enjoy the buttercream frosting beneath. Fondant cakes are usually more expensive, as fondant is a pricey ingredient and takes more time and skill to work with. If you’re set on having your wedding cake decorated with fondant, you could opt for a smaller cake and serve your guests sheet cake with buttercream frosting.
Whichever you choose, know that it really just depends on what you’re envisioning, what your cake budget is, and—if you choose fondant—how important your guests opinions are versus creating your dream cake!