The difference between buttercream icing and royal icing is in the ingredients, which produce vastly different results on desserts. So they have different purposes.
Buttercream tastes better and has a superior mouthfeel. Like its name suggests, this kind of frosting usually has butter, milk or cream, powdered sugar, and an extract flavoring, according to Bake Decorate Celebrate. The icing is smooth, creamy, and doesn’t dry out fast. Buttercream is best for frosting cakes, cookies, cupcakes, and other treats. You can adjust the ingredient ratios to get a consistency you like. It’s a forgiving type of icing.
Royal icing is less about the taste and texture. Super-sweet and hardening quickly, royal icing is into making a pretty appearance and having a function: a glue to hold decorations together. It’s what you use on gingerbread houses to make the candy stick and for your designs on sugar cookies. The ingredients in royal icing are usually powdered sugar, water, and meringue powder. People use royal icing to pipe intricate designs, make flowers, and adhere fondant to cakes.
So in the battle of royal icing vs buttercream for cookies, the winner isn’t clear. If you want a neat and clean, beautiful/cute design on your cookies, go with royal icing. Most people who are decorating cookies in the first place are going for the eye appeal, so it’s a popular choice. But if you value taste over looks, go with messy, delicious buttercream frosting.
Check out our buttercream recipes and royal icing recipes.
1. Milk Chocolate Buttercream Icing
Get some creamy, chocolate-y goodness with this recipe that makes enough frosting for 24 cupcakes or an 8-inch layer cake. To combat the sweetness already in milk chocolate, this recipe includes some bittersweet chocolate. Balance, people. Get our Milk Chocolate Buttercream Icing recipe.
2. Royal Icing
To make it taste better, this recipe calls for lemon juice instead of water. It makes meringue from egg whites instead of using powder. You can add food coloring too if you want a specific color besides a matte white. You’ll get 1 3/4 cups of the stuff, a lot to work with. Get our Royal Icing recipe.
3. Maple Buttercream
Ideal for fall and winter recipes, consider going Vermont-style for your frosting. This intensely flavored maple-syrup frosting is a natural pairing with our Spiced Apple Cupcakes recipe. It should take not much longer than 5 minutes to whip up. Get our Maple Buttercream recipe.
4. Dorie Greenspan’s Sablés (Basic Sugar Cookies)
You only need basic ingredients to make these cookies with royal icing, which you can decorate to match any occasion, from Joe’s birthday or Sarah’s promotion to Valentine’s Day or St. Patrick’s Day. Get Dorie Greenspan’s Sablés recipe.
5. Salted Caramel Frosting
This frosting takes longer to make than the others, but it’s a buttercream that surprises you with its complex flavor on first bite. You could spread it on a simple vanilla or chocolate cake, or — ooh! — a banana cake. Or make banana bread and frost it with this. Get our Salted Caramel Frosting recipe.
6. Vegan Fluffy Buttercream Frosting
Wait, what? Yes, you can make buttercream — which has butter and cream, both not vegan — into a vegan friendly frosting. You’ll need non-hydrogenated shortening, margarine, and soy milk or cream. Get our Vegan Fluffy Buttercream Frosting recipe.
Amy Sowder is the assistant editor at Chowhound in New York City. She loves cheesy things, especially toasties and puns. She’s trying to like mushrooms. Her running habit is the excuse for her gelato passion. Or is it the other way around? Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and her blog, What Do I Eat Now. Learn more at AmySowder.com.