How to Make Better Powdered Sugar Icing & Frosting

August 13, 2019
Photo by Mark Weinberg

Baking expert Alice Medrich is the person to ask about everything from skipping sugar in lemon curd to saving over-whipped cream. This time, she's sharing her best tips on powdered sugar frosting and icing, so your cakes and cookies can look and feel their very best.  

If you're going to decorate a cake or cookie, odds are: Powdered sugar will come in handy. This ingredient can be the start of a thick, fluffy frosting to build layer cakes, or a thin, pourable icing to drizzle over Bundts or decorate holiday cookies. Today, we're going to cover both. But first things first: 

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Which type of powdered sugar to use: 
Also called confectioners' sugar, powdered sugar is granulated sugar that's been processed into a superfine powder, with some starch added to prevent caking. In standard powdered sugar, this means an ultra-white color, neutral-sweet flavor, and cornstarch as the anti-caking agent. In organic powdered sugar, on the other hand, you get a warmer color, more caramel flavor, and tapicoa is the go-to starch (just a few reasons why Serious Eats' Stella Parks appreciates this ingredient). The two yield noticeably different frostings—so you'll just have to try both to see which you like best.

What is powdered sugar frosting?
Powdered sugar frosting—also called quick frosting, American buttercream, or even just buttercream (let’s please not tell the French)—is the frosting most Americans grew up with. It’s easy, super sweet, and does the job in a hurry.

Basic powdered sugar frosting ratio: 
1 stick (4 ounces/113 grams) of softened butter, into which you beat 4 cups (a one-pound box) of powdered sugar, 1/4 teaspoon of salt, 4 to 6 tablespoons of milk (or other liquid, like cream), and 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract until fluffy. 

How to fix frosting that is too stiff: 
Resist the urge to add more liquid. Instead, warm the mixture ever-so-slightly by setting the bowl in a wide bowl or pan of hot tap water for a few seconds at a time, beating after each, until you have the desired consistency. Hint: A stainless steel bowl works best because glass heats up very slowly and then holds the heat for a long time after you remove the bowl from the water, so your frosting may continue to soften even when you don’t want it to.

How to fix frosting that is too soft or even soupy:
Resist the urge to add more powdered sugar and thus even more sweetness (at least until after you try this): Put the bowl in an ice bath—this will firm up the butter—and beat to the desired consistency. You can also stick the bowl in the fridge to chill out for a bit, and then continue beating. 

How to improve the flavor of powdered sugar frosting:
The starch added to most powdered sugar can make frosting taste slightly metallic. Here’s how to fix that: Melt the butter and mix it with the powdered sugar, salt, and milk in a stainless steel bowl. Set the bowl in a wide skillet of barely simmering water for 5 minutes, stirring from time to time. Remove the bowl from the water, add the vanilla, and beat until cool and fluffy; set the bowl in an ice bath to cool and thicken the frosting faster.

What is powdered sugar icing?
If you've ever eaten a festively decorated cookie or three, you've crossed paths with powdered sugar icing, which also goes by powdered sugar glaze. It comes in a couple different forms: liquid-based and egg white–based (known as royal icing). More on both of these below.  

Basic liquid-based powdered sugar icing ratio:
2 cups powdered sugar mixed with 2 to 3 tablespoons liquid until smooth, plus salt to taste. You can use a spoon or fork to mix. The liquid can be water, milk, cream, coffee, espresso, or juice (high-pigment ones like pomegranate or beet add color as well as flavor). You can also add extracts, like vanilla or almond, for flavor—just keep in mind these will make the icing even thinner. 

Basic royal icing ratio:
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar mixed with 1 egg white (about 1 1/4 ounces) until smooth, plus salt to taste. You can use a fork or whisk to mix. Like the liquid-based variety, you can flavor royal icing with any extract. You can also dye the icing with natural food colorings, from red and orange to green and blue; more on those variations here

Now get baking! Here are five of our favorite cake and cookie recipes to treat with your newfound knowledge:

1. Louisa's Cake
2. Gingeriest Gingerbread
3. Figgy Pudding Butter Cookies
4. World Peace Cookies
5. Roll-Out Sugar Cookies

Want more Alice? Of course you do. Check out her book Flavor Flours: nearly 125 recipes—from Double Oatmeal Cookies to Buckwheat Gingerbread—made with wheat flour alternatives like rice flour, oat flour, corn flour, sorghum flour, and teff (not only because they're gluten-free, but for an extra dimension of flavor, too). 

Photos by James Ransom

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  • karen
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  • Laura415
My career was sparked by a single bite of a chocolate truffle, made by my Paris landlady in 1972. I returned home to open this country’s first chocolate bakery and dessert shop, Cocolat, and I am often “blamed” for introducing chocolate truffles to America. Today I am the James Beard Foundation and IACP award-winning author of ten cookbooks, teach a chocolate dessert class on, and work with some of the world’s best chocolate companies. In 2018, I won the IACP Award for Best Food-Focused Column (this one!).


karen March 11, 2019
I'm so happy to know this trick I hate to taste frosting and can seem to only taste powdered sugar can't wait to use this tip for sure thanks for sharing.
Sandy L. December 18, 2014
what about freezing powder sugar frosting? My dye came out and the frosting had big white bumps!
Dru F. October 20, 2014
My secret that I add to frosting is few Table spoons of Karo syrup this keeps it creamy and avoids a crusty texture on top.

John F. October 15, 2014
why make a simple joy so much more complicated?
Laura415 October 15, 2014
If you have a food processor you can easily make your own powdered sugar by blitzing regular or superfine granulated sugar. I even made it the other day from organic sugar. Came out soft powdery and creamy white. No starch or fillers in that.
ChefJune October 13, 2014
Love this recipe! Grew up on it. We used to make it chocolate by subbing out a few tablespoons of the powdered sugar for the equal amount of cocoa.
AntoniaJames October 13, 2014
So many great ideas here (as usual). I haven't made this kind of frosting in years, but appreciate the tips for the next time I do! Thank you. ;o)
Alanna K. October 13, 2014
Ahh, interesting because I’ve yielded to both temptations. But isn’t warming/cooling the icing just a temporary adjustment, making it easier to frost the cake, say, but still leaving it too thick/too thin on the cake?
Jade October 15, 2014
I was wondering the exact same thing! :) hopefully someone will help :)
Leah March 25, 2017
I know this is way late but I want to add my two cents for future viewers. These are your first go to fixes. Sometimes icing will thin out when it's overworked. The friction from constant beating can warm the butter affecting the consistency. On the other hand if the frosting is too thick it could be that your butter was too cold to begin with. Warming it up a bit will help bring the butter up to the proper temperature which can help thin it out. If these don't work then you can move on the next step where you can alter the ratios of liquid to sugar.