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Too thick, and it won’t pipe easily; too thin, and it loses its shape ‒ these are the challenges when making frosting stiff and ensuring you have just the right consistency when it comes out of the piping bag. The television bakers seem to easily create miles-high swirls and swishes on their cupcakes and thread-thin lines to trim their cookies. Creating the right formula for your icing takes a few tries because climate, kitchen conditions and cooking techniques differ, but once you’ve got it, you’ve got it!

Laying Out Your Icing Ingredients

Butter, confectioners’ sugar, heavy whipping cream, flavoring extracts and shortening form the basis of your frosting. Now, don’t cringe at the mention of shortening because it’s necessary to stabilize your frosting. You can substitute for it, but nothing provides the same balance as shortening.

Choose from a multitude of flavors for your extract, including vanilla, almond, lemon and even rose. Just use it in minimal quantities. Food coloring is another addition, but be sure to use the gel, not the liquid; the liquid makes the frosting runny. Don’t upset the balance.

Since confectioners’ sugar is used in a large quantity, experts suggest that you measure it out in two different measuring cups or bowls. The larger quantity is used immediately, but when your frosting needs thickening, you’ll find it easier to add that last little bit if it’s sitting next to your mixing bowl and ready to use.

Be sure the butter and whipping cream are at room temperature, and measure everything ahead of time. Use a stand mixer because you’ll need to mix and pour at the same time.

Tip

Try to find butter-flavored shortening ‒ it adds to the great taste of your buttercream frosting.

Icing That Pipes

The trick to icing that comes out of the piping bag and onto your cakes or cookies is getting the right consistency. Buttercream icing has flavor and yields to manipulation, both when you create the icing and add it to your baking creations. It’s light, airy, inviting and easy to make. The basic buttercream icing recipe is open to many variations, depending on your taste and intent, with the addition of flavorings and color.

Buttercream Icing Recipe:

  1. 2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
  2. 1 cup of butter-flavored shortening
  3. 7 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
  4. 1/3 cup heavy whipping cream, at room temperature
  5. 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract. Don’t use vanilla paste in this recipe.
  6. 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  7. Gel or paste food coloring

Directions:

  1. Measure all the ingredients.
  2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, blend the shortening and butter until smooth. Add the flavorings and mix again. Add the cream, and mix until it’s fluffy.
  3. Turn off the mixer and add the powdered sugar, a cup at a time. Mix on low between each addition. When all the sugar is in, turn the mixer on high and mix for 5‒6 minutes, or until the icing is smooth, fluffy and well blended.
  4. If the icing is dry, add a touch of cream. If it’s runny, add a little powdered sugar. Once you have the right consistency, add a tiny bit of food coloring ‒ a very tiny bit because the coloring is intense and just a drop can turn your frosting into a bright neon sign.

The Joy of Piping

Piping takes a steady hand and patience. One of the most difficult parts of the process is transferring your icing from the mixing bowl to the piping bag.

Tip

Use this chef’s trick to make transferring the icing to the bag easier:

  1. Insert the piping tip into the bag and push it as far down as it’ll go without cutting the bag at the bottom. You’ll cut it just before the bag meets the cookie or cupcake.
  2. Put your piping bag into a jug, a tall glass or a short vase. This stabilizes the bag.
  3. Turn down the top of the bag to form a cuff.
  4. Using a spatula, transfer the icing slowly from the bowl into the bag. Push it down as far as it’ll go, but don’t worry if it doesn’t reach the tip at this point.
  5. Once enough icing is in the bag, unroll the cuff and twist the top closed.
  6. Remove it from the vessel.
  7. Squeeze the icing down to the tip.
  8. Hold the bag in an upward position.
  9. Cut a hole in the bottom, and pull the tip out if necessary.
  10. Hold the bag up until it’s ready to meet its target. Get ready to create art.

With one hand pushing the icing through and the other guiding the tip, slowly begin to decorate.

Using Different Icing Consistencies

Not all icing decorations use the same consistency.

  • Fluffy cakes and cupcakes use a medium formula that you’ll use to build height through layering.
  • If you’re more advanced in your piping techniques and want to create impressive flowers, a thicker icing works best. Hold back on the last bit of powdered sugar when mixing.
  • Thin lines, edging and writing need a thin consistency of icing that contains corn syrup instead of cream to make it thinner. Just a dash of the syrup makes the icing flow easily and gives it a sheen.

When to Use Royal Icing

The hard, stiff icing that some cooks use on sugar cookies and as a topping for fruitcakes, doughnuts and candy is called royal icing. The addition of whipped egg whites is what makes it dense and creates the stiffness. When piping royal icing, be sure all the icing is in the bag because if any is left in the bowl, it’ll become hard and useless.

Royal Icing Recipe:

  • 3 egg whites, room temperature
  • 4 cups confectioners’ sugar
  • Flavoring extracts
  • Food coloring gel

Directions:

  1. Whip the egg whites and flavoring until the mixture froths.
  2. Keeping the mixing speed on low, slowly add the confectioners’ sugar until all of it is blended in.
  3. Turn up the mixing speed and let it whip for about 5 minutes. When you lift the beater out of the mixer, the icing should form a peak at the tip of the beater. This indicates the whites are fully whipped.
  4. Add any food coloring gel, a tiny bit at a time, until the color is fully blended.
  5. Transfer icing to the piping bag. It’ll keep in the refrigerator for up to three days.

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About the Author

Jann Seal

My seventh grade English teacher didn't realize what she was unleashing when she called me her "writer," but the word crept into my brain. I DID become a writer. Of advertising copy, dialogue and long-term story for several network soap operas, magazine articles and high-calorie contents for the cookbook: Cooking: It AIn't Rocket Science, a bestseller on Amazon! When I'm not writing, I'm cooking!