Not all icings are born equal! Buttercream and fondant (also called rolled icing) are the most common options to decorate cakes and cupcakes. They have a different composition, taste and use. For this article I will give my explanations based on American Buttercream but there are other kinds of buttercream like Swiss Meringue, Italian or French Buttercream.
Let starts with the difference in the ingredients.
Buttercream : icing sugar, butter, shortening in some cases, flavouring (vanilla or other extract)
Fondant : sugar, water, vegetable oil, glucose, gelatine, flavouring
Both icings can be bought ready to use or home made. I like the recipes from the Wilton website for the buttercream or fondant. It’s also possible to make fondant from marshmallow which is quite yummy!
Now… how could I explain the difference in taste between buttercream and fondant? I would say that buttercream melts in the mouth while fondant requires a little bit of chewing. As for the taste, I really prefer buttercream but “Taste is in the taste buds of the beholder” (I’ve just made up that quote, unless someone else did before me!).
Buttercream and fondant covered cakes have a very different look usually. The fondant cake is usually smoother than the buttercream one. Fondant need to be rolled out in a sheet and then applied to the cake. The buttercream can be spread on the cake.
I often receive photos of fondant cakes and as I don’t cover my cakes in fondant, I make a buttercream version, with only accents of fondant.
With the buttercream you can achieve the naked and semi-naked, rustic, textured looks that cannot be achieved in fondant. You can also pipe a lot of nice things like the grass in the cake above or roses and swirls.
What I like is to use buttercream and fondant together to create different part of the cake! For example, this snow owl cake. I’ve covered the cake in buttercream while giving it a snow texture and I’ve made the bird, tree and snow flakes in fondant. Best of both world!
A quick word about Gum Paste.
The texture of gum paste (also called sugar paste) is similar to fondant but dries really hard. It is use to make figurine, flowers and other decorations.