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What is Cream Cheese Frosting?

By Robyn Clark
Updated May 16, 2024
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Cream cheese frosting is a variation on a buttercream frosting recipe. Buttercream frosting is traditionally made with powdered sugar, butter, and vanilla extract or other flavoring. In a cream cheese frosting, the texture of buttercream is lightened with the addition of cream cheese as a main ingredient. Cream cheese frosting recipes became popular in the 1960s, with the increasing availability of packaged cream cheese in supermarkets. The frosting is a traditional frosting choice for red velvet cakes, carrot cakes, and spice cakes, and is also a popular choice for cupcakes.

Classic frosting recipes and many variations can be found in cookbooks and online. The merits of the taste, texture, and versatility of buttercream and cream cheese frostings have been debated in many online cooking and wedding forums. Cream cheese frosting is typically described as being lighter and tangier than buttercream. Individuals who prefer cream cheese frosting over buttercream often find buttercream to be too rich and sugary, and enjoy the tangy nature of the cream cheese as a balancing contrast to the sugar.

Both buttercream and cream cheese frosting are typically flavored with vanilla extract. The traditional basic recipe is extremely versatile, and other flavorings can be added. Popular choices for flavoring cream cheese frostings include maple syrup, orange peel, chocolate, coconut, and ginger. In addition to different flavors, food coloring can be added to the basic mix to create different decorative effects.

Cream cheese frosting can be used to frost the outside of a cake, or as a filling between the layers of a cake. A cream cheese glaze is another use for the basic recipe. To make a glaze, small amounts of milk are added to the frosting mix, which thins the texture. The glaze is then poured over the top of the cake and allowed to drip down the sides.

The dairy content of cream cheese can make this frosting problematic for individuals who are lactose intolerant. Cream cheese frosting is also high in fat. There are recipes available that use cream cheese substitutes or fat-free or reduced-fat cream cheese. These alternative healthy versions are usually described as not having the same flavor as the traditional version.

Cream cheese is perishable, and cream cheese frosting requires refrigeration. This type of frosting is not a good choice for cakes that will dry out if refrigerated. Cream cheese and buttercream frosting tend to melt if applied when the cake hasn’t completely cooled, or if the cake is exposed to the sun.

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Discussion Comments

By anon291695 — On Sep 15, 2012

The other nice thing about cream cheese frosting is that it, like an uncooked buttercream, is nearly goof-proof. In fact, the two frostings are very similar. One uses butter for the fat content, while the other uses cream cheese. Otherwise, they are very much alike.

Cream cheese frosting is another one of those icings that is so adaptable. It works well with nearly any kind of flavoring, as long as it doesn't clash with the tang of the cheese. Peppermint flavoring wouldn't work well, but chocolate, almond, butter, rum, almost anything else, will do well in a cream cheese frosting. Neither a carrot cake nor a red velvet cake would be the same without it, and it's also divine on a devil's food-type cake.

It's one of those frostings that most any beginning baker can handle, and be assured it's going to turn out like it's supposed to.

By tigers88 — On Jan 29, 2012

Around Halloween I love to make pumpkin bars with cream cheese frosting. Sometimes I will decorate them with orange and black sprinkles as well. I have a Halloween part every year and the pumpkin bars always get eaten up.

By nextcorrea — On Jan 28, 2012

My sons' favorite birthday cake is a basic chocolate cake with a chocolate cream cheese frosting that I developed myself. It might sound like overkill but it is really delicious and I think I look forward to his birthday as much as he does.

To make the recipe I just took a basic cream cheese frosting recipe and added a little bit of coco powder and some melted milk chocolate. You don't need a lot. The cream cheese should still be the dominant flavor but the addition of chocolate gives it a little added decadence.

By Ivan83 — On Jan 27, 2012

Carrot cake is probably my favorite dessert and it wouldn't be carrot cake without a big smear of cream cheese frosting.

Not all cram cheese frostings are created equal though. Too often they are overly sweet and they overpower the flavor of the cake below them.

I like to make mine with a really high quality cream cheese and just a moderate amount of sugar. If I think it needs more I will add more but only a little at a time. I also like to add just a little bit of vanilla extract. When done correctly it is divine.

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