How to get the right frosting consistency

Having the right frosting consistency can be crucial to the success of your cake or cupcakes. Too thin and your cake and frosting won’t hold together well. Too thick and frosting can be tough to work with. There are a few factors to consider and since questions about frosting consistency are something I get somewhat regularly, I figured it was worthy of it’s own post. So let’s talk about it a bit.

How to get the right frosting consistency

First let’s start with my standard vanilla buttercream frosting (an American-style buttercream) that I use some variation of in a fair number of my recipes. You can click through and read that post for additional information, but as far as consistency is concerned, here’s what to keep in mind:

Butter vs Shortening – I mention in the vanilla buttercream post that I use half and half. You can read all about why in that post, but for consistency sake I’ll mention that shortening is more stable. Using half and half gives the benefit of the butter flavor and the stability of shortening. If you choose to use all butter, keep in mind that it will be softer at room temperature or in warmer temperatures.

Powdered sugar – I often get questions about the amount of powdered sugar used in my frostings. There are two reasons for the amounts usually. One is that powdered sugar is what adds volume to the frosting. You could reduce the amount, but you’d end up with less frosting and therefore need to increase everything overall to have the same volume of frosting I had. Now I’m known to be a little heavy on the frosting because of the way I frost my cakes. If you think you’ll use less frosting, that might not be an issue. The other reason for the amount of powdered sugar I use is the consistency. It thickens the frosting. If you add less than called for, your frosting will end up thinner. Again, because of the way I smooth my cakes when frosting them, a thicker consistency is important. I’ll talk more about that soon.

Liquid – Vanilla frostings will most often use milk, cream or even water as the liquid. The consistency of your frosting is a balance between the powdered sugar (thickener) and liquid (thinner). Certainly the butter plays a part too, but once you’ve got your butter in there, the thickness of the frosting depends largely on the balance of powdered sugar and liquid. With ANY frosting, be careful about adding too much liquid. For example, if you use a strawberry frosting like on these neapolitan cupcakes, you’ll need to consider any other adjustments you make before adding the liquid puree. The amount of puree I add is based on how thick the frosting already is (based on the amount of powdered sugar). Because I add the full four cups of powdered sugar, the frosting is thicker and can hold the recommended 5 tablespoons of puree. If you were to reduce the amount of powdered sugar, you’d also need to reduce the amount of puree. Otherwise you’ll likely have a very soft frosting that doesn’t hold it’s shape or it’s place on your cupcake.

So to review —> the amount of powdered sugar + the amount of liquid = the consistency of frosting.

Ok, so now that we’ve talked about how all the parts of the frosting work together to give us a certain consistency, let’s talk about what kind of consistency you want. This will depend on what you’re using the frosting for.

If you are following my tutorial for frosting a smooth cake with buttercream, you will want a thicker frosting. I will maintain that my ratio of butter to powdered sugar to liquid is best, but you can certainly adjust it. The question I get with my tutorial most often is, “Does the paper towel not stick to the frosting?” Because of the consistency of the frosting, the answer is, “No”. However, if the consistency is off and it’s too thin, it will stick.

So how do you know if your frosting is good to go? The best way I’ve found to test this is simply to tap my finger up against the frosting as I’m alternating mixing the powdered sugar and liquid. I just use the pad of my index finger. If I tap it against the frosting and nothing sticks, it’s too thick still. If my finger is coated in frosting and it’s fairly sticky, it’s too thin (at least for frosting a cake based on my tutorial). You want it to be just sticky enough that some of your finger is covered, but not the whole thing. See the photo below.

Correct consistency for frosting a smooth cake
frosting consistency finger test

Frosting is too thick
vanilla frosting consistency

Now if I’m frosting cupcakes, I will usually go for a frosting that is on the slightly thinner side. I don’t need it to stand to stand up to the paper towel, plus I find that frosting has a nicer piped look when it’s a little thinner. Tap your finger against the frosting and it’s correct if the frosting sticks nicely and is fairly sticky. Do not thin it too much though. You don’t want it too thin.

Consistency for cupcakes or a thinner frosting
vanilla buttercream in mixer

The other consistency that’s important to get right is when you are using a dam with a filling in a cake, like with this Pina Colada Layer Cake. The pineapple filling is thinner and would likely squeeze out from between the cake layers once built if you don’t use a dam or the dam frosting isn’t thick enough. You want to be sure it stays in place. For this scenario, I use the same consistency of frosting I use for frosting a smooth cake – when tapping agains the frosting, some should stick to your finger, but not the whole finger. Since you’ll be frosting the cake in the same consistency frosting, that works great.

So that’s how I think about frosting consistency! It’s an important aspect of successfully frosting or decorating a cake or cupcakes. I hope you find this helpful!

As mentioned before, you can find my standard vanilla buttercream recipe here.

What are your tips? Are there questions you have that didn’t get answered? Let me know in the comments!

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    1. Lindsay

      I’m not sure about thicker because I’ve never used it, but you can use it as a replacement for regular shortening.

  1. Elizabeth

    I made the chocolate raspberry cake with ganache. I left the cake out overnight and the icing sweated. What did I do wrong?

    1. Lindsay

      It’s hard to say if you necessarily did anything wrong. Maybe your house runs a bit warmer, and that was some of the moisture from the cake. Maybe it would be best to refrigerate the cake in the future.

  2. Troy

    Hi there! I made this buttercream for a lemon curd/raspberry cake. I made a dam ring on the lemon curd layer with the buttercream, and that worked great! When I tried to put on a crumb coat, the whole cake wasn’t strong enough at the lemon curd layer and it moved too much. It turned into a mess.

    Any tips for making a smooth sided cake with a curd layer?

    1. Lindsay

      You’re going to need a thicker frosting for the dam if you’re having that problem. You’ll either need to add more powdered sugar or reduce other ingredients like the butter or liquid.

  3. Laura Algarra

    Hi Lindsay , Im from Colombia and I never tried before the buttercream, I made it but The texture  sanding.. is this normal or should to be like silk and Smooth. Thank you !!!

  4. melinda harrell

    I am so new at this, here is my question I made the buttercream frosting with milk and vegetable
    shortening. When I use the piping and tip it doesn’t stand up and hold. I have even place the frosting in the fridge to make the frosting a little stiffer. What am I doing wrong, please help.

    1. Lindsay

      It’s hard to say – it could be that you added too much milk or not enough powdered sugar. If it’s too thin though, you could add more powdered sugar to thicken it.

    1. Lindsay

      I really don’t work with fondant a lot, but my understanding is that most people prefer either swiss meringue buttercream or chocolate ganache for something firmer.

    2. Celia

      Anj, good your ever find a good butterball for under fondes fondant?

      Lindsay, I made your Best Moist cake and it was a hit! However, by the end of day, the frosting was sliding off the cake and the piped frosting on cupcakes wasn’t sharp. I plan to make it for my son’s wedding, but covered in fondant and now I’m worried it won’t hold up. Did I do something wrong with the frosting?

      1. Lindsay

        It sounds like the frosting was either a little thin or perhaps got to warm. I don’t do a lot of fondant cakes, but back when I did a few of them I actually preferred to use chocolate ganache under fondant because it stayed in place better.

  5. AK

    This was very helpful. Thank you so much for the visual of how thick your buttercream should be! I’m a visual person and that was better than even photos!

  6. Heather

    Hi. I’m wondering if adding food dye or gel to the frosting would affect the consistency. I need to make a darker blue frosting for a cake so it would require quite a bit of food coloring. Would I need to adjust the amount of sugar to compensate?

    1. Lindsay

      If you’re using a gel icing color, it’ll be fine and you don’t need to make adjustments. With a regular food coloring, you might not get the deep color you want without adding a lot of color, in which case you might end up needing to adjust the other liquid ingredients.

  7. cakaneh

    I searched very much about this topic. Most articles recommend using heavy cream (Or other creams with high fat percentages). But the fat is not good for me and my husband. How much fat percentage is in this buttercream? Is the heavy cream less or more?

About Lindsay

I'm a wife and mom to twin boys, a baby girl and a sweet black lab with a serious sweets addiction! Bring on the sugar!

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“Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” Romans 12:12