Cupcake recipes often focus on the cake part of the recipe and neglect the frosting. Don't resort to prepackaged frosting! Frosting is the most important visual element of the cupcake, and the flavor and texture of homemade icing complements a cupcake in a way that canned buttercream could never match. These recipes cover a range of flavors and skill levels, from a sleek buttercream to 2-minute cream cheese frosting, so your cupcakes will be ready for any occasion.
Always a crowd-pleaser, cream cheese frosting is inexpensive, quick, and simple to whip together. It works especially well with red velvet cupcakes, spice cake cupcakes, and carrot cake cupcakes. Cream cheese frosting is very high in sugar. So avoid pairing it with delicately flavored cupcakes, since the cupcake flavor will be ovepowered by the sweetness of the frosting.
8 oz. package of cream cheese (such as Philadelphia)
8 oz. (2 sticks) unsalted butter
4 cups confectioners’ sugar
1¼ tsp. vanilla extract
Food coloring (optional)
Soften, but do not melt, butter and cream cheese in microwave. Next, cream together butter and cream cheese until smooth, either by hand or in an electric stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Slowly sift in sugar with mixer set to low speed. Add food coloring and vanilla, and then beat until smooth.
You could add 2 tsp. ground cinnamon and red food coloring for a spicy Valentine's Day cupcake. Or, zest a lemon and add it with 1 tbsp. lemon juice for carrot-cake cupcakes. You could also melt ¼ cup white chocolate and stir it into frosting for a creamy sweet frosting.
Ganache looks professional, but only requires two ingredients. While it does take some focus to get the consistency right, ganache (pronounced gah-nash) gives a silky and elegant finish to any cupcake recipe. To glaze a cupcake with ganache, allow the ganache to cool to a syrupy consistency, then dip the top of the cupcake quickly into the mixture. Allow the excess to drip off before turning it upright and letting it harden.
12 oz. quality dark chocolate, chopped finely
10 oz. heavy whipping cream (for firmer ganache, reduce cream to 8 oz.)
Heat cream in a heavy-bottomed saucepan until just boiling. Put chocolate in a medium bowl and pour in hot cream. Stir gently until all lumps are melted and ganache is smooth. If lumps remain, gently heat until they melt.
You can also let ganache sit overnight, then whip with electric stand mixer for a fluffy, spreadable frosting. For a grown-up version, heat 1 tbsp. (or to taste) of any liqueur with the cream. Grand Marnier, orange curaçao, brandy, and cognac all work well! You could also add 1 tbsp. espresso powder or instant coffee to kick up the flavor. Or, you could infuse the cream with 1 tsp. cayenne pepper for Mexican chocolate ganache.
For a super quick topper, whip up some sweetened cream for a delicate and elegant cupcake finish. This is perfect with chocolate cupcake recipes, cupcakes that are already very sweet, or for recipes that use delicate flavors.
1 cup whipping cream
1 tbsp. sugar
¼ tsp. vanilla extract
Stir all ingredients together to combine and chill 20 minutes to one hour. Using an electric mixer, whip the cream to soft peaks.
Another option is to whip the cream with 1 tsp. cinnamon and ¼ tsp. nutmeg for autumn-themed frosting. In order to add fun colors to your cupcake batch, blend two drops of food coloring.
This silky buttercream is nothing like the bland canned frosting in the baking aisle. The flavor is mild and not as tooth-achingly sweet as the prepackaged versions. Often used for wedding cakes, this frosting has a silky texture that is perfect for piping decorations and works well with fondant. Unlike American buttercream, Swiss Meringue buttercream will not form a hard crust. Since Swiss meringue is more labor-intensive than other buttercreams, save this one for a special occasion. Use buttercream as soon as possible. If frosting separates or melts, whip until it comes together again. Do not refrigerate or expose to high heats.
½ cup granulated sugar
2 egg whites
13 tbsp. unsalted butter, room temperature
¼ tsp. vanilla extract
Set a large, clean bowl over a small saucepan of simmering water. Add sugar and egg whites to the bowl and whisk occasionally until sugar dissolves. To test if sugar is dissolved, rub a small amount between your fingertips. If it feels gritty, it needs more time on the stove. Transfer mixture to an electric stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment and whisk on high until smooth, bright white, and very thick. The mixture will double in size. Add butter, one tablespoon at a time, with the mixer on medium-high speed. The frosting may appear to curdle at this point, but keep whipping. Once all butter is added, continue to whisk until frosting comes together, at least five minutes.
Another option is to beat in 2 tbsp. cocoa powder with butter for a chocolate version. Add 2-3 tbsp. fruit pulp, such as strawberry, seedless raspberry, or passionfruit, to jazz up plain yellow-cake cupcakes.