Learn how to make cream cheese frosting from scratch with just a handful of simple ingredients. Use it as the finishing touch to pipe on your favorite cake or cupcake, or even spread onto cookies.
Table of Contents
This cream cheese frosting is a versatile topping for any baked good. The creamy and tangy dairy base provides a nice balance to the sweet frosting. The recipe consists of only four everyday kitchen staples, but their temperature is key to a smooth texture.
Cream cheese and butter are dense ingredients. Softening them at room temperature makes it much easier to aerate and use for decorating. Once they reach that point, it only takes a few minutes to whip together. Spread it on layer cakes, individual cupcakes, or for frosting cookies.
Cream cheese selection
Use bricks rather than the spreadable varieties sold in plastic containers. The latter already have air whipped into the product, making it light and airy and easy to spread on toast and bagels. But the bricks are denser, which allows more control of the air whipped into it.
Use full-fat cream cheese to hold the air pockets and keep its structure when used for decorating. Reduced-fat products contain extra gums like xanthan and guar to help create a similar mouthfeel, but the flavor is slightly different.
I prefer using a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, but you can use a hand mixer as well. The paddle incorporates just enough air to make a light and fluffy frosting. The curved shape works better to smooth out the butter and cheese pieces.
The importance of temperature
Before mixing the butter and cream cheese, take them out of the refrigerator and let them sit on the counter. It’s vital to soften them to just below room temperature, about 65ºF (18ºC). For the butter, this ensures that the needle-like beta prime fat crystals hold their shape. For the cream cheese, it makes it easier to incorporate and prevents a lumpy frosting.
Mix the butter and powdered sugar
Mix the softened butter and powdered sugar first to create air pockets in the butter and trap them inside to aerate the mixture. The sugar acts as little whisks, creating more air spaces along with the whipping in the mixer. It should look fluffy after mixing.
You may notice that some cornstarch is used in powdered sugar. The ground sugar has a high surface area that likes to pick up moisture. It needs some starch to prevent clumping and caking during storage. The starch also helps the frosting hold its shape.
Gradually add the cream cheese
Add the cheese in two additions ensures that it gets fully incorporated into the frosting without large lumps. It also prevents the dense ingredients from deflating too much air from the creamed butter mixture. Gradually incorporating keeps the mixture smooth, light, and pipeable/spreadable.
If you mix the sugar, butter, and cheese all together at the same time, it will be a denser frosting, which is ideal for a pumpkin sheet cake, but not for cupcakes or cookies. Add the vanilla extract at the very end so that the small amount of moisture doesn’t prevent the frosting from becoming aerated.
Refrigerate the frosting
Right after whipping, I like to chill the frosting briefly. Heat is generated during the mixing process, causing it to rise a few degrees in temperature. Refrigerating until it reaches between 60 to 65ºF (15 to 18ºC) helps it stiffen up slightly and hold its shape better for decorating.
If you are not using the frosting right away, cover, chill, then let it come back to this temperature range. The recipe contains dairy, so it must be refrigerated within 2 hours of being at room temperature. Keep this in mind after assembling your desserts.
Ways to use it
Use powdered sugar instead of granulated
Powdered sugar has finely ground granules that give a smooth texture in frostings and glazes. It incorporates instantly with the frosting ingredients and doesn’t leave a gritty texture. Granulated sugar has small, round crystals, which require heat and/or moisture to dissolve.
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Cream Cheese Frosting
- ½ cup unsalted butter, softened to 65ºF (19ºC)
- 2 cups powdered sugar
- 8 ounces cream cheese, softened to 65ºF (18ºC)
- ½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment or hand mixer, beat softened butter and powdered sugar on low speed until just incorporated, about 30 seconds. Gradually increase the speed to medium, beating the mixture until light and fluffy, about 1minute.
- Add half of the softened cream cheese and beat on medium speed until incorporated, about 15 seconds. Add the remainder of the cream cheese and beat until smooth and fluffy, about 15 seconds.
- Add the vanilla extract, beat until combined, about 10 to 15 seconds.
- If needed, chill the frosting until it slightly stiffens up and feels cool before using for decorating, around 60 to 65ºF (15 to 18ºC).
- If not using the frosting right away, store in an airtight container covering exposed areas with plastic wrap. Before using, place on the counter until it reaches 60 to 65ºF (15 to 18ºC). Spread or pipe onto baked goods as desired.
- Recipe Yield: 1 ¾ cup
- Serving Size: 2 tablespoons
- Storing: Store in an airtight container for up to 5 days. Cover the exposed areas with plastic wrap.
- Freezing: Freeze in a resealable plastic bag for up to 1 month. Defrost to 60 to 65ºF (15 to 18ºC). If needed, whisk for a few seconds in a stand mixer to make light and airy.
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Tag @jessica_gavin on Instagram. I'd love to see how it turns out!