Everyone needs a perfect recipe for Cream Cheese Frosting! This classic recipe is essential for so many different kinds of cupcakes, cakes, and cookies. It is sweet and tangy, light and fluffy. I will show you just how to make it so that you get the perfect texture every time. A touch of lemon and vanilla in the frosting really brings out the flavor!
The other day my baby Edison was doing this fake-crying thing. (It’s kind of shocking how young babies are when they start doing this! He’s not even a year old.) I said, “Oh man, he sounds pathetic!” Charlotte asked what pathetic means.
I had to look it up on my phone. Because while I know what pathetic means, explaining it to a 9-year-old is a whole different story. Right? Why is it so hard to define words? I always start a description only to trail off into a confused silence. “Pathetic is like…and then…you know?” Major props to dictionary writers, whoever you are.
Anyway, pathetic is apparently defined as “arousing pity, especially through vulnerability or sadness.” I read it out loud to Charlotte, while Edison was still fake-crying in the background, and she said, “Well, Edison has been very successful in his life so far.” Touché! Baby’s life mission: accomplished.
Easy Cream Cheese Frosting
Who’s ready to make cream cheese frosting?? Do you have a favorite recipe? This is my go-to recipe and I figured it was high time I shared it with you!
This recipe is everything you want in a cream cheese frosting: it’s irresistibly creamy and smooth, has that perfect tang that you are looking for, and is NOT overly sweet. Some recipes you can barely taste the cream cheese, amiright? I want to feel that cream cheesiness in my BONESSS.
The full recipe is below, but here’s what we’re looking at:
- Cream cheese. Make sure you buy Philadelphia, they paid me to tell you that. Oh my gosh, I’M JOKING okay. Philly cream cheese just really is the best brand on the market. For real, go buy Philly and any generic brand and open up the packages and taste them. You will be able to tell immediately.
- Butter. I always use salted butter but unsalted is fine too.
- Powdered sugar. Make sure you sift it if it’s clumpy! You don’t want any lumps in your frosting.
- Vanilla. Use a good quality!
- Fresh lemon juice. Adds the perfect bite of tart. Technically optional, but I really love the pop it adds.
- Kosher salt. Don’t skip it! Salt is a flavor amplifier and cuts the sweetness perfectly. Go easy if you’re using salted butter.
Can I use low fat, spreadable, or whipped cream cheese?
Noooo, don’t do it!
Here’s the thing. The fat is what makes the frosting, well, frosting. Without fat, the frosting will be runny. I’ve heard of some recipes that use basically a tiny bit of low fat, spreadable, or whipped cream to suggest flavor, but really you’re making buttercream frosting by the time you add enough butter to get the right consistency. Just stick with a package of real cream cheese. And eat a carrot or something.
How to Make Cream Cheese Frosting
This recipe is so easy! It only has 3 ingredients that are absolutely essential: cream cheese, butter, and powdered sugar.
The 3 other ingredients are to add and enhance flavor: vanilla, lemon juice, and salt.
The vanilla is important for adding aroma and depth to your frosting. Many people would include this in the essential list above!
Kosher salt enhances the flavor of the cream cheese, and balances out all the sweetness from the powdered sugar.
I love adding lemon to my cream cheese frosting. It brings out the tang of the cream cheese perfectly. It does NOT make your frosting taste like lemon. It just adds brightness. You can skip it if you don’t have a fresh lemon, but I really do think it makes a difference.
Make sure you add one cup of powdered sugar at a time, beating between each addition. Use the whisk attachment if you have one! It makes your frosting fluffier.
Another way to make the texture of your cream cheese frosting ULTRA light and fluffy is to change the order of ingredients. Beat the softened butter with 1-2 cups of powdered sugar BEFORE adding in the cream cheese.
This method ensures that the fat from the butter bonds with the powdered sugar first, making your frosting super light and airy. The flavor is the same, and in my opinion it pipes and spreads the same, but the texture is lighter and fluffier, and the appearance is a brighter white than the traditional method. See recipe notes for full details!
Best Cream Cheese Frosting for Cake
When making a layer cake, you need a cream cheese frosting that is sturdy enough to stand up to all those layers. This recipe is perfect for layer cakes, like this Homemade Spice Cake. (Spice and cream cheese, best combo ever, right?)
How do you make cream cheese frosting smooth on a cake?
- Do a crumb coat. A crumb coat is when you frost the entire cake with a very thin layer of frosting and then chill the whole cake. This will cover up the crumbs from the cake. Once chilled, you can easily spread on the final coat of frosting.
- Freeze your cake layers. This is my favorite method (because rarely do I have room in my fridge for an entire frosted cake). Freeze each cake layer in plastic wrap for 2-4 hours (or overnight). Then decorate as usual, completely frozen. It’s SO much easier to work with, and you don’t risk getting crumbs in your frosting. You just have to wait an hour or two for it to thaw once it’s frosted. This method is especially nice for cream cheese frosting, because then the frosting is slightly chilled when you serve it, which is so tasty.
- If you’re making a full layer cake, be sure to make enough frosting. One batch of today’s recipe will give you enough to frost about 18 cupcakes or frost the top of a sheet cake. For a layer cake, you will need to double today’s recipe. You need at least 6 cups of frosting (a single batch of today’s recipe makes about 3 cups). You might even want to triple if you plan to do a crumb coat and/or fancy piping.
- For more details on how to frost a cake (plus photos) see my Homemade White Cake recipe (which would be excellent frosted with Cream Cheese Frosting!)
Piping and Setting Homemade Cream Cheese Frosting
If you are planning to pipe this frosting onto your cake or cupcakes, this is the recipe you need. The amount of powdered sugar is adjustable in this recipe.
Adjusting the powdered sugar
If you find that your frosting is starting to get runny as you are piping, it’s probably because the heat from your hand is warming it up. Put the frosting back in the fridge or freezer for a few minutes to chill before continuing.
If you are frosting a layer cake, you might want to use more powdered sugar. The recipe below calls for 2 and 1/2 cups, but if you need a sturdier frosting for lots of layers, you can increase the powdered sugar up to 4 cups. The Spice Cake (pictured above) that I made actually only had a ratio of 2 and 1/2 cups powdered sugar in the frosting, because it’s more important to me to have the tang from the cream cheese than to have a perfectly frosted cake. A cake decorator I am NOT!
If you are frosting a layer cake, you might want to try the method of beating the butter and powdered sugar first, before adding cream cheese, as described above and in the notes. Having a fluffier frosting is going to make it sturdier for holding up a layer cake. Not as sturdy as a classic buttercream, but it definitely works, especially if you keep the cake cool.
How do you get cream cheese frosting to set?
CHILL. If you want cream cheese frosting to set up more, you are going to have to refrigerate it for a while, and even then it will still have a soft consistency (unlike fondant or royal icing, for example.)
Does cream cheese frosting dry?
Cream cheese frosting doesn’t dry out like royal frosting does, or like fondant. It stays soft and creamy. Refrigeration will help the frosting set on the edges, but it will not dry out.
Does it need to be refrigerated?
Yes and no :)
This one is actually kind of up to you! I do not refrigerate this frosting when it is on a cake…at first. I let it sit at room temperature on the counter for up to 2 days. After 2 days, I put it in the fridge. The rest of the internet will tell you the limit for sitting on the counter is one day. I like to live on the edge, what can I say.
That said, some people really prefer the texture and flavor of this frosting when it is chilled. Chilled frosting is going to have a sturdier texture than at room temperature. I love it either way!
If you chill your frosting, take it out of the fridge about 20-30 minutes before serving, for the best texture and to bring out the flavor.
Can I freeze it?
Yes, for up to three month! I like to store it in labeled ziplock bags. Let it thaw for a day in the fridge and you’re good to go.
What is the difference between cream cheese frosting and cream cheese icing?
Cream cheese frosting is thick and spreadable. Cream cheese icing is thinner, and can be drizzled instead of spread. This recipe makes a thick, creamy spread that earns the title frosting!
What if I don’t have cream cheese for frosting?
Buttercream frosting is very similar and is a great substitute! And it’s delicious. Try out this Buttercream Frosting recipe, it’s perfect for cakes and sugar cookies.
Is cream cheese frosting better than buttercream?
It depends on what you need it for! I love the flavor of cream cheese frosting, but it’s a little more difficult to do fancy piping and decoration with. Buttercream is more sturdy.
Homemade Cream Cheese Frosting FAQs
How do you thicken cream cheese frosting?
Add more powdered sugar! This recipe calls for 2 and 1/2 cups, but if you need a sturdier frosting for lots of layers, you can increase the powdered sugar up to 4 cups. You sacrifice some of the beautiful tanginess of the cream cheese if you add too much sugar, though.
If your frosting has plently of sugar and is still runny, chill it in the fridge for a while, especially if you are piping.
How to thin cream cheese frosting
Blend one tablespoon of milk at a time into your frosting. Be aware this will mute the tanginess of the frosting a bit. Is that really what you want? Be careful and just add less powdered sugar to begin with, if you want a thinner frosting.
How to adjust this recipe for different flavors
So many options! You’re going to want to make this recipe over and over!
- Maple Pecan. Basically, you replace the lemon juice in today’s recipe with maple extract and add finely chopped, toasted pecans. Get all the instructions from this delicious Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Maple Pecan Frosting.
- Coconut. Just add ¼ teaspoon coconut extract in place of the lemon juice. Try it with this Blackberry Cake. It’s the best combo!
- Chocolate. Ditch the lemon in today’s recipe and add ½ cup cocoa powder in with your powdered sugar. Add more powdered sugar to taste.
Cakes that taste great with cream cheese frosting!
- Easy Banana Cake << I love this easy sheet cake! Perfect for when you have ripe bananas!
- Blackberry Cake << this is a family favorite. I add a little coconut to the frosting, it’s so good!
- Paul’s Pumpkin Bars << this is more cake than bar, but that’s what Paul called them! So good.
- The Best Carrot Cake << I love this recipe! It’s so good with today’s frosting!
- Pumpkin Roll Recipe << this rolled up cake is a classic for fall!
- Coconut Layer Cake << add some coconut extract to your frosting. It’s my favorite.
- Cinnamon Cardamom Cake << this is a doctored cake mix! love it.
- Cream Cheese Chocolate Cupcakes << I love these black bottom cupcakes!!
- The Best Chocolate Cake I’ve Ever Had << still true to this day. Try it with cream cheese frosting!
- Red Velvet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting << Sugar Geek Show
- Hummingbird Cake from Brown Eyed Baker
- Peanut Butter Cake from Southern Plate
- The BEST Buttercream Frosting for Sugar Cookies << if you are looking for a buttercream frosting, this is the best one!
Cream Cheese Frosting
- 8 ounce package full fat cream cheese, softened
- 1/2 cup butter, softened (1 stick)
- 2 & 1/2 cups powdered sugar, or up to 4 cups
- 1 teaspoon good quality vanilla
- 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice, optional
- 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- Soften your cream cheese and butter. You can either do this by leaving it out on the counter for an hour or two, or you can speed up the process by putting it in the microwave at a low power level. I like to put the butter and cream cheese I need on a plate or in a bowl, and then microwave on power level 2 in 30-second increments. Keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn't start to melt. When you can easily push your finger into it, it is soft enough.
- Add the cream cheese and butter to a large bowl or stand mixer.*Beat for about 1-2 minutes, taking the time to scrape the bottom and edges of the bowl, to make sure it is all getting smooth. If you have any lumps in your mixture right now, there will be lumps in your frosting. Make sure you beat until the entire mixture is smooth and creamy.
- Add 1 cup powdered sugar and beat together. If it is very clumpy, I recommend sifting it to make sure that you don’t end up with powdered sugar lumps in your frosting. Make sure you scrape the bottom and edges.
- Add another cup of powdered sugar and beat well.
- Add 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice, and 1/4 or 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt. You don’t have to use the lemon juice, but I love how it really brings out the tang in the cream cheese. It doesn’t make the frosting taste like lemon.
- Add another 1/2 cup powdered sugar and beat well.
- Taste your frosting and see what you think. If you are frosting a sheet cake and like the flavor and texture where it’s at, leave it as is. If you are piping the frosting onto cupcakes, or using the frosting in a layer cake, you might consider adding more powdered sugar (up to 4 cups total) so that the frosting is more sturdy and will hold up. Remember that the more powdered sugar you add, the less tangy and cream-cheesy your frosting will taste.
- Adjust salt, lemon juice, and vanilla to taste as desired.
Originally posted October 11, 2020.