Cake Decorating Basics: The Difference in Decorating Mediums

Updated on February 1, 2020
Here is a great example of using several different mediums to achieve my vision. The Paris cowgirl themed cake is covered in different layers of fondant, the bandanna has hand piped royal icing detail on top, the Eiffel Tower and peony were made from
Here is a great example of using several different mediums to achieve my vision. The Paris cowgirl themed cake is covered in different layers of fondant, the bandanna has hand piped royal icing detail on top, the Eiffel Tower and peony were made from

Mediums Can Become Overwhelming

For the novice decorator, having to choose from so many different mediums to create your vision can be a bit overwhelming. If you've never worked with some or any of these materials, then you won't be sure what to choose and which medium does the best job for what you're trying to accomplish. That's where I come in. I want to help you figure out what you need to get the job done! I'm going to explain each medium in detail, do my best to explain how it behaves, and give you a rundown of what it is best used for. You can check back from time to time if you need to in order to see what you should get your hands on to create your masterpiece.

In a later article, I'm going to give you some recipes to create these mediums at home so you won't have to spend so much money on pre-packaged, often foul-tasting products. I personally have a very sensitive palette, so I can taste chemicals in everything that isn't made from scratch. It gives a good perspective on exactly what your clients will be tasting and if they'll be satisfied with what you're presenting to them. As I've said before, I pride myself not only on the appearance of my cakes, but the deliciousness of them as well.


I know you've heard of it, have probably heard it pronounced a couple of different ways, and have seen cakes that are covered in fondant. By the way, it is pronounced "fon-dunt" and not "fon-dahnt". Unless you want to sound obnoxious and get on your baker's nerves.

Fondant is a rolled icing that is super, super sweet. The majority of my clients do not like the taste of fondant but they love the crisp, clean look it gives their cakes. So they simply peel the fondant off and enjoy the buttercream underneath. You're going to run across a lot of people who have never tried it, but they say they don't like it. I get it all the time. Because my favorite finish is a fondant finish, I tend to try and convince my clients that if they want a superb finish and an amazing cake, they can peel it off—there's a fat layer of buttercream underneath.

From my rambling, I'm sure you've figured out that fondant is used to cover cakes for a crisp, clean finish. However, you can use fondant for other things as well. Most brands will dry rather hard, so it can be used to sculpt figures, cover the cake board, and even make some simple flowers. However, if you plan on doing large flowers or large sculpted figures, fondant does tend to stay soft in the center and has the tendency to start drooping and lose its shape when exposed to high humidity or heat.

The texture is an elastic one, it can be rolled out and will retain its shape. It can run from very sticky to almost dry, and you can combat both of these issues with the addition of some shortening. It cuts cleanly as well.

If you're going to use fondant to sculpt figurines or flowers, make sure they are smaller so you won't run the risk of shape loss.

The best thing about using fondant to cover your cakes, in my personal opinion, is that you can customize it in any way you can imagine to end up with the design you want. It can be custom colored to match any theme.

This entire hand-painted gumpaste facade of this cake is made of gumpaste tiles. I needed a medium that would dry rock hard so I could hand paint the comics on it.
This entire hand-painted gumpaste facade of this cake is made of gumpaste tiles. I needed a medium that would dry rock hard so I could hand paint the comics on it.


Gumpaste is similar to fondant in texture, but it dries almost completely hard. It's also a bit more sticky to work with, so you'll want to make sure you have shortening on hand when you're using gumpaste. It tastes of almost pure sugar. Although it is completely edible, gumpaste figures, flowers, accessories, etc. rarely ever get eaten because of the ridiculous saccharine taste and gummy texture. Also, when rolled thin and allowed to dry for sugar flowers, it becomes rock hard. Not entirely appetizing, if you ask me.

This medium is not for complete cake covering. It is sold in smaller quantities because it's mainly used in flower making and figure making. If you want something to dry hard and hold it's shape, even in higher humidity, gumpaste is the medium you're looking for.

Gumpaste is used in sugar flowers most often because it will roll out very thin and stay together, as well as hold any detail you put into it. It can either dry out in 3 to 4 hours or overnight, depending on the climate you're in. Higher humidity climates need an overnight drying time.

As for figurine making, I almost exclusively use a 50/50 mix of fondant and gumpaste. This way I have the time needed to sculpt the figure before it dries out, but it will eventually dry well enough to stay put.

Gumpaste can be colored as well and just as easily as fondant to create your custom theme. In my experience, gumpaste will take colors much easier than fondant, so you end up using less food coloring to achieve a bold color. Keep this in mind if you're going for pastel colors.

Fondant VS Gumpaste

For these pug faces of chocolate, the entire cupcake topper here is modeling chocolate.
For these pug faces of chocolate, the entire cupcake topper here is modeling chocolate.

Modeling Chocolate

Modeling chocolate is one of my favorite mediums to use. However, you can not use modeling chocolate in the summer in the south because it will melt and create a horrendous mess of the sculpture you slaved hours over. Curious George in a hat becomes a melting zombie and terrifies the children at the party. True story.

You can either make your own modeling chocolate, also called candy clay, or you can buy it from hobby stores. Homemade modeling chocolate tastes much better and it is much more inexpensive. It tastes only of chocolate because that's what it is. It's pure chocolate with an additive that allows it to be sculpted. It will dry firm and hold it's shape perfectly - unless it gets hot. If it gets hot even just a little bit then you can forget it.

I swap from gumpaste to modeling chocolate when the temps dip below the 70's because it is easier to work with, it tastes much better, and it is cheaper than gumpaste. It's super easy to make, too. I'll put up an article with my recipe to make it very soon.

I've heard of people covering cakes completely with modeling chocolate rather than fondant, but I haven't tried it yet and I don't think I'm going to. The problem I foresee is although modeling chocolate is very easy to mold and maneuver into position, it doesn't have any elasticity to it, which would make it really hard to smooth onto a cake surface. I'm not saying don't do it, I'm just saying I haven't been brave enough to try it yet.

Modeling chocolate is excellent for figurines, accessories, and even flowers. If you use white chocolate, you can absolutely color it to match your theme. The one and only drawback to using it is minding the temperatures to make sure it doesn't melt down and ruin all your work.

That's royal icing. And I had too much fun making these cookies.
That's royal icing. And I had too much fun making these cookies.

Royal Icing

Royal icing is completely different from buttercream. It is used mostly in the US as a detail frosting and a glue. In some other countries cakes are covered in royal icing, but it isn't common in my neck of the woods at all.

Royal icing has a distinct flavor as it is almost pure sugar with a little flavor added in. It is incredibly delicate and fragile, but works well as a glue to hold pieces on a cake or to hold cake pieces together. If you see a cake that has incredibly delicate stringwork on it, that would be royal icing. Most decorative cookies are topped with royal icing, as well, because it dries solid and can be glossy.

Royal icing is also used to make small sugar flowers and detail work well ahead of time, as it will dry and keep almost indefinitely as long as it is stored in an airtight container. You know those little packs of goodies you buy in the cake decorating aisle at the grocery store? The ones that look like they're made from a million tiny dots? You have to peel them off the backing and sometimes they break before you can get them off? That would be royal icing.

It can be colored any way you want to color it, so long as you use gel or powdered food coloring. Do not use the watery food coloring or you will ruin the consistency completely. Royal icing tends to take colors easily, so you don't need to use too much food coloring to get it the shade you need it.

Pastillage dries rock hard and is used for breathtaking centerpieces or sturdy structures for your cakes.
Pastillage dries rock hard and is used for breathtaking centerpieces or sturdy structures for your cakes. | Source


Pastillage is a medium that's used solely for structure or aesthetics. It is a lot like gumpaste, but it dries harder and much more sturdy than gumpaste ever will. I've seen some pastry chefs use pastillage to create amazing showpieces for competitions and some who've used pastillage as a structure to hold their entire cake in place. The original french recipe for pastillage uses vinegar, so it is technically edible, but odds are you don't want to taste it. However, I've found some newer takes on pastillage recipes that use gelatin rather than vinegar and seem like they wouldn't taste of anything but sugar.

Pastillage is generally left white and not colored. This makes it the perfect medium for creating pure white wedding cake toppers, sugar flowers that you want to paint with luster dust, and solid white structures for your cake.

Personally, I don't use pastillage if I can help it. While it does dry much harder and sturdier than gumpaste, it is also difficult to work with. You have to work really quickly to get the shape you're intending or it will dry too quickly and you're stuck with what you have. I don't know about you, but it takes me a considerable amount of time to perfect my sculptures before I'm satisfied with them.

The "ice" on this Frozen cake is poured sugar.
The "ice" on this Frozen cake is poured sugar.

Poured Sugar or Isomalt

I'm only touching on this one, as most novice chefs won't feel comfortable working with napalm. I'm not trying to exaggerate, either. One drop of either molten sugar or molten isomalt on your skin and you're going to have an immediate second-degree burn. Ask my middle finger. I still bare the scar from making sugar gems and dropping a single tiny puddle onto the middle knuckle. I screamed. I cried. I ran my hand under water for 45 minutes. It didn't matter, the damage was done. The point I'm trying to make is be very, very careful when working with this medium.

In order to get sugar to the point you need it to work it into a shape or to pour it into a mold and have it set clear, you have to boil it to 300 degrees F. It is incredibly dangerous work, and I'm not over exaggerating. I work with poured sugar still, but now I'm much more leery of it than I was before I donned the scars.

As mentioned, you can use poured sugar for any adornment you want to look like glass, edible gems, lollipops for candy cakes, cakes you want to have lakes or bodies of water on, pretty much anything you want to be glossy and transparent.

Isomalt will give you the same results as poured sugar, but I've never used it before. As I understand, it will dry harder than sugar and can also dry clearer without as many air bubbles. Isomalt is also known for upsetting the stomach of those who have sensitive digestive systems. I tend to steer clear of such warnings as that.

You can color the sugar or the isomalt in either the completely melted stage (300 degrees F) or while you're working with it on a mat if you plan to use it to sculpt. If you are planning to do a sugar sculpture, do not touch this stuff until it has firmed up and never, ever touch it without gloves on. Trust me on this. If you have never been trained or have no experience with sugar sculpting, just skip this. You can end up severely burned using this culinary napalm.

The bubbles on both the cupcakes and the cake itself were made from gelatin.
The bubbles on both the cupcakes and the cake itself were made from gelatin.


Gelatin can give you an effect that nothing else does, but I'm going to be perfectly honest here. It stinks. I don't mean that figuratively, either. I mean it literally smells terrible! I imagine it tastes the same as it smells. I've used gelatin on only a select few cakes that I needed the specific look that only gelatin could achieve.

Most folks these days use gelatin to create bubbles for cakes, and it is wonderful for that! But there are other uses for it, too. I've used it for butterfly wings, transparent flowers, plastic looking bows, and stained glass windows. You're really only limited by your imagination. If you want something that looks like plastic, gelatin is what you're looking for.

You can use plain gelatin or flavored, just remember that when you're buying flavored gelatin you're also going to get the color that comes with it. Plain gelatin dries clear and you can customize the color if you like.

Just be clear, it smells and likely tastes terrible.

The Lowdown

Now whatever job you're facing you have a good idea of which decorating medium you want to tackle. The more you work with these, the more you'll get to know which is the best for the job. I tend to forget there are different things I can use for different effects and get stuck in a rut of using the exact same mediums time and time again. Then something will pop in my head and I'll remember there were about five other ways I could have made something, possibly with a better effect than I originally had.

Don't be afraid to experiment and mix mediums! There are many designs I've completed through the years that have used every single one of these on one cake. It's all going to depend on what's in your mind's eye and what effect you need to achieve. Just promise me you'll be careful when working with the sugar, will you? Happy baking and rock on!

What is your favorite decorating medium?

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