I ate 18 cans of frosting to find the best ones

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Canned frosting for taste test
Canned frosting for taste test

Not to toot my own horn, but in my pre-food-writer life, I was a bit of a legend in buttercream circles. (Seriously, I wrote the book on it and everything.) I do not settle for subpar frosting, have ridiculously high standards, and have never even once considered frosting one of my delicious homemade cakes with anything that comes out of a can. Every canned frosting I could remember from elementary school cupcake parties and bake sales was sickly sweet, with textures ranging from “uncomfortably grainy” to “congealed candle wax.”

And yet, canned frostings have persevered through the ages and, I assumed, must have gotten better along the way. I decided to put my childhood prejudices aside, and lo and behold, I found that the canned frosting of modern times is not entirely what I remembered! Sure, some products continue the waxy/grainy/painfully sweet legacy of their 1980s predecessors, but after tasting 18 of the most popular frostings on the market, I can confidently say that if you don’t have the time to make your own, store-bought frosting will definitely do.

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Competing in this taste test are the three biggest players in the game:

  • Betty Crocker

  • Duncan Hines

  • Pillsbury

Yes, there are other brands out there, but for the most part, if you’re heading to a grocery store for frosting, you’ll find these brands waiting for you. I blind tasted the 18 most popular frostings sold at supermarkets with nothing but a spoon, cleansing my palate with ice water, and scrubbing my tongue with a paper towel when necessary. (Seriously, I am not kidding with that candle wax analogy.)

After deep consideration and plenty of soul searching, I can confidently say that I’ve found the four best mass-market frostings on supermarket shelves today. Find those in the following slides, along with serving suggestions for each one.

Best Basic Frosting: Duncan Hines Creamy Buttercream

Photo:  Allison Robicelli
Photo: Allison Robicelli

As far as basic frostings go, Duncan Hines Creamy Buttercream is the best and most versatile of the bunch. On its own, it is smooth and creamy, with a hint of artificial butter flavor. Its plainness makes this frosting an excellent choice for cakes that go big on flavor and don’t need a buttercream to steal their spotlight.

Duncan Hines Creamy Buttercream is also an excellent choice to use as a base for “semi-homemade” frosting you flavor yourself; beat it with an electric mixer with either a bit of instant espresso, a heaping spoonful of citrus zest, a shot of liquor, or whatever else your cake may fancy.

Best Cream Cheese Frosting: Duncan Hines Creamy Cream Cheese Frosting

Photo:  Allison Robicelli
Photo: Allison Robicelli

In my highly professional opinion, cream cheese frosting is the most superior of the “American-style” frostings, which are made by whipping fat—like butter and shortening—with powdered sugar. (European-style frostings are made with fat, sugar, and eggs.) Homemade cream cheese frosting balances out the cloying sweetness of plain ol’ frosting by adding (surprise!) tangy cream cheese, which also makes this frosting softer and more spreadable. And in the supermarket baking aisle, Duncan Hines Creamy Cream Cheese Frosting is the best on the shelf.

It should be noted that, being a shelf-stable frosting, Duncan Hines Creamy Cream Cheese Frosting does not contain any cream cheese; instead, it uses flavorings and additives to (sorta) replicate its flavor. It does succeed in replicating the texture: a spoon easily glides right through it, like softened ice cream. It’s not a perfect replacement for homemade cream cheese frosting, but it’ll certainly do in a pinch.

Best Vanilla Frosting: Duncan Hines Creamy Vanilla Frosting

Photo:  Allison Robicelli
Photo: Allison Robicelli

I am recommending Duncan Hines Creamy Vanilla Frosting not because it’s great, but because it was the best of the vanilla frostings I taste tested. It doesn’t taste much like vanilla, and what it does taste like, I struggle to describe. It is painfully sweet and slightly chemical—not the scary “cleaning fluid” type of chemicals, but the kind in cheap junk food with no counterpart in nature.

If you want true vanilla flavor, I suggest whipping Duncan Hines Classic Buttercream with a small amount of pure vanilla extract, to taste. If you’re dead-set on store-bought vanilla frosting, this is the best you can settle for.

Best Chocolate Frosting: Betty Crocker Rich & Creamy Dark Chocolate Frosting

Photo:  Allison Robicelli
Photo: Allison Robicelli

Chocolate frosting is the most competitive category in the whole frosting market. There are plain chocolate frostings, milk chocolate frostings, dark chocolate frostings, and chocolate fudge frostings, and after trying a whole bunch of them, I can tell you with confidence that there is not much of a difference between them all outside of overall quality.

These I tested in a bracket system with three categories (milk, dark, and “other”), with the winners going head-to-head in a fully blind taste test. The second and third place frostings aren’t even worth mentioning, because Betty Crocker Rich & Creamy Dark Chocolate Frosting blew them so far out of the water I’m not sure where they landed.

Betty Crocker Rich & Creamy Dark Chocolate Frosting is, in my opinion, the only canned chocolate frosting worth considering. It is, true to the label, rich and creamy, smooth like the center of a truffle without a hint of grit. Unlike its many inferior competitors, this frosting mostly tastes of chocolate (not sugar or chemicals), with flavor as intense as homemade chocolate fudge. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the next time I make chocolate cake or sandwich cookies, I might skip making my own frosting and use a can of this instead. It really is that good.