14 Ways To Upgrade Your Cream Cheese Frosting

Delectably creamy and with a tanginess that can both offset and emphasize sweeter flavors, cream cheese frosting offers an extra dimension to a wide range of baked goods and desserts that sometimes buttercream just can't quite achieve. From its luxuriously smooth texture that makes it a dream for spreading and piping, to its fresh and satisfying flavor profile, cream cheese frosting proves itself to be incredibly versatile, working well with a variety of other ingredients.

And, indeed, although it is incredibly easy to make, there is far more to achieve with cream cheese frosting than just using it in its simplest form to top red velvet and carrot cakes. There are several ways to elevate, invigorate, and spice up your cream cheese frosting, so that it becomes not just a means of decoration or providing moisture to cakes, but rather the star of the show. From chocolate to coconut, jelly to ginger (just a few ingredients that you likely already have to hand), as well as some simple tricks, can take your cream cheese frosting to the next level.  

Add some texture with chopped nuts

The richness and smoothness of cream cheese frosting are only elevated by the addition of a little crunch, and chopped nuts are the ideal ingredient for achieving this texture combination. Moreover, not only do they give dimension to frosting by providing some bite, but they also look great when used to top a cake, with diced pistachios, in particular, adding a delightful pop of color to the cream cheese. Chopped nuts also help to balance out some of the sweetness of the frosting by imparting a delicious nutty and woodiness, especially when toasted beforehand.

You can add any type of chopped nuts to your frosting, sliced as finely or as thick as preferred, though some complement certain cake flavors better than others. A cream cheese frosting that is jeweled with peanuts will work perfectly atop a rich chocolate cake, while walnuts and pecans lend themselves perfectly to the earthiness of a cream cheese-frosted carrot cake.

Swap butter for brown butter

With its signature nuttiness and hints of caramel, there's no question that brown butter is a great addition to an array of recipes, providing a touch of luxury and irresistible unctuousness to a variety of dishes and ingredients. Made simply by heating up regular butter on the stove to caramelize the milk solids, using brown butter in your cream cheese frosting is a simple way to add even more indulgence, without the need for any extra ingredients or specialist equipment.

To give your frosting a delicious touch of toffee, simply heat up a pan and melt your butter until it is caramelized, before combining it with cream cheese and sugar like you normally would. This step will add less than ten minutes to your prep time, but yields truly tasty results. Be wary, however, not to mix the brown butter into the cream cheese while it is still hot, as this will prevent the frosting from coming together properly, and you may end up with runny, somewhat curdled, results. Instead, let the brown butter cool before whisking it together with the cheese and sugar to guarantee smooth and silky frosting. 

Create a taste of the tropics with coconut

The sweet and refreshing taste of coconut gives an extra level of decadence and an exotic twist to cream cheese frosting. Ideal for icing a crumbly raspberry coconut cake, cream cheese frosting can be made into a sweet and nutty coconut topping with the addition of a few tablespoons of coconut cream. Thick and smooth coconut cream blends seamlessly into cream cheese, making it the ideal ingredient for imparting flavor without overly impacting consistency.  Coconut milk will also provide a similar flavor, but you will need to adjust the quantities of your other ingredients accordingly or thicken the frosting up by adding cornstarch if it becomes too runny. 

For more texture, you can also mix in a generous handful of desiccated coconut to your frosting, which delivers a deliciously sweet and flaky crunch. Or, for even more bite, add in shredded coconut flakes, which are even crispier and nuttier when toasted. 

Swirl in a few tablespoons of your favorite fruit jelly

The tartness and tanginess of cream cheese are complimented well by the sweetness of fruit jelly, coming together to create a perfectly balanced spread that is ideal for slathering on top of fruit cakes. Not only delicious, but also convenient, using jelly to flavor your cream cheese frosting with fruit eliminates the need for food coloring, with a generous swirl adding an inviting vibrancy and bright color, and, unlike fresh berries or citrus, can be used all year round. 

Any jelly, jam, or fruit preserves can be incorporated into cream cheese frosting to produce delicious results, so it mostly comes down to preference (or what you have in your cupboard). Creamy, but sharp, lemon curd adds both a tantalizing zestiness and a glorious glossy finish to frosting, while blueberry jelly proves to be a perfect match for the tanginess of cream cheese, resulting in a heavenly topping for vanilla cupcakes. If your cream cheese frosting contains a lot of powdered sugar, you may want to be mindful when using jelly, as too much may result in an overly sweet and sticky frosting. Opt, therefore, for a jelly with no added sugar, or reduce the amount of powdered sugar in your frosting to taste. 

Spice things up with cinnamon and ginger

Spicy, warming, and delicious, cinnamon and ginger, alongside various other spices including nutmeg and cloves, are at the heart of any good carrot cake. And, likewise, any good carrot cake, arguably, is topped with a refreshing and fluffy cream cheese frosting, coming together to create a truly comforting and tender bake. To elevate this beloved aroma and taste combination, cinnamon and ginger can be sprinkled into cream cheese frosting to impart their signature sweet and spicy warmth. A teaspoon of each should be enough when combined with 8 ounces of both cream cheese and butter, but the quantity can be adjusted depending on your desired taste and strength. 

Sweetly spiced cream cheese frosting isn't just the perfect topping for an earthy carrot cake, though, and these flavors lend themselves well to topping anything with a slight treacle taste, from gingerbread cupcakes to chai-spiced tray bakes, or even slathered onto cinnamon rolls. 

Fold in peanut butter or another nut butter of your choice

If you're looking to flavor your frosting with a woody nuttiness, but don't have fresh nuts on hand or don't want to change the texture, nut butter will give you both the taste and consistency you're after. Peanut butter, specifically, works incredibly well alongside cream cheese for a rich and indulgent frosting, and is also extremely easy to make, requiring fewer ingredients than conventional cream cheese frosting, as you simply need to mix cream cheese with equal amounts of peanut butter. Powdered sugar can then also be beaten in until the frosting reaches your desired level of sweetness, which may also vary depending on the make of peanut butter you use. Ideal for topping chocolate cakes, peanut butter cream cheese frosting provides the ideal combination of sweetness and creaminess, with a slight hint of tanginess to ensure balance.

However, peanut butter is not the only option, and an equal amount of almond butter, macadamia, or even cashew butter will produce similarly smooth and tasty results. Light and delicate, but with a distinct and unique flavor, almonds, in particular, give an irresistible marzipan-like taste to cream cheese frosting, which is perfect when paired with raspberry or citrus. 

Add citrus zest and juice

Arguably, a drop of lemon juice or zest belongs in a cream cheese frosting at any time, with the sharpness helping to highlight the tangy flavor of the cream cheese. However, for an even punchier, more complex, frosting, consider making citrus the star of the show. A generous splash of juice and the zest from fruits, like limes, oranges, or lemons, adds a subtle, but noticeable, tartness that both contrasts and complements the sweetness and richness of thick cream cheese frosting. 

Orange juice and zest are key in elevating the flavors of carrot cake, and combining them into the frosting only heightens this taste further, while also providing an attractive and inviting pop of color. Likewise, limes and cream cheese prove themselves to be a match made in heaven, and thus cream cheese frosting that has been mixed with a liberal squeeze of lime juice is sure to provide a sweet and sour intensity to any baked good.

Perk it up with a touch of coffee

If you're looking to imbue your coffee break with even more energy, adding more of the good stuff to your bakes is an easy, and tasty, way to go about it. Perfectly suited to top a crumbly coffee cake or just provide a hint of richness and earthy bitterness to any sweet treat, coffee-flavored cream cheese frosting is a lively and lavish addition to a vast array of cakes, cookies, or your go-to morning pastry. 

To make coffee and cream cheese frosting, you can use either freshly brewed liquid espresso or espresso powder, mixed into the cream cheese. In the absence of espresso powder, instant coffee will work just fine as a substitute for giving your frosting a deep and rich coffee taste. 1 teaspoon of espresso powder per 8 ounces of cream cheese should give you the distinct flavor you are after, but it's best to add the powder in gradually, tasting often until the frosting is at your desired strength. 

Spoon in some honey

Naturally sweet with a unique floral note, honey, in its various types and forms, has a flavor that is quite unlike anything else. With a texture like syrup and a slight muskiness or woodiness that sets it apart from other sweeteners, honey is the perfect addition to cream cheese frosting for a touch of luxury. Indeed, not only does it provide a delicious, sticky, and earthy sweetness, but also changes the texture slightly, making the frosting thicker, thereby giving it an even more indulgent feeling.

You can add a tablespoon of honey to ready-made cream cheese frosting for extra flavor, or substitute the powdered sugar entirely with honey. When swapping powdered sugar for honey, however, be mindful that honey is denser and heavier than sugar, and thus you will only need to use approximately 1 cup of honey for every 8 ounces of cream cheese, instead of 3 cups of powdered sugar. 

Provide extra sweetness and texture with marshmallow fluff

Sticky, fluffy, and, for many, nostalgic, marshmallow fluff is an unsung hero in elevating frosting. Indeed, incorporating marshmallow fluff into creamy frosting helps it reach a new dimension, not only in taste, but also in texture — and this is just as true for cream cheese frosting, as it is for traditional buttercream frosting. 

The marshmallow spread not only provides an unmistakable characteristic sweet and vanilla-flavored marshmallow taste, but also helps to give the frosting a sturdier structure as a result of its texture, credited to ingredients such as egg whites and cream of tartar. Subsequently, the resulting frosting is better suited to topping and decorating a vast array of baked goods, with the added stiffness from the marshmallow fluff helping the frosting grip to cakes, while a silky smooth texture makes it nonetheless easy to apply, pipe, and spread.

Microwave your cream cheese beforehand

Of course, when making cream cheese frosting, you want to whip it to a texture that is smooth, creamy, and spreadable. When combining softened butter, cream cheese, and sugar, such a consistency is fairly easy to achieve, and can often be gained by adjusting the quantities of the aforementioned ingredients until it reaches the ideal state. However, for even more smoothness, microwave your cream cheese for a short time before combining it with the other ingredients, and you will end up with a frosting that can be piped and swirled far more easily. It won't change the taste, but it means you can be a little more creative with your decorating skills, and you're less likely to drag at your bakes when frosting them, limiting the risk of crumbs mingling with the frosting. 

And, if you want something even more pourable, consider transforming your cream cheese frosting into a cream cheese glaze, ideal for drizzling over tray bakes, cinnamon rolls, or a fresh batch of warm cookies. To do so, simply beat together your cream cheese frosting ingredients as normal, and then heat the finished product in the microwave in short intervals (no more than 10 seconds at a time) until the mixture is ready to be drizzled.

Add a pinch of salt for dimension

It's very likely that you will have seen salt listed as an ingredient in many baking recipes, and possibly even in some frosting recipes. The reason is that salt can enhance the flavor profile of other ingredients in sweet recipes by balancing out the sugar and adding depth, and thus a pinch of salt should definitely be considered a key ingredient in your cream cheese frosting, as well as in any baking recipe. 

For salt's ability to highlight and heighten existing flavors is of particular use in cream cheese frosting, enhancing the tanginess of the cream cheese, which helps it to undercut any cloying or overly sweet flavors while not eradicating them completely, and instead bringing more nuance to sweeter flavors like fruit, chocolate, or vanilla. As such, though it may seem slightly out of place in frosting, a pinch salt is actually extremely beneficial, helping you to achieve the balance and depth that you are after. 

Mix with melted chocolate for a delicious chocolate frosting

Chocolate frosting, in any form, is an understandably popular choice. Creamy, rich, and mellow, the flavor of chocolate whipped into a soft and fluffy topping is often hard to resist, and rarely out of place when paired with virtually any baked good. However, as delicious as it may be, chocolate buttercream, especially when piled high atop chocolate cakes and gooey chocolate desserts, can sometimes prove a little much for even the most devout chocoholics. Here is where chocolate cream cheese frosting proves itself a more than suitable alternative, being a little less sweet than its buttery counterpart, but equally as delicious, with a subtle tartness to offset any sickliness.

You can, of course, whisk cocoa powder into your cream cheese frosting, but using melted high-quality dark chocolate in its place will guarantee a far glossier, smooth, and silky frosting that spreads beautifully. Using chocolate with a high amount of cocoa solids is the best choice, providing a richness that works incredibly well with the freshness of cream cheese, without prompting any unwanted chocolate-induced stomach aches.

Add a splash of liqueur for extra decadence

For a more grown-up take on any dessert, adding a splash of liqueur to cream cheese frosting provides not only a touch of class and indulgence, but also imparts extra flavor, depending on which alcohol you are using. Kahlua, for example, is ideal for creating a rich coffee-infused frosting with a more sophisticated aroma and depth, and amaretto imparts its signature flavors of almond, vanilla, and warming spice to make a perfect topping for desserts with caramel or vanilla undertones. Iconically creamy Baileys blends with perfection into cream cheese frosting for a truly luscious taste and texture. 

Whichever liqueur you decide to use, however, it's useful to exercise caution when adding alcohol to frosting, as too much too quickly can ruin the texture. Work slowly with a teaspoon amount at a time, and keep tasting the frosting to ensure the alcoholic flavors do not overpower it.