Blissful buttercream: the beautiful side of baking

When it’s time for a cake to put on its party clothes, only one frosting will do: buttercream.

For those who lust for the silky, smooth, pipeable and luscious texture of great bakery frosting, there’s simply no substitute for this magnificent emulsion of eggs, butter and sugar. Let’s face it, buttercream is dead sexy. It belongs on any list of foods of love; there’s a reason no wedding cake should be without it!

There are also a number of reasons home bakers don’t go into this territory. Buttercream frosting can be confusing, intimidating, and time consuming, and when you can cover a cake with a quick combination of soft butter, confectioners’ sugar, and a little milk and vanilla, why wouldn’t you?

Let’s tackle that list of scary adjectives, one by one.

Confusing.

Italian? Swiss? French? German? Simple? Decorator’s? Fondant? Too many names and techniques. How do I choose? Here are the differences. I’ve organized the types in order from most to least likely (for me, anyhow) to make.

American: For any culinary school graduate, this one doesn’t really “count” as real buttercream. It’s the combination of butter, confectioners’ sugar, milk, and some flavoring referred to above.

Italian: A meringue is made with egg whites and sugar, and sugar syrup cooked to at least the soft ball stage (240°F) is poured into it with the mixer running. This sets the egg whites and forms a stable base for the frosting. Once the meringue is cooled to 80°F (with the mixer running the whole time), soft butter is added, a lump at a time, until the frosting comes together.

Swiss: Egg whites and sugar are cooked together to 160°F over a hot water bath, then transferred to a mixing bowl and whipped before adding the butter.

French: The method is the same as for Italian buttercream, but whole eggs or egg yolks are used instead of whites. VERY rich, and if you’re not coloring the frosting, a very pale golden color. French buttercream has a lower melting point, because of the extra fat from the egg yolks.

Fondant: Fondant mixed with an equal amount of butter.

Decorator’s: Some would call this “practice” frosting: a mixture of vegetable shortening, butter, flavorings, and confectioners’ sugar, adjusted with milk as necessary. The higher melting point of shortening makes this mixture better for decorations that need to hold a hard edge, such as roses.

Intimidating: There’s usually an awkward stage just before the frosting comes together when it looks broken and hopeless: more on this shortly.

 

Time consuming: This isn’t a spur of the moment project. You have to remember to take the butter out to soften. You have to be able to stay with the sugar syrup and monitor it as it cooks. And you have to wait for the meringue to be cool enough to add any butter. See confessions below.

Still game? Let’s make my favorite frosting: Italian buttercream.

First move? get the butter out of the fridge. It doesn’t hurt to do this the day before you make the frosting, depending on the temperature in your house. 65 to 70 degrees is the ideal range. Like Goldilocks, you’re looking for a certain texture.

Too hard

Adding hard lumps of butter will mean a frosting with smaller hard lumps of butter in it; this is a real pain if you plan to pipe the frosting, because the lumps can be small enough to escape detection, but still be plenty big enough to clog your pastry tip.

Too soft

This butter is so warm it’s starting to melt and break. If you added this to warm meringue, you’ll have a sad, greasy mess. Emulsions tend to break at extremes of hot and cold, and this one’s no different.

Just right.

The butter should be soft enough to be indented with a light touch of your finger.

Next: hunt and gather equipment. This is really a recipe for the stand mixer. You need both hands to do what you need to do, and most hand mixers don’t have the horsepower to accomplish this task. My 5-quart Viking has been my champion for more batches of frosting than I can count.

You’ll need a candy or digital thermometer that can register up to 400°F; a small (non-stick is best if you have it) saucepan; a flexible ice pack or a large zip-top bag that can hold crushed ice, and a nylon spreader to scrape the bowl. A cup of coffee for yourself wouldn’t hurt, either.

This next bit is somewhat tricky, since it involves some kitchen rhumba with two partners at once. The idea is to have your meringue up and ready at the same time the sugar syrup hits its temperature window. I do this by getting the egg whites or meringue powder and water ready in my mixing bowl first.

I use the mixer’s whisk attachment to moisten the powder (no reason to make another tool dirty), then set up the mixer so it’s ready to go. A little pinch of salt here makes a big difference between a frosting that’s cloyingly sweet and one that’s downright intriguing.

Measure out the sugar for the meringue and have it handy next to the mixer.  Now get ready to head for the stove.

Put the sugar for the syrup into your small saucepan and add the water.

Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar.

Soon your syrup will be boiling.

Put the heat on low to medium, and hie yourself hence to the mixer.

Turn the mixer on high. First you’ll see the mixture begin to get foamy.

Remember the nylon spreader I said you needed? Time to get in here and scrape the bowl.

Next the egg whites will become opaque and start to build in volume as more air is beaten in.

Time to sprinkle in the sugar, with the mixer running. Once it’s all in, time to look at our sugar syrup.

Still has a way to go, but at 218°F most of the water has now cooked off.

Let’s see how the meringue is doing.

There we go. At this point I’ll stop the mixer and focus on the syrup until it’s ready to bring over.

Not yet, but it won’t be long now.

This is how the syrup looks at 248°F. Time to pull it off the stove and take it to the mixer. There’s no time to lose between these two steps; you have to move quickly (but carefully, please!)

Pour the syrup into the sweet spot between the edge of the bowl and the shoulder of the whisk. You don’t want it to get thrown all over the place. The syrup can be pretty thick, and it hardens quickly, which is why I prefer a non-stick pan for this. It slides out of the pan without needing to be scraped.

Once the syrup is in, the whites get pretty warm:

The mixer is running this whole time; after the syrup is in you can turn the speed down a bit, to medium-high. After 5 minutes, this is what your meringue will look like:

Big and fluffy, and silky smooth. So far, so good. Now we want this to cool down so we don’t melt or break the butter when we add it to the bowl. I will often give the process a little help with an ice pack.

A few minutes more… how are we for temperature?

Butter ready?

Yup, standing by.

This is another turning point in the process. I need to take a moment here to tell you that I worked very hard to get photos of what can happen to a buttercream.

Specifically, I wanted to break it on purpose to show you how to fix it. Andrea and Frank can vouch for the fact that it took me a week to finally make a batch that broke. The whole thing made for an absurd, upside-down existence, where every time I made a successful buttercream I was stomping around in a huff.

I did EVERY SINGLE thing I tell you not to do in this blog, and I still couldn’t ruin the stuff. Meringue powder, fresh egg whites, butter as hard as a rock, soft butter thrown into 100°F meringue, nothing. It all worked.

I turned into my mother at one point, hearing myself say, “Oh, for crying out loud!” in exactly her voice.

But back to how to get it right if you’re new to this stuff.

When you first put the butter into the meringue, it will deflate some.

As you keep adding butter, the mixture will likely go through a stage where it looks broken and curdled.

This is where you must trust yourself (and me) and soldier on. As you keep beating and adding butter, the frosting will start to come together around the whisk, almost like magic.

See how the center is shaping up, while the outside is still yucky? Another minute or two will finish bringing the frosting together.

Gorgeous, eh? Now I’m adding some vanilla. This is the point where you can go crazy in flavor land. In summer I’ve often taken some of the frosting out for the outside of a cake, then taken the rest and mixed in a couple pints of fresh raspberries and used that frosting for between layers.

You can add citrus zest and 1 to 2 tablespoons of juice. Or some melted, cooled chocolate (no more than 2 ounces, or the frosting can’t hold it). Espresso powder? Sure. You might want to dissolve it in a tablespoon of cream first, otherwise your frosting will have freckles. I’m a big fan of coconut milk powder and coconut flavoring. Makes fabulous buttercream that’s nice and stable.

Before I finish my tale, let’s cover a few more bases.

Storage: Buttercream will keep up to 1 week in the refrigerator (longer than that, and you could see some mold start to form). It freezes beautifully, though. I recommend dividing up the batch into 2 or 3 containers. That way it will temper more quickly when you want to use it.

To use from the freezer, defrost in the refrigerator overnight, then let it come to room temperature before using. I know some people who have successfully thawed buttercream in short, low bursts in the microwave, but I’m not that brave. In any case, if you see any weeping or separation, throw the frosting in the mixer and beat it briefly to bring it back together.

Secrets and confessions: I love the flavor of an all-butter buttercream. But when I’m making a wedding cake that has to sit on a table in the summertime for a few hours, I’ll frequently sneak in 1/2 cup of vegetable shortening when adding the butter. The shortening has a higher melting point and will keep things more stable under to0-warm conditions.

Shortening can also “save” a curdled frosting when nothing else seems to be working. Now that most of the trans fats have been removed from vegetable shortenings, I don’t feel as guilty about this “insurance policy.”

Waiting for the meringue to cool down is a pain. There. I’ve said it. Other than the ice pack trick, and if I’m feeling particularly defiant, I’ll ignore my own advice about butter being too cold and throw half a pound of frozen butter chunks into the warm meringue at first, trusting the heat to melt the butter and the cold to bring down the meringue’s temp at the same time. This is, I repeat, a high-risk strategy.

Now, to finish the tale. In my quest to make bad buttercream, I tried adding soft butter to hot meringue. This is what happened:

Butter soup. But not broken. All it took was some more, colder butter (not hard, just cooler) to bring everything back in line.

I finally begged Frank to tell me how his pastry cooks had achieved broken buttercream. He told me to let my meringue cool completely, then hit it with lots of cold (barely plastic) butter. So I did. FINALLY I got some awful-looking glop.

At the Ritz, Frank would go for his blowtorch at this point. I reached for the at-home version:

A little warm air on the outside of the bowl with the mixer running, and voilà:

The frosting at the edge looks a little melted. The whisk keeps bringing it back in to the center, raising the temperature for the whole bowl just enough to make the emulsion come back together.

By now, my mixer is getting a little pooped. I’ve actually had it shut itself off because the motor got too hot while it was going… going… going to cool the meringue. When that happens, I get another icepack.

After a week of butter, sugar syrup, and lots and lots of egg whites, I finally had the pictures I needed. And well over 2 gallons of buttercream.

Hopefully this amount of information can spare you some angst and some time. If you’re interested in learning what you can do with this wonderful stuff, click on this link and scroll down to “Cake Decorating with Susan Reid.” A .pdf will download to your computer, which you can open, print, and use for reference whenever you need to get your cake bakin’ game on.

Please read, make, and rate the recipe for Italian Buttercream on our site.

Print just the recipe.

 

Susan Reid
About

Chef Susan Reid grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Bates College and the Culinary Institute of America, and is presently the Food Editor of Sift magazine. She does demos, appearances, and answers food (and baking) questions from all quarters.

comments

  1. Mary

    I have never made this before. Can i use half the butter and half shortening? or is all the butter needed. I know you said for piping to add 1/2 cup of shortening; or can it be possible to use butter flavor Crisco (1/2 the butter recipe and half butter Crisco?)

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins

      Hi Mary,
      While adding a little bit of Crisco can really help stabilize the icing, too much will give it a heavy, greasy feeling and taste. Stick with the 1/2 to 3/4 cup and yes, butter flavored it just fine. ~ MJ

  2. ellie

    I am planning on baking a strawberry marble cake and want to use this frosting. It sounds so delicious and read great comments on it.

    I want to try somthing different but I do not have a mixer, as I always mix my cakes and frosting by hand. Saving $ to buy a professional mixer. But in the mean time I am having to mix by hand.

    Do you have any tips or advice on making this frosting by hand?

    Thank you

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins

      Hi Ellie,
      Well, my first thought was NO way. But in chatting with Betsy here at KAF and doing a little online research it seems like it could be possible. We would say that if you can, pick up an inexpensive hand mixer at the consignment shop. It will really help in making this icing.

      Barring that, I did find a little advice here on Daring Kitchen. The advice of two whisks should help, in our view. Betsy also recommends very, very soft butter. In fact, you’ll probably need to place the bowl in an ice bath every few minutes of whipping to get it to firm up. A large spatula for folding the icing over to cool it can be helpful too.

      Best of luck with this, be sure to let us know how it goes. ~ MJ

  3. dayna

    I’m planning to make a cupcake bouquet and want to try this icing for it. A few questions:
    1. will piped flowers–roses, hydrangeas, carnations–hold their shape? (I know to make sure my hand temp doesn’t melt the icing in the bag)
    2. will they stay on the cupcakes that are basically tilted 90 degrees (I don’t want the flowers to slide off!).
    3. If I ice them Sunday afternoon for an event Monday morning, do they need to be refrigerated (I don’t want the cupcakes to dry out)?
    4. If I DO have to refrigerate them, how long will it take for them to reach “good eating” temp again?

    this was such a helpful post! can’t wait to try it. Thanks in advance.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      In the words of another baker at KAF, the “tricks” to piping individually formed flowers are:
      1) The buttercream must be the correct temperature, it needs to be almost plastic.
      2) If the buttercream is too airy and light, you will need to remove some of the air. Place a small amount into a bowl and beat it with a flat wooden paddle. This will help get the frosting to the correct consistency.
      Yes, the cupcakes will need to be refrigerated – bringing them to room temp. around 15-20 minutes for best flavor and texture. Happy Baking! Irene@KAF

  4. Shannon

    I am making a rosette wedding cake, and I’m wondering if this IMBC will be appropriate for the rosettes (piped directly on the cake using a 1M tip)? Will it be stable enough to hold the rosette form and shape without sweating or drooping or falling off the cake? (Wedding and reception are outdoors; temp will be around 75 deg F and quite humid) Do you have any tips to aid in this cake’s success? I was confident initially when I took the order, but I’m beginning to get “cold feet” (wedding humor).

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins

      Hi Shannon,
      Italian buttercream is excellent for wedding cakes. To help you get over the heebie-jeebies, check out one of our favorite resources; Wedding Cakes You Can Make by Dede Wilson. Excellent recipes, tips, and advice. Good luck!~ MJ

  5. Jen

    Is there a chocolate version of this?
    There are several different ways to flavor different buttercreams:
    The most basic flavor for this frosting is vanilla. But you can change it in all kinds of ways.

    *For coconut, add 1/2 teaspoon coconut flavoring and 1/2 cup coconut milk powder.

    *For chocolate, reserve 3/4 cup (6 ounces) of the butter from the recipe. Melt 1 cup (6 ounces) bittersweet chocolate and cool to room temperature. Combine the melted chocolate and the butter until mixed, then add this mixture to the frosting.

    *For raspberry, add 2 tablespoons raspberry purée, or simply mix a half pint of fresh raspberries into the finished frosting.

    *For lemon (or orange), add 1 tablespoon fresh lemon (or orange) zest and 2 teaspoons fresh lemon (or orange) juice. You can also add 1 tablespoon lemon or orange juice powder to the egg whites before beating.

    Reply
  6. Venus

    I am making a 3 tiered layered cake for my niece’s sweet 16 on Sept 7. She wants the cake covered in fondant and was wondering what frosting would hold up to the added weight of the fondant and the humidity here in Hawaii. (I will have the AC on in the room that the cake will be displayed in.) I know the buttercream will be solid out of the fridge but I am concerned about it softening as the cake warms while on the table for the party. Will it start to droop from the weight? Would this IMBC be good for this purpose or would another buttercream be better? Also, as the cake warms do I need to be concerned about the cake “sweating”?

    I would suggest to give our Baker’s Hotline a call. I think this question will involve some conversation!-Jon 855 371 2253

    Reply
  7. Dena Grant

    I AM ECSTATIC THAT THIS ITALIAN BUTTERCREAM CAN FREEZE!!!! BUT MY QUESTION IS…… THE SO CALLED PRACTICE BUTTERCREAM WITH TRANS FAT BEING TAKEN OUT OF “EVERYTHING!” THE PRACTICE BC WILL NOT HOLD COLOR BECAUSE IT SEPARATES W/O TRANS FAT. HOW DOES THIS DO ADDING COLOR???????

    We have not had any problems with the color separating from our practice buttercream. However, we do prefer to use a gel based food coloring, what do you use?-Jon

    Reply
  8. Shannon M

    I just made this and it is incredible. Loved it. I think next time I’ll make it just a tad sweeter and make more of the sugar syrup. However, I was wondering if I could use just the meringue part; before adding the sugar syrup? I tasted it and it tasted like marshmallow. Yum!! Would this hold up as icing?
    Unfortunately, this would not make an ideal or stable icing

    Reply
  9. RainbowCakeMom

    Hello,

    I am in the process of making a fruity rainbow cake with white chocolate buttercream (American style). It is going to be a a 6 layer 9 inch cake. I want to use this buttercream recipe for the cake. Should I leave the white chocolate out and make just a plain buttercream (wondering about flavor overload)? Also, can I use powdered egg whites as a substitute for meringue powder? Can I refrigerate the cake after frosting? I don’t have enough room to put it in the freezer.
    I think the white chocolate will compliment the cake as long as there isn’t a wide variation of fruity flavors. If you want to use the powdered whites in place of the meringue powder, you will need to add about 1 tablespoon more sugar to the recipe and about 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar. ~Amy

    Reply
  10. Bonne Bouche

    The question regarding whisk vs paddle attachment– I did both making 2 batches for the same cake. The paddle batch was very compact and slightly difficult to spread. After the cake was cut the butter cream separated from the cake layers. It was not pretty. The whisk attachment layer just seemed to have a better texture, the butter was more incorporated and didn’t clog my piping tip. Now my question– can I add instant pudding to this butter cream to get a more mouse-like consistency? If so, should I make the pudding and add it in at the end, or just add some of the powder. If adding the powder, at what stage in the process?
    If you are looking for a mousse-like consistency, I would whip heavy cream in or fold whipped cream in at the end. The pudding mix will give the buttercream a more custard-like consistency. ~Amy

    Reply

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