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. Tammi L.

    This is the best frosting on the planet! I have made it at least 2 dozen times. I have made a chocolate version, strawberry, lemon, and coconut…all delicious. I have found that I get the best results with the meringue powder that you guys sell. I ran out once and had to use Wilton, but it had a grainy texture and did not taste as good. I tried real egg whites once, and did not like it as well. All that being said, I have had a problem the past several times that I can’t figure out. I measure carefully and follow the directions, but the meringue tries to escape my mixer! I have a 6 qt KA and it collects it the center and climbs up the wisk. I end up having to stop it several times and push it back down with a spatula. It does it mostly before I add the butter, but still a bit during the first few bits of butter. The advantage is that it does cool down faster, but I don’t know what to do. It did not do this the first several batches. It does not matter if I clean the bowl and wisk with lemon juice, vinegar, or just soap and water. It does not matter if I mix the meringue powder in a little before starting the mixer. Have you ever heard of this happening or have any suggestions? It is really frustrating and so very messy!

    Thanks for all the wonderful information and products you guys provide!

    Tammi Lacy

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid, post author

      Wow, Tammi, that’s some serious poof! You could try a couple of things. Now that you’re an old hand at making this, try not having the mixer at its highest speed; once the meringue is poofy and glossy, slow it to medium. Also, have a quarter of your butter for the frosting at a cooler temperature. Flexible but still cool to the touch is good- add this to the meringue first, while its still on the warm side. It will save you time and bring down the meringue’s volume sooner. Susan

  2. Darlene Thurau

    My frosting was coming out nicely then I decided to add cocoa powder to get a chocolate flavor. It was still working, but the final room temperature product was thinner than what I have made in the past so I put it in the frig for just over two hours (had to go to class). When I returned, it was like solid butter. I didn’t let it warm up to room temperature. (Mistake 2). I also realized that I forgot to add vanilla earlier so I did (Mistake 3). I added 1/4 butter thinking it still needed butter and whipped for awhile. (Mistake 4). Anyway, the vanilla just doesn’t seem to want to mix. It’s as lumpy as it can possibly be.
    What do you recommend?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      So, unfortunately you have “broken” the buttercream and it cannot be saved. You can put buttercream back in the frig, but we recommend taking it out and letting it come back FULLY to room temperature before trying to whip up again. You can just keep it on the counter in an airtight container for a couple days especially if you are going to use it to frost a cake. Also, if I want to make my buttercream chocolate, I would add melted semisweet chocolate instead of cocoa. Hope theses tips help for future batches. JoAnn@KAF

  3. susan

    i made italian bc today and used some frozen butter. it took a while to melt but then i noticed it looked (but didn’t taste/feel) grainy. i whipped and beat it for a while after and it only improved slightly and now its a bit soupy. how did i fail?! it also happens to be very humid today, would that add to the graininess?
    so confused, pls help if u can
    thnx!!

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid, post author

      Hi, Susan. did the frozen butter go in first, to the hot meringue, or later on, once the frosting was underway? If the latter, you may never get the frosting to be totally smooth without pressing it through a strainer and getting any unemulsified butter bits out of it. You could also let it sit overnight at room temperature (allowing any hard butter bits to temper) and whip again tomorrow; it’s certainly worth a try. Susan

  4. Cindy Mills

    If I wanted to make this a Chocolate Italian Buttercream Icing, what would I need to add extra and what would the amounts be? I would love to make this for my brother’s birthday Saturday. Also what chcoclate cake batter mix would you recommend to complement this icing?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      To add chocolate to this recipe, you will need about 12 ounces of semi-sweet melting chocolate. (You can add up to 16 ounces if you want the chocolate flavor to be very pronounced.) Follow all of the steps in the Italian Buttercream recipe until you have beaten in the butter on medium speed and the frosting is smooth and light. Melt the chocolate over a double boiler while this is happening and then allow it to cool so it’s no longer warm to the touch but is still pliable. Take about 1/4 of the buttercream and fold it into the chocolate to lighten it up a bit. Then fold in the chocolate mixture to the rest of the buttercream–be gentle while you stir as to not deflate the frosting. Mix gently until it is fully incorporated. This fluffy cloud of chocolate heaven would be perfect atop our Devil’s Food Cake or our Favorite Fudge Birthday Cake. Good luck and happy birthday to your brother! Kye@KAF

  5. Nadia

    Hi! Thanks for sharing this recipe!
    I am familiar with meringue as I have done it several times but I haven’t tried a Italian one.
    I need your advice.
    I am making a wedding cake and the bride doesn’t want an overly sweet buttercream so I am thinking of using this recipe.
    But I just wanted to know if this recipe is what you can recommend for a cake that will be displayed at the wedding on the cake table. A part of me is so nervous it might melt away 😐 Is there another icing you can recommend? Or do you think it will be fine?

    Thanks 🙂

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Nadia, cheers to you for taking on the task of making a wedding cake! Italian buttercream is a wonderful choice for making a frosting that looks stunning and tastes great, but we recommend adding 1/2 cup of vegetable shortening when adding the butter. The shortening has a higher melting point, which means that it will hold up better if the cake has to sit out for a few hours (especially under warm conditions). For additional tips on making wedding cakes, check out our Wedding Cake Blog. Good luck and happy baking! Kye@KAF

  6. Barbara Darrington

    I have a recipe for Black Out Chocolate cake that came from the June 1996 Chocolatier magazine, I have tried to make this cake several times but have never had it come out right. when it comes out of the oven a toothpick comes out clean, but when it cools it sinks in the middle and is a little soft and gooey in the middle as well. I tried to go back to the Chocolatier to find out what the problem was but they are no longer in business. If I were to send the recipe to you could you at least look it over and see ii it seems right or better yet try the recipe and tell me if the problem is the recipe or if it’s just me.

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins

      Hi Barbara,
      It would be great for you to send an email with the recipe and details to our bakers hotline, and we’ll take a look. You may also want to do a Google search for the recipe and see if there is feedback posted somewhere online. ~ MJ

  7. Jennifer

    So I am late to the party as per usual, and after reading this awesome tutorial and comments I find I still have a few questions.
    #1 the amounts of melted chocolate you can add was confusing, the recipe said 2 oz where as in the comments section I found anywhere ftom 3 to 6 oz up to 3/4 of a lb! Any help would be great as I want to make a white chocolate buttercream.
    #2 As I want to do a white chocolate, should I reduce the sugar so it’s not too sweet?
    #3 I had previously tried a different white chocolate buttercream recipe that was tasty but reverted to tasting like decorating frosting after gel food coloring was added, why did that happen and will something similar happen with this recipe?
    Thank you for sharing your knowledge!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      I would suggest to give our Baker’s Hotline a call so that we can help directly. Jon@KAF 855 371 2253

  8. Delores Jefferis

    Hi there, after reading this remarkable post i am as well cheerful to share my know-how here with friends.

    Reply
  9. Laily

    Been making IMBC for some time, and have been adding Maple-flavoured golden syrup to the boiled sugar mixture for the icing … Yields a really yummy flavoured icing and helped make it taste less buttery than it really is.

    Reply
  10. Pinkie007

    First of all, thank you so much for this recipe! I have made it MANY times and it always turns out perfectly! I found the blog to be really helpful the first time I made it, and I appreciate your taking the time to write it. I was wondering if you have ever made a chocolate version, and if you have could you tell us how to do it? Is it a simple as adding melted and cooled chocolate or is it more complicated? Thanks again!

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid, post author

      Hi, Pinkie. Yes, I have made chocolate versions; the best way to go about it is to melt some good chocolate, cool it to just barely above room temperature, and mix it with an equal amount by weight of some soft but cool-to-the-touch butter; add with the butter as you’re finishing the frosting. This batch can hold between 1/2 and 3/4 pounds of chocolate. Go for bittersweet; the frosting is sweet enough, and you want the chocolate to really come through. Susan

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