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. Suzanne

    I’m working on being courageous enough to make Italian meringue buttercream, but in my research I have also read the SMBC recipe and all the reviews.

    It left me with 2 questions about the Swiss version which I will try next:

    Can I also add 1/2 cup of vegetable shortening to that recipe?

    The baker’s tips are quite clear about using gel coloring and NOT liquid. Does that apply to SMBC also? One reviewer had a problem with coloring so I thought I’d better find out before I start either recipe.

    Thanks for your help and thanks especially for an incredibly informative blog.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We’re always happy to share, Suzanne! There shouldn’t be a problem with replacing 1/2 cup of the butter with 1/2 cup of shortening. Per the colors, we would recommend using gel colors for the Swiss Meringue Buttercream. It just has an easier time becoming cohesive with the mixture and lending a beautiful, vibrant color. Happy baking! Annabelle@KAF

  2. Lanette Miller

    I realize this is an old article, and I understand why the pdf link is dead. But is there any chance the PDF is still available?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Barbara, you can use anywhere between 1 tsp to 2 Tbsp of flavor per full batch, depending on your taste; and yes, you can halve the recipe successfully! For best results, we recommend using the weight measurements available on the linked recipe page for Italian Buttercream to do so. Mollie@KAF

  3. Missy Carr

    Thank you so much for this article! I know it’s six years old, but I just discovered real buttercream several weeks ago and have only made the Swiss version so far. However, I have a bag of meringue powder sitting in my cupboard from when I thought I would like macarons (I don’t, although making them was fun) and will try to use it for the Italian version. I found this article when I did a Google search for whether or not meringue powder could be used to make successful buttercream. 🙂

    Reply
  4. Sarah d

    I have made this icing several times before, but always used it right away. I’m now working on a wedding cake for some friends, and made a couple batched of Italian buttercream ahead of time to store in the fridge. when I pulled it out today to do my crumb coat, it would not spread smoothly: seemed very greasy, as if the butter were melting. I am pretty sure it was brought to room temp first, but this is the first time I’ve tried to use pre-made Italian BC.
    I read through the comments and there seem to be conflicting suggestions on how long the BC can be out – I’m wondering if I should pull it out of the fridge tonight to come to temp for tomorrow’s decorating? I really don’t want to make 3 more fresh batches tomorrow! Do you have any suggestions?
    Also, I mixed some raspberry jam into some of the icing for the cake filling, and it seems to have curdled – still tastes good but not attractive? Did I ruin it, or can it be recovered?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Sarah, first off, congrats on an impressive undertaking! When it comes to warming Italian Buttercream, we do recommend bringing it room temperature before trying to apply it, otherwise it will be too stiff. As we suggest in one of our “tips from our bakers”, “if you see any weeping or separation, toss the frosting in the mixer and whip it briefly to bring it back together.” As for the curdling when raspberry jam was added, we suspect that was the result of a cold ingredient being added to butter. Warming your bowl with a hair dryer or briefly over a double boiler should help bring the buttercream back to its good old, smooth self. You’ll then want to allow it to cool back to room temperature before using. Hope this helps and best of luck! Mollie@KAF

  5. Laurie

    Way back when I was first married, I decided to try my hand at Italian Buttercream. I had everything ready. I’d studied the recipe for days. My KitchenAid stand mixer (which is STILL in use today, 41 years later!), at the ready.

    I won’t bore you with the details, but this was to frost the first birthday cake for my husband’s birthday. It meant a lot to me!

    When I got to the adding the room temperature (68F) butter pats, it all fell apart. I had NO idea it would come together if I’d kept at it. No one had written that part! It looked like curdled old – very old! milk! I kept beating it but it just kept curdling. Temperatures were dead on, but I just had no idea what had happened – so, in utter tears by then, cursing myself for thinking I could pull it off, and with guests coming shortly, I scraped it all into the rubbish bin in horror.

    Mind you, we were young and just starting out and it was a “pretty penny” in that trash can, to boot.

    I swore it off and never attempted it again.

    And then, decades on, I read your post here and the entire fiasco gelled (way better than my buttercream!) as to what was wrong or at least how to fix it.

    THANK YOU! So much! I am going to attempt one of my most favored foods in the world – Italian buttercream – again soonest. I just hope my old KitchenAid can withstand the abuse, this late in his life. They sure made stuff to last back then! I’ve got a new model but want my old guy to have the privilege.

    Thank you soooo much for closure! I can’t tell you how it irked me that I just could not suss what had gone wrong!

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid, post author

      Hi, Laurie. What a great story. My own KitchenAid is going on 30 years old now, too. I am so happy you found this post and that this old regret is now on deck for redemption. I recommend having a little ice pack for your mixer’s head. Another hint if you’re willing to live a little dangerously: the first half pound of the butter you put in can be pretty cool to the touch; if the meringue is still warm it can help bring the temperature down and save some wear and tear on the mixer. After the first half pound, it’s better to use softer butter, so you don’t risk getting any lumps. I can’t wait to hear about your imminent buttercream triumph! Please let us know how it goes. Best, Susan

  6. Cathy Rogers

    Italian Butter Cream is the only frosting I consider worth the effort to make. It always receives the most compliments. When I make my coffee flavored version, I just replace the water, in the syrup part, with black coffee. It’s fabulous! Always a hit!

    Reply
  7. Mary Kay

    Thanks so much for this super informative tutorial. I am wanting to sell special occasion cakes, and fresh egg whites are out of the question as they would require a county inspection (and installation of equipment in a separate part of the house for me). So I was looking for a meringue buttercream recipe that used meringue powder…I’m looking forward to trying it!

    Just a quick tip on the kind of pot to use for the hot sugar that will make it easier to pour in. Non-stick is nice, but I find the most important element is the curved lip on the top edge of the pan (I notice that the one in your picture is curved). If the top edge is straight up, the hot sugar is not as easy to control, in my experience. Also, a little experiment with different size saucepans and water will tell you which you can completely empty easiest while the whip is running. I hate ending up with a pan I cannot completely empty when I’m at that critical stage.

    Hope that is helpful to somebody 🙂

    Reply
  8. Tammi L.

    Thanks Susan, I will give those tips a try on the next round. I love this frosting and whether or not I can fix this, I will keep making it! I will update this once I try it again and let you know what happens. That way if someone else has this problem, maybe they can fix it too! Thanks for this delicious recipe!

    Reply

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