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. JuliaJ

    Susan, just love those icepack photos and the last one of you with your buttercream stash! Ditto argentyne’s comments about “bakery buttercream” which I always found cloyingly sweet (read, yucky!)–the real stuff sounds divine! Just one question–I have powdered egg whites, not meringue powder. Is there some “recipe” for meringue powder using powdered whites? Thanks for a great tutorial!

    Powdered egg whites are fine to use; just hydrate them as the package directs. The only thing you might want to do is add 1/2 teaspoon of cream of tartar or a bit of lemon juice to them when you first start the meringue going. One small advantage to the powdered whites is they don’t have any sugar, and the frosting will be a little less sweet as a result. For those who think buttercream is too sweet, this is a viable alternative. Susan

    Reply
  2. marcin

    For many years, I have been using a recipe I cut out of some newspaper (I wish I knew when and which newspaper) called “Eileen Worthley’s Old-Fashioned Buttercream Frosting.” Its ingredients are butter, flour, milk, vanilla, and granulated sugar. It is made by starting with a simple white sauce. I then put the white sauce into my stand mixer, and then I add a cup of cold butter a bit at a time to the hot white sauce. The resulting frosting looks just like the one you have in your picture. The white-sauce frosting is probably not stable enough for decorating, and I have to store it in the fridge–I just take the cake out a couple of hours before I want to serve it. But it is so light. And I do freeze it successfully. Everyone loves it. After reading your blog, I want to try the Italian buttercream. I have always wanted to make it but tried it once and ended up with a disaster. I, like other readers, now plan to take this post into my kitchen with me the next time I need to frost a cake. I’m curious, though, if you have ever heard of a type of frosting like “Eileen Worthley’s Old-Fashioned Buttercream Frosting”?

    I am aware of the roux-based frosting, and we’ve run recipes for it in the Baking Sheet once or twice over the years, but you’re right, it’s not as stable and doesn’t hold its shape for piping like a buttercream does. I haven’t has as much luck with it as you have; it can be touchy in warm environments, and our test kitchen is one of those….Susan

    Reply
  3. Talia

    !!
    Growing up, birthday cakes were always homemade, and frosted with my favorite, “buttercream”…until in college I tried to make my own and found recipe after recipe of what you call American-style here. I hate that stuff – too sweet, and the texture was all wrong. And I knew that powdered sugar was not a major player, but I couldn’t remember anything beyond that. Presumably my mom made one of the other versions here. Now I just need to bake some cakes and experiment til I figure it out…
    You’re in for a fun journey, Talia. We’ll be here if you have any questions. Susan

    Reply
  4. argentyne

    Aaaah, that makes so much sense now! I wondered why I didn’t like the buttercream on the bakery cupcakes I bought recently. It’s probably because they did the shortening instead of butter (decorator’s). It never tasted BUTTERY, just hard and somewhat sweet. The cats like it a ton, though. 😀

    I will have to try this recipe and see if I can muddle through it. 😀 I have to see about replacing my KitchenAid, though. It makes me sad, but its clutch seems to no longer work. At least not unless you press the back of the engine in. If you don’t, then you turn the mixer on and it’s at medium speed if you are LUCKY. 😀

    (And Susan, you gave me a little happy puppy wiggle when you said you knew Alton Brown at Culinary school. I have a huge Idol on a Pedestal type of crush on him just because he is doing the science food thing. 😀 It hasn’t (quite) rendered me speechless when I get to meet him, but it’s a really close thing! My brain does go onto fan-girl autopilot.) 😀

    I, too, remember bakery buttercream as a kid, which we had on white cake with lemon filling. I remember the impossible blue and pink of the flowers on those cakes, and the stark white color of the frosting. Also the way that grease seemed to seep into the cardboard of the cake box, wherever the frosting touched it.
    And when you meet Alton, don’t worry, he’s busy but very real. And tell him I said “hi” :-)!

    Reply
  5. Rebecca Grace

    This is EXACTLY the information I wish I had a week ago! I just baked the worst cake of my life last week for my 10-year-old’s birthday. Not only did I underbake the cake (gross!), but my buttercream frosting was a disastrous mess. I followed Rose Levy Beranbaum’s recipe from The Cake Bible, similar to your Italian Buttercream recipe, but I think maybe I didn’t boil the syrup long enough, then didn’t get it from the saucepan to the mixing bowl fast enough because it started to harden to the sides of my mixing cup, and then I stopped mixing and started glopping the goo on my cake when it looked like your “intimidating stage.” If you want a good laugh at my expense, you can see pictures of the Ugliest Buttercream Frosting Cake Ever here: http://cheekycognoscenti.blogspot.com/2010/12/happy-half-baked-birthday-lars-of-ours.html.

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to giving Buttercream another try, but next time, I’m going to have your directions and photos in the kitchen with me on my iPad. For those of us who haven’t been to culinary school, terms like “soft ball stage, “soft peaks” and “hard peaks” can be pretty ambiguous. Your pictures are worth a thousand words, and THANK YOU for working so hard to wreck your frosting so you could show people how to fix it. I’m feeling inspired and encouraged to get that mixer out and try this again. Wish me luck! 🙂

    Wow, Rebecca, thanks for your kind words. And for having the good humor to share your troubles! Now maybe we can bring it back around to a happy ending together. I’m right behind ya, sister! Susan

    Reply
  6. Jessalyn

    Before getting a stand mixer I made one batch of buttercream by hand (and got quite the arm workout from whisking). After all, I told myself somewhat naievely, what did they do to make buttercream before electricity and stand mixers? Happily I now own one and can attest that it is much easier to make (I recently made Swiss buttercream). But I left the cake at room temperature for a couple days after frosting it, instead of refrigerating it. Is that a big no-no? Fortunately, no one was sick…
    If the frosting was made with meringue powder, I’d be more comfortable with the room temperature storage, but obviously there was no harm done. Everyone has their own comfort level with this kind of thing, and if it’s weighing on your mind, you can always find some refrigerator or freezer space next time. Susan

    Reply
  7. puppycupcakes

    This is the best IMBC tutorial I’ve ever seen. I’ve been wanting to try making this type of icing for ages, but I was terrified of those egg whites…and the candy thermometer…and the just-the-right-temperature butter! Scary, I tell you, scary!!!! But you’ve convinced me that it’s actually pretty difficult to make a bad batch. I’ve got a cake-worthy event coming up this weekend, and I’m going to make the chocolate version. Thank you very much!!!

    go forth and make great frosting!!! Susan

    Reply
  8. MerleApAmber

    I hate to admit it, but, I’ve been studying Alton Brown’s recent show on meringues the past couple of days and your article is spot on – timing wise! As milkwithknives just put it; this looks like a grand Saturday afternoon experiment/experience in the joys of cooking. THANK You!

    I had the pleasure of knowing Alton when he was a student at the New England Culinary Institute when I was teaching there. He’s a good egg, and his show is a great service to people who want to know more about how food works. There’s no substitute for getting in there and having at it! Good luck. Susan

    Reply
  9. Mishell

    @Ginny and Susan – I recently went to a vegan and gluten free wedding and they used a product called Earth Balance to make the frosting. I’m not sure if it was the vegan buttery sticks – http://www.earthbalancenatural.com/#/products/vegan-sticks/ – or the shortening sticks – http://www.earthbalancenatural.com/#/products/shortening/. Might work for someone dairy free.

    For the record, I’m ok with vegan or gluten free, but both was a little much.

    I’ve used the Earth Balance shortening, and I’m not sure where they’d be for flavor, but the buttery sticks sound like a promising avenue. Thanks for the heads up. Susan

    Reply
    1. Amy

      I have to be gluten free because I’m anaphylactic allergic to wheat and gluten. My daughter is allergic to milk so we have to be gluten free and vegan. It is very tough. But we’ve found a great frosting recipe. 1/2 cup soy margarine (Earth balance), 1/4 cup soy milk (I always use Silk vanilla soy milk), 3 cups powdered sugar, 1 1/2 tsp vanilla. This makes a generous amount. It’s delicious and is either very soft or for a thicker texture, refrigerate, and I’m about to freeze some and I bet that works well too!

  10. milkwithknives

    HA! Buttercream frosting IS dead sexy, now that I think about it! And your fellow bakers will thank you the next time one of them needs frosting for a project. They can just take some from the Susan-high stack in the freezer. Actually, 7 cups of frosting from a single batch sounds like a truckload. How much cake can you frost with that? A couple of layer cakes, or just one? So good to know it can freeze and be used later. I have to confess, I don’t have any cakes on my horizon, but this looks like a fun Saturday afternoon project just to see if I can do it. Thanks for the brilliant lesson.

    You’re entirely welcome! 7 cups is a lot; you can do a 3-layer 8- or 9-inch cake, or a double layer 10-inch with leftover for piping and other fun. I’ve never worried overmuch about having leftover, since it freezes so well, and there’s always a birthday out there waiting for a bit of buttercream to pipe salutations with! Susan

    Reply

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