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. PlumLeaf

    An absolutely fabulous tutorial! Especially the ‘buttercream gone wrong’ & how to revive!
    My late grandad used to make buttercream with stork margarine & golden syrup and possibly something else. It was a bit on the sickly side and a pale ivory colour.
    Might have to give your tutorial a go! I usually make what you call American Buttercream, although here in UK it’s known as butter icing. I like it with lots of lemon juice and zest to make it more zingy!

    Happy to be of service. I like a bit of acidity in the frosting, too; keeps it from being too cloying, and lets the grassy notes from the butter shine through. Susan

    Reply
  2. vel

    I have’t seen the roux based frosting actually used as frosting, but we do use it in making “gobs” (not whoopee pies!) and it’s phenomenal. It can be a challenge in making italian buttercream with a Kitchenaid but as has been said, Having the syrup in a pyrex measuring cup with spout does make it a lot easier.

    and Dorian Gray references, ah I love educated bakers 🙂

    And my dad wondered what I’d do with my liberal arts degree! —S

    Reply
  3. JuliaJ

    Do you have another recipe thread using all those leftover egg yolks??

    By the way, many brands of pasteurized egg whites in the dairy case say they’re not suitable for whipping–is there something in them that prevents whipping? I know that meringue powder takes a lot longer to whip than whites from whole eggs….

    You’re right, Julia, that the pasteurized whites in the dairy case won’t make a meringue, but I haven’t had any trouble with the meringue powder; once you whisk it with the water it comes up in the same amount of time as the fresh ones do. As for the egg yolks, if you bake bread you can always add two yolks for each egg any sweet bread recipe calls for. Custards, noodles or spaetzle, pastry cream (be still my heart), creme brulee and pots de creme, are the things I think of first for using up yolks.

    And flan…. be still MY heart! 🙂 PJH

    Reply
  4. kleslie76

    How does this frosting do with colors? I’ve made a Swiss buttercream, but all colors added turned out really pastel. Is it the same with an Italian buttercream?
    This icing makes fine colors. We recommend using paste or gel food coloring, not liquid. ~ MaryJane

    Reply
  5. Margy

    I’ve always made American buttercream because it’s quick and easy. My tweak is that I use butter from a local farm, then refrigerate it for a few days and re-beat prior to using. It seem to make for a much silkier frosting, probably because it has time to hydrate the cornstarch in the confectioners sugar. This recipe looks awesome, and takes away some of the intimidation factor-I’ve always wanted to try it, but was always nervous that it wouldn’t turn out. Dous the type of butter matter? I assume you have used a nationally available butter. I suspect that my local butter may be higher in butterfat and lower in water content; will that make a difference in the result?
    Hi there Margy,
    We use Cabot Creamery Butter here in the test kitchen. It is very good quality butter, so give this a try with your local butter, it should be fairly close. ~ MaryJane

    Reply
  6. Irene in TO

    Another non-dairy icing is rolled fondant that you make yourself from icing sugar, water, gelatine and corn syrup. Use the recipe from any old Wilton book, it works perfectly every time.

    If you have a large table, you could try real fondant–nothing but sugar, water and corn syrup. Real tricky to cook but makes beautiful smooth icing when poured over a crumb-coated cake.

    You could cook up a fruit curd with the coconut oil instead of butter for a filling. The large amount of fruit juice and egg makes it taste really good anyway. You can even add some to the buttercream if it doesn’t have to be fishbelly white–it comes a nice pastel shade. Lime and coconut is a dream combo.

    I would avoid butter flavouring altogether. Vanilla and citrus are natural nondairy ideas that leave nothing missing from a pastry project. Call the cake a Chefs Special instead of dairyfree and they will gobble it up.

    For people who can’t live without chocolate, melt unsweetened at the rate of no more than 3 ounces per cup of butter in your recipe, and cream part of the butter into it. This blends smoothly with the whole batch of buttercream and won’t break it.

    Irene: Excellent ideas, all, particularly the tip about creaming the butter into the melted chocolate. That’s the kind of little step that makes a HUGE difference in the quality of the finished product, and will ensure that no unincorporated clumps of chocolate are lurking in the frosting to clog up the piping bag. Thanks so much! Susan.

    Reply
  7. Amber

    Hi Ginny,
    If your sister likes coconut you could try a mixture of unfiltered coconut oil (which is quite solid at room temp) and some mild tasting and softer fat to replace the butter. I would imagine melting the coconut oil and blending it with a nut oil then letting it come to room temp would work) great. The coconut oil smells heavenly and some toasted shredded coconut would be a fantastic decoration addition to up the flavor. Just remember to have a warning next to the cake to possible nut allergy folks (had a close call at my own sister’s wedding
    Good luck! You are a good sister for doing this 🙂

    Reply
  8. edandclaire

    Wait….wait…..you were a TEACHER when Alton Brown was a STUDENT??!! But, you look so, so, so young!!!!

    And thanks so much for this recipe and those fab photos! Got a baby shower coming up soon and this will definitely be the frosting I will use!!

    I have a portrait doing all my aging for me in the attic 🙂 Susan

    Reply
  9. angrobts

    Great tutorial on Italian Buttercream! I learned how to make both Swiss and Italian in culinary school and love them both. I have a question about adding champagne to either of these. We tried out a strawberry champagne cupcake parfait at work to use in a bridal show and it used American Buttercream which was way too sweet. Do you think adding a small bit of champagne to the buttercream for flavor would cause it to break down. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
    Wow, what a cool thought! Two very sexy foods in one at that. I think it’s certainly worth a try. I’d take a cup of buttercream and try mixing in a tablespoon of the bubbly; if there are no ill effects, go for the rest of the batch. Another way to get more of that flavor into the frosting would be to reduce the champagne and add it as a gastrique. Thanks for the idea; I’ll be trying that one myself! Susan

    Reply
  10. sharon15632

    Susan,

    Besides another thank you for a great post, i just want to go on record saying “You are ADORABLE!”
    and good work!

    Thanks Sharon! My mom thinks so too…Susan

    Reply

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