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. tkmah

    Hello, again. I’ve just made this icing again for the fourth (?) time this year, and it’s wonderful. I made a mistake today, and took the sugar syrup off the burner at 242 degrees instead of 248, and when I put the butter in (at the correct temp) it got very soupy, and I panicked and chatted with Amy, who reassured me it would be fine. I left the mixer running, and sure enough it pulled together and it absolutely marvelous! I also used 1/4 tsp of fiora de sicilia, which added wonderful, subtle, flavor. Thank you, KA, again!

    Reply
  2. susanmcnamee

    can I use 1/2 powdered egg whites and 1/2 egg whites? I’d perfer not to use merengue powder. thanks! also, how much frosting does this one recipe make? I am making 4 dozen cupcakes.

    yes, that combination will certainly work; I’ve done it myself. The recipe makes at least 5 cups of frosting; depending on how much air gets whipped into it. If you’re piping with a large star tip, you’ll use more frosting than if you use a smaller one. You can also “stretch” the recipe by adding another 1/2 pound of butter. Susan

    Reply
  3. Lala

    Hi Susan,

    I’ve tried making Swiss Meringue Buttercream and I cannot pipe a rose. With Italian Meringue do you think I can do roses? If not what can we do with it besides covering the cake and boarders? Thank you.

    Frank here. Both of these buttercreams may be used for decoration. However there is a big difference in the consistency between “icing” and “pipping”. The “tricks” to piping individually formed roses 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 is with a flat wooden paddle. This will help get the frosting to the correct consistency.
    Give it a try.
    Frank @ KAF.

    Reply
  4. pickyin

    Hi Susan, I’m intrigued by your preference for Italian versus Swiss and in your reply to winkle you mentioned it’s more “bulletproof”. Do you mean it’s more sturdy for decorating? I’ve worked with Swiss many times and love it but have never tried Italian. What about the difference in taste and texture? Is Italian lighter? Am sorry if you’ve previously talked about this but I can’t find the answers in the comments.

    Hi back. I find the Italian meringue to indeed be a little more sturdy for decorating; it’s a little tighter, and therefore more able to take on things like a half pint of fresh raspberries or passionfruit puree at the finish without any deleterious effects. As far as mouthfeel, it’s thicker, but when done correctly and with just enough salt, it’s incredibly silky as you eat it. So much moreso than American confectioners’ sugar frosting that some people have trouble with the texture if they’ve never had a “real” buttercream frosting. I hope this helps. Susan

    Reply
  5. misoranomegami

    Oh I could have shown you how to ruin a whole batch of buttercream! I once tried to make a cookies and cream icing and for some reason had the brilliant idea to add the cookies (which were ready) before the butter (which wasn’t) thinking that the hot sugar would have stabilized it. I deflated the entire pot of meringue in 4 turns of the mixer.
    OH, ouch!

    Reply
  6. tkmah

    Here I am again–I did a test run today, using the Tender White cake recipe and this icing. I made the mistake of using plain yogurt, so the cake does have that “tanginess” and the frosting is not nearly as sweet as I am used to. I wonder if I should add a little extra sugar to the cake. Also, the frosting doesn’t have much flavor–should I be a little more heavy handed with my extracts? And what flavors have any of you had good luck with? I’m particularly interested in Susan’s use of the coconut milk powder, as I have some on hand. Thank you all at KA for your tutelage!

    Hi; Susan here. For one batch of this buttercream I put 1/2 cup of coconut milk powder through a strainer to remove the lumps, then mix it in. I’ve also used as much 1/2 teaspoon of coconut flavoring at the same time. I’d recommend flavoring the frosting first, then adjusting for sweetness if you still think it needs it. If you’re going to add sugar, make it confectioners’, and sparingly. Straight granulated sugar into a buttercream that’s already formed is likely to pull the water out of suspension, and you’ll have broken (or at least weepy) frosting. Good luck!

    Reply
    1. Doreen

      Using a vanilla flavored yogurt will take the tangy taste out of the cake. It already is sweetened, do you wouldn’t need to add additional sugar.

  7. tkmah

    I would also like to know which recipe you suggest for the cake that will best support this fabulous icing! I have three cakes to make this month…. How fun!
    Buttercream is excellent on all kinds of layer cakes. It’s a bit too heavy for angel food or chiffon cakes, but to die for on the classic butter cakes. ~ MaryJane

    Reply
  8. kathypest

    I made this for the first time two days ago and while DELICIOUS, it LOOKS like the “Mess” you purposely created when you added cold butter to meringue that had become too cool. But that is NOT what I did. I closely monitored the temp of the meringue and started to add butter when the meringue registered 80. At one point it took on the “curdled” look and then moved on to what you photographed on your blog. I stuck with it, hoping it would come together as you stated, but after about 5 minutes I decided to just use it in the state that it was. I did not want to toss due to all the ingredients (and TIME) invested. It could not even be spread on the cake, I had to “glop” it on. But everyone loves it and does not care about the horrid appearance. I still am not sure what I did wrong but I so appreciate your photos and commentary!!
    It sounds like things may have cooled down a little TOO much; next time if you find yourself in the same spot, give the hair dryer a try. Susan

    Reply
  9. Megan

    Hi,

    I made a cake today and used Swiss Buttercream. I wish I would have found this site earlier because I threw away an entire batch because I thought it was “broken”.

    My question is after I iced the entire cake and began decorating it, I noticed that the cake was “weeping”. Also I had some chunks of butter in the finished buttercream I used.

    It tasted good, and looked ok. It could have had a smoother appearance, but I felt it was fine.

    What causes the weeping? It seems that I should have whipped the buttercream longer to avoid the chunks, but it looked like it was breaking and I was too nervous to continue.

    What should I do differently in the future? I appreciate any feedback.

    Thanks!!

    From what you describe, I think a couple of things were happening. If you still had chunks of butter, it was probably not soft enough; it also sounds like you didn’t beat it long enough for a complete emulsion to occur, and thus the weeping. A buttercream is basically composed of drops of water suspended between fat particles. If you leave either part of the emulsion in a high enough concentration in the matrix, they’re going to try and “get back together”. That’s what you saw with the weeping. Extremes of temperature can also cause an emulsion to break, but your chunks clue leads me to believe it was the former. Susan

    Reply
  10. Aaron Frank

    This is so cool.

    I almost never make real buttercream anymore because my wife prefers the American version (I always called it fake buttercream). If you ever need to break buttercream again let me know. I’m quite good at it. The first time I tried to make it my buttercream kept breaking. I was asiduosly following the directions of a very well known cake book to no avail. I called a pastry chef friend of mine who said “wait until the eggs/sugar mixture stops steaming” and since then my buttercream has not broken.

    For those who are piping with warm hands, I’ve found that keeping a bag of frozen peas nearby to cool my hands down works very well. People have walked in on me pressing my hands onto bags of frozen vegetables and it has been the source of much laughter.

    I usually will use leftover yolks to make custard or pastry cream.

    Thanks for a great tutorial!
    Buttercream can be the source of many frustrations whether it is in the mixing or the piping. I love the utilization of frozen vegetables idea, and think this could be the beginning of a buttercream support group! Thanks again for posting and happy baking!

    Reply

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