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. Jordyn

    In the blog, you say you use 1/2 cup of vegetable shortening when adding the butter, to help the buttercream when outside in the summer. When you do this, do you change anything in the recipe? Like, add less butter?
    That is a great question, Jordyn. It may have been you I chatted with this morning in Livechat. Since then I have spoken to Susan Reid who is the author of this blog. Contrary to what I said earlier, Susan recommends adding the shortening in addition to the butter in the recipe. You could replace some of the butter with shortening and get the same result (more stable buttercream) but taste will be compromised. Butter just tastes better! Elisabeth

    Reply
  2. Tash

    Thank you so much for this post I was making a recipe of my mums which turned out to be just this and I was beginning to get worried when it looked like it was separating but seeing your pictures and reading the comments reassured me and I went back to it and it tastes and looks lovely thank you again.

    Reply
  3. Hello Kitty

    I have a question – in this recipe, would it be possible to use just the dried egg whites you sell instead of fresh egg whites or meringue powder? The meringue powder has more sugar in it and I think the BC is quite sweet as it is. Or… if I use the meringue powder, is it OK to cut down on some of the sugar (either the 1/3 cup in the recipe that is added to the meringue powder when whipping or the amount added to water to make the sugar syrup)? Thanks.

    Yes, you can certainly use the dried egg whites. And I agree, you could cut the sugar. By using egg whites instead of meringue powder you’ll want to put a bit (1/2 teaspoon) of cream of tartar into them; use 1/4 cup of sugar with the whites when whipping, and reduce the sugar in the syrup by 1/4 cup. You can also drop the water in the syrup to 1/4 cup when you do so; it will keep the time for cooking it to temperature more in line. Susan

    Reply
  4. Hello Kitty

    You were not kidding about pouring a glass of wine! Wow, that took some perseverance. I do not have a stand mixer, so using a hand held mixer was probably my first problem. I also went the egg white/cream of tartar route. It seemed to turn to butter soup but not in the way pictured (soupy AND broken). I tried adding a little shortening, then I got out the hair dryer, I don’t know if it was the dryer or just mixing it a ton more, but it finally coalesced! May have to beg, borrow or buy a stand mixer next time I try this (and maybe just do the powder). Anyway, as has already been said by many others, thanks for breaking it down!

    Thanks for sharing your experience with this recipe – we admire your tenacity and creative winning ways. Happy Baking (or buttercream making?)! Irene @ KAF

    Reply
  5. PrincessPolkadot

    I do love buttercreams, and have worked my way through Swiss, Italian, French, roux-based (which is ALL of those in the “Baked: New Frontiers in American Baking” book), and German.

    Thus far, I prefer the German. It’s use of a constarch-thickened egg custard as the base is nearly fool-proof. AND I don’t mind making it when my kids are running around – which I’m not fond of doing with the hot syrup for Italian.

    My question – are there specific flavorings that should NOT be used in a buttercream? Will lemon or orange (fresh juice and zest) cause irreparable damange to the texture? I’ve used Nutella successfully, so I assume peanut butter would be OK. Just trying to save myself grief in the future…
    For lemon or orange, there are a some options. A citrus oil or extract is your best bet rather than using straight citrus juice. Added zest is always nice, too. For lemon, my go-to is fresh lemon curd. It does absolutely nothing to the texture other than flavor it beautifully (I am a Swiss or Italian Meringue BC user) and you do not need much. The only thing I have found a bit tricky is making chocolate BC. I gravitate towards dutch cocoa. I am careful to flavor a little at a time while sifting it in. I love the more mellow flavor cocoa gives. If you should add too much the BC can break. That is why you need to go at it slowly until you achieve the proper flavor and shade. Elisabeth

    Reply
  6. Francine

    Does this pipe well? I love the tutorial. I am looking for a frosting that is not too sweet and pipes well, not necessarily flowers, but stars and rosettes. Thanks.
    Yes, this buttercream is great for piping. ~Amy

    Reply
  7. Vivian

    A long time ago an Austrian baker told me that he was taught to use a pudding base for his buttercream. This is somewhat the same process as is recommended by the Dr. Oetker people. Both the pudding (any flavour) and the creamed butter must be @ room temp to prevent curdling. It seems a lot less involved than the hot sugar syrup and meringue method but perhaps the trade-off is in the texture and pipability. I always loved the delicacy of the buttercream he made as opposed to the sugary one-note stuff of other commercial bakeries.

    Reply
  8. MayQueen

    I’ve made this butter cream twice now, however I am having lots of trouble with flavouring it. It always ends up tasting like PURE butter! I have no idea what I am doing wrong, but I know the frosting is not supposed to taste like a fluffy,whipped butterball! HELP!
    Hi. Without knowing what you’re using for flavor, I’m flying a little blind here, but one thing I’d advise is not to skip the salt. I’ve found it makes a big difference in the balance of the frosting. This recipe is pretty tolerant of flavor additions; I’ve successfully added coconut milk powder (up to 1/2 cup) and flavoring (ours is pretty strong, but you could go up to 1 teaspoon), espresso powder (1 to 2 tablespoons) dissolved in a tablespoonful of Kahlua along with 3 to 4 ounces of melted chocolate, citrus zest (as much as you want, almost), vanilla, almond, and vanilla-butternut flavorings. The strength of the flavors you get may depend on the age of your ingredients, too. I hope this helps. ~Susan

    Reply
  9. lex

    I’m wondering how long the buttercream can go before it needs to be refrigerated. Is it stable at room temp? and for how long? Great post!
    That depends on the environment in your kitchen or pantry. If it is relatively cool (62 – 64 degrees) you may keep it at room temp for up to 48 hours. You will always have to remix buttercream no matter how long it sits to “lift” it up. Apply a little heat (double boiler or very quick microwave) and use your paddle on your mixer or use a hand whisk. If the temps are like summer (75 degrees or more), buttercream should really be stored in the frig passed 6 hours at room temperature. Elisabeth

    Reply
  10. Anita Jeffers

    I would like to put Italian Meringue on a cream pie like Butterscotch after the pie has cooled of course. Then brown the meringue just a little under the broiler for color. Do you think that would work ok?
    I am concerned about weeping. How could I make the meringue a little thicker or tighter?
    Would the meringue be safe to leave on the counter or in the frig?
    Thank you and Hugs for all your hard work!
    This sounds wonderful for a butterscotch pie! You can add about 1 tsp cornstarch per 4 egg whites to stabilize the meringue. I hope this is helpful. ~Amy
    If you’re doing an Italian meringue you’ll be cooking the sugar and it will be thoroughly dissolved, so that should keep things from weeping (undissolved sugar will take up water). Stir in a teaspoon of cornstarch to the sugar you rain into the egg whites when you’re whipping them (before the syrup is added). That make the meringue a little tighter and give you some weeping insurance.
    Susan

    Reply

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