Italian Buttercream Frosting: how to make this blissful buttercream

Buttercream frosting means different things to different bakers. If you’ve gone to the trouble to make a special cake, how you choose to finish it can be a pressure-packed situation. Buttercream frosting is the obvious choice, but that term is the tip of a pretty big iceberg. I wrote at length about the many types of buttercream back in 2011, but today’s buttercream frosting tutorial is for Italian Buttercream, my hands-down favorite.

Italian buttercream takes some time and effort, but the rewards are many. It’s incredibly silky and smooth, yet pipes beautifully. It can be flavored and colored any way you wish and tastes wonderful. The frosting is often at its best paired with a contrasting filling, such as lemon curd or jam.

Learn how to make Italian buttercream frosting: the place where cake goes to put on its party clothes! Click To Tweet

Let’s make some, shall we?

How to make Italian buttercream frosting

Before you do anything, take your unsalted butter out of the refrigerator and cut it into cubes. The butter should be between 65°F and 70°F by the time you’re putting it in the mixer.

buttercream frosting via @kingarthurflour

To start the meringue, you’ll need:

1/2 cup meringue powder + 1 cup water, or 8 fresh egg whites + 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup granulated sugar
buttercream frosting via @kingarthurflour

Put the meringue powder, water, and salt (or the egg whites, cream of tartar, and salt) in the bowl of a stand mixer. Use the whisk attachment to move the powder around to moisten it, and to incorporate the salt.

buttercream frosting via @kingarthurflour

Whip at medium-high speed until the whites become opaque, the whisk leaves tracks in the bowl, and the mixture holds a soft peak when you pull the whisk out.

buttercream frosting via @kingarthurflour

With the mixer running, gradually add the sugar and whip until the meringue is shiny. At this point you can turn the mixer off or leave it running at its lowest speed.

Make the sugar syrup

In a small, preferably nonstick saucepan with a pour spout, combine:

1/2 cup water
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar

Place the pan on the stove over medium heat.

buttercream frosting via @kingarthurflour

Stir at first, just until the sugar dissolves, then don’t stir anymore.

buttercream frosting via @kingarthurflour

Bring to a boil and grab your digital thermometer. Cook the syrup until it reaches at least 240°F; I like to hit 245°F and you can go as high as 250°F before the syrup begins to color and turn to caramel. The sugar syrup is going to cook the meringue, setting the proteins in the egg whites and creating a stable base for the frosting.

buttercream frosting via @kingarthurflour

When the syrup is ready, the bubbles are large and make a snapping noise. Head for the mixer immediately and turn it to medium-high speed.

buttercream frosting via @kingarthurflourPour the syrup down the side of the bowl, in the sweet spot between the bowl and the track of the whisk. This can be a trouble spot; having a pan with a slight indentation on the side makes this easier to pour. If you have no such pan…

buttercream frosting via @kingarthurflour

…grease the inside of a heatproof measuring cup with a spout, and carefully but quickly pour your hot syrup from the pan into the cup, and from there right into the meringue.

Let the mixer run. The meringue needs to cool to about 80°F before adding the butter, or else you’ll have butter soup instead of frosting.

While you have the thermometer out, check your butter’s temperature. If it’s above 70°F, put it back in the refrigerator for 5 minutes (set a timer!). If it’s below 60°F, find a warm place for it for a few minutes.

Too hot, too cold, just right?

Ideally, the meringue should be about 80°F before you start adding butter. Don’t be too nervous about this. If you place your hands on the base of the mixer’s bowl and it’s lukewarm, you’re in the neighborhood. If the bowl is a little warm to the touch, start by incorporating cooler butter. For example, the first third of the butter can be more toward 60°F — the colder butter will bring down the meringue’s temperature the rest of the way. After that, it’s important that your butter is at 70°F, otherwise you can end up with lumps of unincorporated butter.

Some folks use flexible ice packs around the mixer’s bowl to help the meringue’s temperature drop more quickly. I will admit on hot days to doing the same.

buttercream frosting via@kingarthurflour

To finish the frosting, you’ll need:

1 1/2 pounds unsalted butter, cut in 1″ cubes
1 teaspoon to 2 tablespoons flavoring (I opted for 2 teaspoons vanilla extract)
1/2 cup vegetable shortening (optional; more about that later)

Once the meringue is cooled, it’s time to add the butter a little at a time with the mixer running. I made two batches of buttercream, one on the too-warm side, and one on the colder-than-it-should-have-been side. They both worked. Let’s take a look at each.

First, the warmer one

After the first few chunks of butter are added and mixed in…

buttercream frosting via@kingarthurflour

…the meringue will deflate. In the case of this warm meringue, the mixture in the bowl looks like thick butter soup. No worries, things will even out as we carry on. Keep adding the butter a few chunks at a time, waiting until they’re absorbed before adding more.

buttercream frosting via @kingarthurflour

The frosting just as it begins its “come together” moment. The pool of butter soup in the center of the whisk hasn’t been absorbed into the emulsion yet.

After going through its awkward adolescent phase where you’re sure you’ve ruined the whole thing, suddenly you’ll see this magical moment.

The frosting becomes fluffy around the whisk; if you look in the center there’s still a remnant of butter soup that has yet to be incorporated, but a few more chunks of butter and more beating and success is at hand.

Now, the cooler one

Let’s look at how a cooler meringue behaves.

buttercream frosting via @kingarthurflour

The cooler meringue deflates a little more dramatically after the first few chunks of butter.

As we add more soft butter, things get ugly.

buttercream frosting via @kingarthurflour

The buttercream with colder meringue now looks like cottage cheese, and once again you may think you’ve ruined it.

This is the moment where you need to trust yourself (and me) and carry on. Keep beating, keep adding butter. If all the butter is in and it still looks like this, there are three ways to get across the finish line.

Option 1: The beat(ing) goes on

The first is just to let the mixer go, and go, and go. buttercream frosting via @kingarthurflour

Eventually you’ll see this: fluffy frosting in the center of the bowl. In this case, the unincorporated remnants are on the outside of the bowl.

Option 2: Grab a hairdryer

Which brings me to my second option for cooler meringue: You can bring it together faster with the help of a hairdryer aimed at the outside of the bowl. It will warm up the outer edges and the whisk will bring everything together.

buttercream frosting via @kingarthurflour

Option 3: Shortening to the rescue

If you wish there was a magic bullet to cure ugly buttercream, you’re looking at it. A little bit of shortening brings buttercream together, warm or cold. It will also make the frosting a little sturdier if you’re serving the cake in a warm environment.

buttercream frosting via @kingarthurflour

Time to flavor things up and make a cake. You can go to this roundup of cake making videos and decorating tips to get warmed up.

The big finish

Since you’ve been such a trooper, you’ll be glad to know the payoff is how beautiful this buttercream frosting is to work with.

buttercream frosting via @kingarthurflour

Always frost in two stages. A thin crumb coat over completely cooled, filled layers first. Refrigerate the cake for half an hour to let that firm up. Finally, the second (finish) coat, including any piping you feel inspired to do.

buttercream frosting via @kingarthurflour

In conclusion, Italian Buttercream frosting is a little time consuming, but ever so worth it.

I can’t imagine trying to do this for the first time (or any time) without a good digital thermometer. If you want to take your baking from fingers crossed to confident, I sincerely recommend you make the investment in this tool.  Once you have it in hand, you can spread your wings and give this one a try; let us know what kind of cake you made and how your frosting goes in the comments below.

Thanks to Anne Mientka for the photos in this article.

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. Raquel

    Hi. How can I make this recipe chocolate ? Also, was wondering are you using the same thermometer for the syrup & butter? And – what thermometer(s) brand do you recommend ?
    I’ve always wanted to try making this, but have always been intimidated. I think I can pull it off with this tutorial and your awesome pics!!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Raquel, we asked our Buttercream Queen, Susan Reid, how she would go about making a chocolate version of this recipe and here’s what she had to offer: “What I did [to make chocolate Italian Buttercream] was make a ganache, 50/50 bittersweet chocolate and cream, and whip that in to the finished buttercream. For super dark-looking buttercream, you could add a tablespoon of cocoa powder to the meringue once the syrup is in but that can get tricky.” We recommend starting by making a basic chocolate ganache, using about 4 ounces of chocolate and 4 ounces of cream for a chocolate-forward buttercream. (You can reduce the amounts if you want the chocolate flavor to be more subtle.) We hope this helps, and happy baking! Kye@KAF

  2. Bobby

    How much is needed to frost two dozen cupcakes and what holds up better, the meringue power with water or the tartar powder with egg whites? Thanks!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Bobby. A single batch should be perfect for your cupcakes — it’s never a bad thing to have a little leftover for the chef! Meringue powder and fresh meringues are pretty comparable, but meringue powder tends to be slightly more stable. Happy baking! Annabelle@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Kellie. If you’re not going to use and serve your buttercream within 4 hours, we recommend putting it or your cake into the fridge. 4 hours is often the limit for perishable products. Happy baking! Annabelle@KAF

  3. Marylouise

    Hi Susan,
    Thanks for this recipe but before I try it, my question—if you put the sugar syrup in a greased measuring container, will the whites still beat to peak stage? I’ve always heard to make sure there is no oil, butter, or grease in the bowl when making a meringue. So won’t the oil in the measuring container incorporate with the sugar syrup?
    Thanks,
    MaryLouise

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid, post author

      Hi there, Marylouise! You’re correct that any grease in the mixing bowl when you are trying to whip the egg whites and establish the airy meringue is a very bad thing. But if you’ll go back and look over the photos, at the point where the sugar syrup is being poured into the mixer, the meringue is already established and nicely poofy. The heat from the sugar syrup cooks the whites and sets them, and the meringue is able to withstand any trace of fat that may come in from the measuring cup. If you’ve ever made a genoise, the idea is the same. Meringue is made, then flour and melted butter are folded into it. In neither case does all the air instantly disappear. I hope this helps. Susan

  4. Carmen Seatla

    First time I read a recipe for Italian Buttercream that indicates the correct temperatures during the procedure to make it. Many thanks for publishing your knowledge. Highly appreciated. Now, please I would like to know if this Italian Buttercream could be made as a Caramel Italian Buttercream by bringing the syrup to a golden caramel stage. If so, should it be the amount of sugar-syrup the same? Thanks in advance.

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid, post author

      Hi, Carmen. Thanks for the good words. I have occasionally let the syrup go a little too far, and everything still works. If the syrup becomes a light golden color the frosting tastes like toasted marshmallow. I think you could take it further and it would be awesome. You could also toast the sugar that goes into the meringue to reinforce the caramel flavor. Check out Stella Parks’ method for this (the sugar is amazing in cookies, cakes, and coffee, too). Susan

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Absolutely, Terry! You can store it in your fridge for up to a week. It freezes very well. If it’s been frozen, let it thaw in the fridge overnight, then let it come to room temperature before using it. You might see a little weeping or separation, but a quick spin in the mixer will fix it right up. Annabelle@KAF

    2. Susan Reid, post author

      Yes, Terry, it will keep in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Take it out at least 2 hours before you want to use it. If it separates or is hard to work with, throw it back in the mixer and whip it for a few minutes. Susan

  5. ELOYCE Moffat

    This looks wonderfully, I have a wedding cake to do for a grand son, would this frosting work on a large cake like this. How much frosting is in a batch, can it be doubled, and can it be used for flowers, like roses?

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid, post author

      Hi there, Elocyce. This is the frosting I put on all the wedding cakes that I make. The recipe makes between 7 and 7 1/2 cups. Doubling depends on how big your mixer is; it’s too big to double in a 4 1/2 quart mixer, a 5 quart is still too small, and maybe it could fit in a 7-quart. I’d recommend doing a 1 1/2 x batch to get 10 cups of frosting at a time. It pipes roses beautifully. Susan

    1. Susan Reid, post author

      Hi, Laurie. I find Swiss to be a softer frosting. The Italian is a little tighter, and tends to hold shapes better, IMHO. Susan

  6. Linda Eng

    Please explain why it is safe to use raw egg white in this recipe or for other recipes like royal icing. Thank you.

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid, post author

      Hi, Linda. We have taken the temperature of the meringue after adding the sugar syrup, and it gets above 161°F (the high end of the danger zone) to between 163°F and 168°F. Bacteria are killed at 160°F. Royal icing is a different story: bacteria needs water to reproduce, and sugar is hygroscopic, attracting the water in the recipe to form a crystalline structure. Once royal icing dries, there’s no water in the icing environment to allow bacteria to reproduce. That said, meringue powder takes any risk from raw egg whites out of the equation. Hope this helps. Susan

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *