Mmmm… Deliciousness. One of the cool things about buttercream is there are so many styles and flavors that really it is hard to get tired of the stuff. And really, it is so simple to make on your own. I am confident that once you try it, you will never buy the stuff in a plastic tub again.
But first, let’s learn a little about buttercream before we check out a couple recipes at the end.
Buttercream (also known as butter cream, butter icing, and mock cream) is a type of icing or filling generally used for topping cupcakes, sponge cakes, butter cakes, and other desserts and also used to fill cakes, as a coating, or as decoration. Breaking it down to its simplest form, it is made by creaming butter with powdered sugar. Instead of butter, other fats such as margarine or lard, can be used but why would you? Butter is the way to go always, but that’s just me. Colors and flavors are often added, such as chocolate, fruit purees, and various extracts such as vanilla.
Simple buttercream, also known as American buttercream, decorator’s buttercream, and decorator’s frosting, (or as I like to call it- basic buttercream ’cause it has that double ‘b’ thing going and that makes it fun to say. Try it. Go on.), is made by creaming together fats such as butter, margarine, or vegetable shortening along with powdered sugar to the desired consistency and lightness. Typically twice as much sugar as butter by weight is used. Compared to other types of buttercreams, simple buttercream has a high proportion of sugar content, making it the sweetest of all the buttercreams.
Flavorings, such as vanilla extract or oils, can be added as well.
There are two types of meringue-based buttercream Italian and Swiss which use Italian and Swiss meringue respectively. These meringues must be cooled to room temperature in order not to melt the butter (which has a variable melting point below 40C/104F) as it is subsequently beaten in.
Italian meringue is prepared by the addition of sugar syrup made by heating sugar and water (and sometimes the addition of glucose or corn syrup to stabilize the crystal structure) heated to the soft-ball stage (118C/240F) to egg whites whipped to soft peaks. The sugar syrup cooks the egg whites, heating them well past the 60C (140F) recommended in the USA to kill salmonella and any other potentially harmful bacteria. The syrup and egg white mixture is then whipped and cooled until it reaches room temperature. Buttercream prepared in this method is also often referred to as Mousseline buttercream.
Swiss Meringue is prepared by cooking the egg whites and sugar together in a bowl placed on a pot of boiling water. The mixture is whisked while it cooks until the temperature of the mix reaches 60C or 150F. You then remove the mixture from the heat and whip it at high speed until it forms stiff peaks and has cooled. (Now I can’t get that Devo song out of my head. You know the one right? Whip it. Whip it good!)
Regardless of which of the two types of meringue you use as the base, once it is prepared, butter and flavorings (extracts or oils) are then very slowly beaten into the meringue to transform the meringue into buttercream. Meringue-based buttercreams are light and creamy in texture and balanced between sweetness and richness. They are probably easier to work with when icing and decorating cakes and don’t ‘crust over’ like a simple buttercream is want to do.
French buttercream is prepared in the same way as Italian meringue-based buttercream, except egg yolks are used in place of the egg whites although some versions use whole eggs or a combination of the two. Up to you really. Then a hot sugar syrup which has reached the soft-ball stage (240F /115C) is beaten into the egg yolks which have already been beaten until they are thick and pale yellow. The syrup and egg yolk mixture is further whipped until it has formed a light foam and has cooled. Butter and flavorings are then whipped in.
This frosting is very rich, smooth, and light and super delicious! French buttercream tends to melt faster than other buttercreams due to the high content of fat from the butter and egg yolks and butter and thus is best suited to be used as a filling or an icing, not for decorations.
Let’s talk about fat. Really, it is the fat that makes buttercream taste so amazing. I have said it before and will say it again. It is not the fat that makes you fat, it is sitting around and eating too much fat that makes you fat. So live it up. Enjoy some cake and delicious buttercream will ya? Like anything, just enjoy in moderation and go outside and play. So there. My public service announcement for the day.
You have to have fat in a buttercream frosting for stability. So, which to use?
Margarine and shortening
Thanks to the cost-cutting suits, hydrogenated vegetable shortenings and margarine became popular ingredients in commercial frosting and icings during the 20th century. Shortening does not melt in the mouth like butter which leads to a heavy, greasy feel inside of the mouth. Not too tasty.
For some reason, folks still like white wedding cakes so for that you need the shortening.
And who knows what kind of chemicals and trans fats and other stuff is in there?
Sweet cream unsalted butter is my fat of choice for buttercreams. In fact, it is what most people use as well, hence the name. Butter will provide a superior flavor and a more delicate texture and mouthfeel when compared to vegetable shortening.
If you have a choice, go with unsalted butter.
Vanilla and chocolate are the most common additions to buttercream. Clear vanilla extract can be added to the frosting while cocoa powder or melted chocolate is added during the creaming stage or towards the end for chocolate buttercream. Liqueurs or extracts, finely grated citrus zest, juices, food coloring and a host of other things can easily be added to any buttercream.
Just like the Beatles there are so many different versions and they are all good.
I will make buttercream in advance and stick it in an airtight container in the fridge. It will last in there for a while. You will need to work with it when it is at room temperature though. Here is a little secret: take it out of the refrigerator the night before and set it in a cool spot in your kitchen and it will be ready by morning. Easy and everything will be fine.
You also want to eat the buttercream at room temperature so remove your frosted cake from the refrigerator an appropriate amount of time for it to warm up a bit.
All that being said, here are a few easy buttercream recipes:
8 ounces sugar
2 ounces water
3 ounces egg yolk
10 ounces butter, softened
0.12 ounces vanilla extract
1) Combine the sugar and water in a saucepan bringing it to a boil while stirring to dissolve the sugar.
2) Continue to boil until your candy thermometer says the syrup has reached a temperature of 240F (115C).
3) While the syrup is boiling, beat the yolks with a wire whip or the whip attachment of your mixer until they are light and thick.
4) As soon as the syrup reaches 240°F (115C), pour it very slowly into the beaten yolks while whipping constantly.
PRO-TIP: This is not the time to rush things. Really you are not moving on until the outside of the mixing bowl is cool to the touch so slowly pour in the space between the lip of the bowl and the whip attachment. Hit the whip and the syrup just flies all over the place.
5) Continue to whip until the mixture is completely cool and the yolks are very thick and light.
6) Whip in the butter a little at a time. Add it just as fast as it can be absorbed by the mixture.
PRO-TIP: During your mise en place, cut the butter into little cubes the size of a die.
7) Mix in the vanilla.
(yields 22 oz)
8 ounces sugar for Italian meringue
2 ounces water for Italian meringue
4 ounces egg whites for Italian meringue
12 ounces butter, soft
2 ounces emulsified shortening or additional butter
0.08 ounces lemon juice
0.12 ounces vanilla extract
1) Make the meringue. Whip until completely cool.
2) Little by little, add the soft butter and continue to whip. Add each piece only after the previous one has been incorporated. In the same way, whip in the shortening, if using, or the additional butter
3) When all the fat has been incorporated, whip in the lemon juice and vanilla.
4) Continue to whip until the buttercream is smooth.
(yields 27 oz)
Italian meringue is made by beating a hot sugar syrup into the egg whites. Italian Meringue is very stable because the egg whites are cooked by the heat of the syrup. When flavored by vanilla it is also known as boiled icing.
8 ounces sugar
2 ounces water
4 ounces egg whites
1) Heat the sugar and water in a saucepan until the sugar dissolves and the mixture boils. Boil until a candy thermometer placed in the syrup registers 243F (117C).
2) While the syrup is cooking, whip the egg whites in your mixer until they form soft peaks.
3) With the machine running, very slowly mix in the hot syrup.
PRO-TIP: Take your time. Really you are not moving on until the outside of the mixing bowl is cool to the touch so slowly pour in the space between the lip of the bowl and the whip attachment. Hit the whip and the syrup just flies all over the place. Rookie mistake.
4) Continue whipping until the meringue is cool and forms firm peaks.
If you are worried about bacteria in the eggs, don’t be. The sugar syrup cooks the egg whites, heating them well past the 60C (140F) recommended in the USA to kill salmonella and any other potentially harmful bacteria.
6 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature
2 ounces shortening
1 whole egg, room temperature
1 pound confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1) Place butter and shortening into the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment and cream on high until light and fluffy, approximately 3 to 4 minutes.
2) Add the egg and beat until well combined, approximately 1 minute.
3) Turn off the mixer and add 1/2 cup of confectioners’ sugar. Mix on low until combined. Stop and scrape the sides and bottom of bowl. Repeat until all of the sugar has been incorporated.
PRO-TIP: After you add the sugar and before you start mixing again make sure your mixer is turned to the lowest speed. If you try to add the sugar with the mixer still on high… Powdered sugar everywhere! (Don’t ask me why I know that.)
4) Add the vanilla and continue to beat until the frosting is light and smooth, approximately 2 to 3 minutes.
-If you desire chocolate buttercream, just add enough cocoa powder to taste. Start slow as you can always add more but can’t easily take away.
-You can use the vanilla buttercream immediately or store it in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 hours or refrigerate for up to a week. (Those numbers are guidelines. Just use common sense ok?)
-Bring vanilla buttercream to room temperature before using.
So there you have it. A few buttercream recipes. Do you have a favorite? Let me know in the comments.