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Erin McDowell’s Guide to Buttercream

Let’s talk about frosting—and in particular, the most commonly used word relating to frosting: buttercream.

Buttercream is a delicious combination of flavorful butter mixed with plenty of sugar (and, depending on the recipe, some other ingredients) to produce a light, airy, and delightfully smooth finishing touch for cakes and cupcakes. But not all buttercreams are created equal—different recipes use different ingredients and methods and can therefore yield some pretty different results. Below, you’ll find a description of and a recipe for six common buttercreams, along with my suggestions for when to use them.

But first, some general buttercream guidelines:

  • Use room-temperature ingredients: Yes, the old baking adage is just as true when making frosting—room-temperature eggs will whip up more efficiently, room-temperature butter will incorporate better with less chance of separation, and room-temperature flavorings (like cooled melted chocolate, a small amount of fruit purée, etc.) will maintain the texture of the finished buttercream without overly thickening or thinning it.

  • But not too soft for the butter. I find that butter that’s too soft is much more likely to cause separation or a curdled look in the mixer. The butter should be soft enough you can easily break off pieces of it to toss into the mixer, but not so soft that it appears melty or overly greasy on the exterior.

  • Separation can happen. Several types of buttercream recipes can look separated or curdled during the process. Usually, this is solved by continued vigorous mixing—so proceed with the recipe as directed, and don’t fret should things look messy somewhere in the middle.

  • Flavoring and coloring. Buttercreams can be easily flavored with extracts without worry of altering the recipe. Other flavorings can also be added, and when and how to add them varies a bit based on the recipe. Coffee, tea, or herbs can be infused into some recipes (like in the pudding-style buttercream below), whereas ingredients like vanilla bean are added to sugar syrups as they cook (as in Italian buttercream). Chocolate and fruit purée, on the other hand, are usually mixed in at the very end and can be added to nearly any kind of buttercream recipe—though exact amounts may vary based on the recipe itself. You can tint buttercream with food coloring, but note that some buttercreams are more white than others, which makes them better for cleanly taking on other colors.

  • Storage. Buttercream can be made ahead and refrigerated for up to 1 week. Just like butter, it should be stored in an airtight container—otherwise, it might take on other flavors in the fridge. You can reconstitute buttercream in a number of ways, but my favorite is to bring it to room temperature for an hour or so, then transfer it to the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Whip the frosting, occasionally applying heat to the side of the bowl with a kitchen torch. If you don’t have a kitchen torch, you can achieve a similar effect by heating the bowl over a small pot of barely simmering water for a few moments before returning it to the mixer. Continue this process of gentle heating and mixing until the buttercream has regained its smooth texture.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

What it is:
American buttercream is the easiest on this list to make. A relatively thick and dense frosting that’s very sweet and rich, it’s made by creaming butter with confectioners’ sugar until the mixture is spreadable. Vanilla extract is usually added for flavoring, and I like to add a small amount of room-temperature milk or cream to help give it a silkier texture.

When to use it:
This is a great frosting to use for simple recipes, but I do find it especially sweet, so I tend to only use it in places where there’s a single smear of frosting (like atop a cupcake or a single layer cake).

What it is:
Swiss buttercream uses Swiss meringue as a base (read more about the different types of meringue here). Egg whites and sugar are heated over a pot of barely-simmering water until they reach 160°F (this heats the egg whites to a temperature safe for consumption, at which they’re no longer raw). The egg white mixture is then whipped to stiff peaks and until it’s no longer warm, and then room-temperature butter is incorporated until the frosting is light and smooth.

When to use it:
Swiss buttercream is very light in texture, making it a great choice for layer cakes. It’s also relatively white in color, making it one of the best choices if you’re looking to add color to your frosting.

What it is:
Italian buttercream is very similar to Swiss buttercream, except it uses an Italian meringue as a base. Sugar and water are cooked to 240° F while egg whites are beaten to soft peaks. The hot sugar syrup is added to the egg whites, which “cooks” them, making them no longer raw. The meringue is whipped to stiff peaks and until it’s no longer warm. Room-temperature butter is added and mixed in until the frosting is light and smooth.

When to use it:
I use Italian buttercream in the same way as Swiss buttercream—for recipes where I’m hoping to color the frosting or when I’m building tall layer cakes. I prefer Italian buttercream, even though cooking the sugar syrup is an extra step: I find it’s easier to achieve a beautiful, glossy meringue with this method, so I opt for it more often.

What it is:
French buttercream is made following a similar method to Italian buttercream, but it uses a mixture of whole eggs and egg yolks as the base (also known in the pastry world as a pâte à bombe and frequently used as a base for mousse). Because it starts with a base of whole eggs and yolks, this frosting is noticeably richer in color, texture, and flavor. A mixture of sugar and water is cooked to 240°F and poured into the egg mixture with the mixer running. Once the mixture is fully aerated and cool, room-temperature butter is added and the frosting is mixed until light and smooth.

When to use it:
French buttercream is delicious. It’s rich enough to stand on its own in smaller quantities but light and airy enough to be used for layer cakes. However, its pale yellow hue doesn’t make it great for tinting, so I usually go au natural for this one.

What it is:
German buttercream is made using pastry cream as a base. The finished, cooled pastry cream is then whipped and room-temperature butter is added until the mixture is light and smooth. Sometimes, a small amount of confectioners’ sugar is added to maintain the right texture on the finished buttercream.

When to use it:
German buttercream is rich, with a great texture. I don’t necessarily love it for icing the outside of cakes, but it’s great for layering in between layers (it makes great “naked cakes”) and stuffing on the inside of cupcakes (or even doughnuts!). Because you start with pastry cream, it’s easy to infuse the milk with a variety of flavors, from lavender to coffee, to tea, to vanilla bean.

What it is:
This buttercream is often listed under a variety of names, so I just call it “pudding-style” because it starts with a starch-thickened dairy base that’s similar to pudding. The pudding can be very simple, or it can be a more elaborate recipe that will provide the bulk of the flavor to the finished buttercream. Regardless, a pudding is made and cooled, then whipped with room-temperature butter until light and smooth.

When to use it:
This buttercream, in my opinion, is one of the most under-utilized. A bit “old-fashioned,” it was largely discarded by home cooks in favor of the much simpler American buttercream. But pudding-style frosting provides so many options. It’s great for making exciting flavors, like dark chocolate, caramel, or butterscotch—just start with the pudding and go from there. In general, you will want your pudding for buttercream a bit thicker than you might for just eating, so if you’re using a favorite recipe, up the starch by 5 to 10%.

Now that you’re an expert on all six styles of buttercream, it’s time to frost some cakes. Here are a few of our favorite recipes that will let your buttercream shine.

This post was updated in March 2023 with more of our favorite buttercream recipes.

What’s your favorite style of buttercream? Share below!

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