How-to Video: Smoothly Buttercream a Cake (recipe included)

how to buttercream a cake | photo by Zoë François

In the first two cake decorating videos I demonstrated how to cut, fill and crumb coat your cake. Now we are ready to put on the final coat of icing. I chose a very simple vanilla Swiss Meringue Buttercream to cover the cake. It is elegant, smooth and has a wonderfully rich flavor, but isn’t overly sweet. It can be left pure vanilla or you can easily add flavors to compliment your cake. This buttercream is wonderful for piping roses or doing basket weave as well. Before we get into the finishing touches we want to create a smooth surface, which will act as a canvas. If your cake is straight and smooth it will be stunning without any flourishes at all, but it will also show off your decorating prowess if you want to add some flowers or writing.

Also see my other How-to Cake Decorating Videos:

Part 1: Cut and Fill a Cake Like a Pro!

Part 2: Crumb Coat Your Cake

Vanilla Swiss Meringue Buttercream:

(This makes enough to cover one 8-inch cake, plus more for piping decorations)

1 cup egg whites (about 8 egg whites)

2 cups sugar

1 1/2 pounds unsalted butter, room temperature

Pinch salt

1 teaspoon vanilla

Adding color or flavorings: When you are adding to the buttercream be sure that you are not changing the consistency of it too much. If you want to add a liqueur or other liquid, do it in small intervals until you have the taste you want. If you want a coffee flavor, it may be best to use a slightly diluted espresso powder.

how to buttercream a cake | photo by Zoë François

In the bowl of your stand mixer combine the egg whites and sugar. It will be very thick and grainy.

how to buttercream a cake | photo by Zoë François

Put the bowl over a double boiler and stir it with a rubber spatula until the sugar is completely melted. This can take several minutes. You want to brush the sides down with the spatula to make sure all the sugar is melted and no grains are clinging to the sides.

how to buttercream a cake | photo by Zoë François

Feel the egg mixture between your fingers to check for graininess. Once it is completely smooth and has no grains left, put it on your stand mixer and beat with the whip attachment on medium high speed.

how to buttercream a cake | photo by Zoë François

Beat it until it is light, fluffy, glossy and the bowl feels just about room temperature. If the whites are not cooled off sufficiently it will melt the butter when you add it.

how to buttercream a cake | photo by Zoë François

Once the egg whites are whipped and cooled, add the butter to it, 2 tablespoons at a time on medium speed.

how to buttercream a cake | photo by Zoë François

WARNING: After you have added about half of the butter, it may look curdled and runny, this is normal and you should continue adding the rest of the butter.

how to buttercream a cake | photo by Zoë François

Once you have finished adding the butter and it has mixed on medium speed for about a minute the buttercream should be creamy and glossy looking again.* Add the salt, vanilla and any flavorings you choose.

*If the buttercream is still runny at this point, it may be that your butter or egg whites were too warm. Just place the bowl in the refrigerator for about 3 minutes and stir, then repeat in the refrigerator for another 3 minutes and stir. This will chill the butter, but the stirring will prevent it from solidifying too much. Repeat this until it is the right consistency.

Now you are ready to cover your cake:

Equipment I use in this video:

Revolving Cake Decorating Stand – Let it do the work for you. A must to get a perfectly smooth finish!

Spatula – make sure the blade is long enough to cover the entire cake. If it is too short you will have streaks in your icing. You can use a straight or off-set spatula, which ever feels more comfortable.

5-Quart Mixer for making buttercream – you can also do this with a hand held mixer, but this takes much longer. I like equipment that frees me up to be doing other things!

Check out my other videos in this cake decorating series:

How to Cut and Fill a Cake Like a Pro

How to Crumb Coat a Cake

57 thoughts to “How-to Video: Smoothly Buttercream a Cake (recipe included)”

  1. Oh goodness, I wish I had seen this a few days ago. I did a layer cake (you can click over to my blog to see it if you want) and had so much trouble getting the top smooth. Now seeing how you do it, I was going about it all the wrong way and ended up with a messy edge on the top.

  2. Zoe, I just taught a baking class last night and I asked each student what baking thing they feared the most. Several people said buttercream! So I sent each of them the link to this post which is genius and so informative and so well done. I have made countless layer cakes (including my own wedding cake) but have just been able to crack the code for smoothness. Now I can’t wait to make the next one. Bravo!

    1. Hi Dana,

      Thank you so much for the lovely note! I am so glad that you found the post helpful and were able to share it with your students!

      Cheers ,Zoë

  3. Thanks so much for posting Zoe, I am making a 4-tier chocolate layer cake with pink buttercream for a girlfriend’s birthday on Friday and hopefully I’ll get the frosting as smooth as yours!

  4. Hey Zoe – I was wondering, (and I’m going to assume the answer is yes but I may be completely wrong) can I use a simple buttercream and achieve the same results?

    Love the blog – I happened upon it while doing (erm…) “research” at work!

    1. Hi Katherine,

      Do you mean one made with butter and confectioners’ sugar? Yes, it will work, but it may not get as smooth, but very close!

      Enjoy, Zoë

  5. Thanks SO much for this how-to, it is so informative!! And congratulations on the Saveur honor!!! Your blog is incredible and inspiring 😀

  6. I’m really enjoying this series of videos, but am wondering about the timing of all this. If I want to have a cake ready to go Wednesday evening, for example, should I bake tonight (Monday), keep the cake if the freezer (or fridge?) overnight tonight, crumb layer tomorrow, keep the cake in the fridge, and then do the final coat on Wednesday before serving? Many many thanks.

    1. Hi Hannah,

      The timing depends on what else you need to do with your day. I have baked, crumb coated, done the final icing and decorated all in one day. But, I have also done it in stages, over the course of a couple of days. If you bake the cake on the same day you are going to decorate it, be sure to give yourself plenty of time for it to cool COMPLETELY.

      Thanks and enjoy! Zoë

  7. Wow! What a wonderful video-it really makes each step clear and easy to follow. I have always been frustrated at not being able to get that really clean, “square” look to my iced cakes. I think I might actually be able to achieve that now! Thanks so much and would love to see more!

  8. Zoe,
    thanks for the tips. I just started making cakes so this will help. how long do you recommend for freezer time after the crumb coat and time after you pull it out before the final icing? In general how long do your cakes stay fresh? I was reading that refrigeration excelerates the stalness.

    1. Hi Jerod,

      I usually allow the cake to sit in the freezer for about 10-20 minutes. This depends on how warm the icing was the begin with and the size of the cake.

      The amount of time a cake can stay fresh without freezing totally depends on the type of cake. A light genoise (sponge style) will get stale very quickly, while a carrot cake will stay moist for at least a few days or more.

      Thanks, Zoë

  9. Nice site but was suprised to see poeple still ice a cake with a cake knife. I have been doing this as a profession for +35 years and haven’t iced a cake this way in the last 20 some years. I think it works well if you are just making one cake at home but is far to slow for a business making 4 weddingcakes yourself per week-end. I don’t think I could even ice a cake like this anymore. I use a bag and cake icer. And have never put my cakes in the fridge or freezer. And have never crumb coated a cake, and have no crumbs in my icing, one of my peeves. So many ways to achieve the same out come. Congrats

  10. Oldbones, I work in a professional bakery as well, a very LARGE production bakery which distributes cakes, breads, doughnuts, cinnamon rolls, etc. to coffee shops, grocery stores, and other smaller bakeries all over our city (and an entire metro are of about 2 million people). We ice our cakes with a cake spatula. I’m not even ALLOWED to take the time to fill a bag and use the icer tip. I’m told it takes too much time, and the bakery owner keeps a very close eye on labor costs. I also applied at a grocery store bakery a few years ago that also just ices the cake with the spatula, no icer tip.

  11. Finally i found a recipe for buttercream and a video. I will try it today, i’am making a birthday cake for my cousin with a bow on the top. Hope to make it smooth like yours.

  12. Hi zoe, I did the buttercream it’s so delicious, but I didn’t coat the cake as smooth as yours 🙁 I need to practice more, but it was good job for the first time. I want to ask something: can I use this buttercream for decorating cupcakes, I usually decorate the cupcake with butter and powder sugar cream, but the butter in my home country not as good as I used to use it when I was in London. So can I use this buttercream for cupcakes?

  13. I cut the recipe down to 1/8 (I wanted to practice before making a large amount), and it came out perfect until I had to whip the egg whites. It didn’t fluff up after whipping it on high speed for 20 minutes. What could have I done wrong? Do I have to whip it longer, or was the recipe too small?

  14. Hi! Thanks for the great video. I just made my first homemade cake last weekend for a friend’s birthday, and it turned out okay. It was another frosting recipe, and I had trouble icing it. These tips will surely help me the next time. Your vid is easy to follow!

  15. Once you have frosted the cake, does it have to be refrigerated, since this is a meringue buttercream. I will complete the cake a day before needed, due to my time schedule. How long can I keep it out of the refrigerator before eating. In doors but No air conditioning.

    1. Hi Margie,

      It totally depends on what is inside the cake. If it is something like whipped cream or mousse, then it has to be refrigerated, but if it is something that will hold up at room temperature the cake will be fine to sit out for several hours or a day ahead. If you have a cake dome or something to cover it, it will stay fresher.

      Enjoy, Zoë

  16. Hi Zoe,

    Thank you for the videos. I just joined up a cake decorating class – the buttercream recipe in the class uses Shortening, water and meringue powder.

    Can I use your recipe with Meringue Powder instead of the egg whites? I don’t like the (lack of) flavor of the shortening, but like the idea of using meringue powder because it is pasteurized.

    Also, what adjustment will I need to make the icing stiffer or thinner (for piping roses, vs. covering the cake)?

    thanks!

    Shruti

    1. Hi Shruti,

      Oh, this is an interesting question. I have never found that meringue powder creates as strong a meringue to make a stable buttercream. You will just have to try it and see if you like the results.

      Thanks, Zoë

  17. Hi Zoe, I loved your video. I have a question: do I have to store a cake with this buttercream in the fridge or can I store it in a cool place.
    the reason I am asking is that I put the iced cake in the fridge and when I took it out to cut it it looked like that the buttercream was seperating from the cake, which you don’t want it to happen.

    1. Hi Christiane,

      You can store the cake at room temperature, as long as the filling doesn’t require refrigeration. The buttercream is best served at room temperature, so if you do chill the cake, be sure to let it sit for a long while at room temp before serving.

      Thanks, Zoë

  18. Zoe, that icing looks amazing! I am making a fondant covered birthday cake for my niece and nephews birthday party. Do you think that that this buttercream will hold up to the pressure of fondant or should I use a more traditional buttercream recipe? What recipe would you suggest? Since I can not refrigerate fondant will it be alright for this icing to be out for a few hours? I ask because I wonder if the fondant will try to pull off the cake if the icing gets too soft.
    Thank you! 🙂

    1. Hi Carla,

      I have used this buttercream under fondant. It will hold up just fine as long as it isn’t too warm out. If the cake will be outside in the heat, then you may want to use a butter cream that has a little more stability.

      Thanks and enjoy! Zoë

  19. I love this video!!! 🙂 Just one question before I start doing it… 1.5 pound butter = 675gram butter? I just to make sure the right measurement because I am not really familiar with pounds. Thank you for sharing your video and technique… bless you! 🙂 xxx

  20. Hi! I am really excited to do this frosting recipe for my sisters 14th birthday which is in 5 days. I was wondering if you whip the egg whites that where mixed into the sugar will turn unto a fluffy white frosting. If it works, instead of using a whip attachment, can you use a paddle attachment? Please respond. Thanks.

    1. Hi Kristen,

      In order to incorporate enough air into the egg whites to make meringue, you need to use the whisk attachment. The paddle just doesn’t aerate the whites enough to make them fluffy.

      Hope that helps! Zoë

    1. Hi Jenica,

      Are you wondering about the buttercream? It is fully cooked over a double boiler, but I would check with your pediatrician if you have any concern.

      Thanks, Zoë

  21. Hi, absolutely love your How-to videos 🙂
    Well, i want to make a cute birthday cake but i want to cover it with sugar paste.
    I wonder if this buttercream coat is good for me to cover it after with sugar paste. Last time i tried, i did a buttercream frosting but it was too sweet… this recipe seems nicer, but i don’t know if it’s better for that purpose.
    Could you help me? Thanks a lot! 🙂

  22. Hi Zoe 🙂
    ive crumb coated my cake once using SMBC. Then i put it in the freezer to set. However a problem arose when i took it out for final coating, where there was condensation happening on the crumb coat thus making it difficult for the final layer of icing to *stick* on the crumb coat layer. I ended up glazing my cake with ganache instead.

    I dont noe if u ever experience this. How do u avoid the condensation? Or did i put it in the fridge for too long/too cold? Id appreciate it if you can help me because i really love SMBC! Thanks zoe! 😀

  23. Hi Zoe. Your site is always such a great reference, even a post like this that’s been up for quite some time! I make a great chocolate cake with whipped cream frosting and then ganache on the top. However I need to make another version of it that doesn’t require refrigeration. So I’m thinking this might be the ticket! But I’m wondering if the sweetness would be too much with the ganache on top, compared to a sweetened whipped cream? (Trying to find a buttercream recipe that would match that taste the best.) And can this frosting be frozen and then thawed overnight in the fridge, if I wanted to make enough at one time for a few cakes? Would love those details if you have a minute. Thanks!

  24. Question–Do you cook SMB until you don’t feel any graininess or do you continue cooking it until it reaches 160 degrees for safety?
    Thanks
    Pam

    1. Hi Jenna,

      If it is not smoothing out, you can add a couple more tablespoons of butter until it is smooth. Was the meringue room temperature when you started adding the butter? If it seemed overly soupy, the meringue may not have been cool enough and melted the butter.

      Thanks, Zoë

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