Those beautiful cakes you see in the bakery window or the box of cupcakes at an office party are likely decorated with buttercream. But, what kind? “Buttercream” is a word used for a whole category of frostings, so it is helpful to know the different kinds so you can make the one you love most. The buttercream most of us grew up with, the kind that piped into colorful decorations and were just slightly crunchy on the outside and creamy in the middle is American buttercream. The shiny, smooth covering on a wedding cake with pristine edges and delicate flowers is likely Swiss or Italian Meringue buttercream. There are others that are rich and creamy like pudding. They are all delicious but have their own personality and functions. Here is a deep dive into the types of buttercream I use most.
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What is buttercream?
As the name suggests buttercream is a type of frosting made with lots of butter. There are many kinds of buttercream, usually assigned to a country (see below), but I’m not sure the names actually indicate the origin. They’re all delicious but have varying levels of sweetness, different textures and some are easier than others.
Are buttercream and frosting the same?
Buttercream is a type of frosting, which is a thick cake covering vs. icing, which is thinner and then a glaze is really just a hint of a covering.
What buttercream is best?
Well this all depends on what you’re using it for! Is it for a kids party? Then your best bet is likely American Buttercream because it tends to be a little sweeter and the consistency kids are used to. Think about the consistency of canned frosting, that’s closest to American buttercream. Want something light and fluffy and perfectly smooth? Italian buttercream is a great option. I go into detail about all the types below and what they’re best used for.
Types of Buttercream
There are several types of “buttercream,” each with their own consistency. I suggest trying them all to find your favorite. I tend to use them for different occasions and cakes. Go with super familiar and easy American Buttercream or try one you’ve never had before. Italian Meringue Buttercream is similar to American Buttercream, just a touch lighter and fluffier, but it requires a candy thermometer to make. German Buttercream is based on custard, so it’s super-rich and creamy. My ultra-rich buttercream is silky smooth and my family’s favorite!
American Buttercream: This is the sweet buttercream made by combining butter and confectioners’ sugar, that most of us grew up loving. It’s by far the easiest and fastest to make. It is a blank canvas for whatever flavor you can imagine. I’ve made berry, caramel, chocolate, espresso, peanut butter and more. This creamy covering will set with a sugary crust as it sits, so spread it just after mixing. It is a sturdy buttercream for piping designs and they will keep their shape well. It also takes color really well.
French or Ultra-rich Buttercream: This is one of my favorite buttercreams because it is rich, luscious, and goes with just about any cake for any occasion. It also uses up all the egg yolks I tend to hoard from my angel food, pavlova and other egg white–only recipes. The recipe in my book, Zoë Bakes Cakes, is inspired by one of my baking mentors, Flo Braker, from her book The Simple Art of Perfect Baking. Flo’s recipe required cooking a hot sugar syrup and pouring it carefully into whipping egg yolks, which required a candy thermometer and a sense of adventure that some home bakers may feel intimidated by. I simply cook the yolks and sugar over a double boiler (as I do with Swiss Meringue Buttercream), whip the cooked yolk mixture, and add butter. Much simpler, and the results are what cake dreams are made of. The color is creamy and not pure white, so keep that in mind if you are wanting to tint the buttercream to decorate.
German Buttercream: This recipe combines two of my favorite things, luscious pastry cream and butter. Part pudding and part frosting, the texture of this buttercream is sublime—it’s like velvet and is super-rich. The flavor profile can be made to match whatever cake creation you are making. The color is not pure white but it does take color well.
Italian Meringue Buttercream: Italian meringue buttercream has a reputation for being the strongest of the buttercreams, in terms of holding up on a cake, but I feel its real strength is in its texture. This buttercream is made from pouring boiling sugar syrup, brought to just the right temperature on a candy thermometer, into whipping egg whites, thereby cooking them and making them safe to eat. This whips up into an incredibly light, but stable buttercream. This is excellent for occasion cakes and pipes beautifully. It takes on flavor and color really well.
Swiss Meringue Buttercream (recipe at the end of this post): This is my go-to buttercream, because it is fast, easy, and never fails me. This buttercream goes through an awkward phase about midway through the addition of the butter. It will look soupy and as if it might never regain its composure, but it will, I promise. As long as you whip those eggs until they are room temperature and add room-temperature butter, it should snap back into shape; it may just take the very last tablespoon of butter to get it in line. This decorates and pipes like a dream and takes on flavors and color really well.
- Honey variation: This technique can also be done with honey, which is so wonderful.
Tips for Making Buttercream
Butter temperature: The most important thing is to make sure your butter is the right temperature, so it holds air and has some structure. In all cases I use room temperature butter. Your fingers should press easily into the stick of butter but it should have enough body that when you lift the stick it holds its shape. If your butter is too soft and the buttercream will not have enough body and will be too soft to cover a cake. If your butter is too firm and the buttercream may end up with lumps of butter because it won’t easily whip into the sugar base.
Type of butter: The flavor is all about the butter, so use a good variety. If you go with a European butter, which is higher in fat and tends to be yellow in color, like Kerrygold, the texture may be a bit softer and the color of the buttercream will come out a romantic antique off-white color, as opposed to a bright white.
Awkward stage: When mixing up a batch of Swiss to Italian meringue buttercreams it can go through an awkward stage that actually looks like it is turning to soup or a curdled mess. Once you add the last of the butter it should come together in a smooth and thick frosting.
Too soft: If the buttercream is still too soft after adding all the butter, it can be that your butter was soft. You can stick the bowl in the refrigerator for a couple of minutes, mix and repeat until the butter firms up to the right consistency. Be careful not to leave it in the refrigerator too long or it will get hard around the edges and create lumps. This can take a few in and outs of the refrigerator. If that isn’t doing the trick, then add a few more tablespoons of butter and it should come together.
Too stiff: If your buttercream is too stiff and tight to easily frost a cake or pipe with, you can soften it by waving a blow torch on the metal bowl of the mixer, just for a few seconds. Let the heat of the bowl soften the buttercream and repeat until the right consistency.
Flavors: Buttercream is the perfect vehicle for adding flavor to a cake. You can add spices, nut butters, booze, chocolate, nuts, preserves, berries, citrus zest and juice, herbs, fruit powders, coffee powder, vanilla beans or just about anything you can image. The rule of thumb is to add enough of the ingredient to flavor the buttercream without changing the consistency too much. If you are using a liquid, you need to add it sparingly. If you are adding Nutella, which is similar in consistency to the buttercream, you can get away with adding more. Start slow, taste often and add until it satisfies you.
To add chocolate: melt the chocolate, let it come to room temperature and then add it slowly to the mixing bowl of buttercream. I add about 4oz (112g) of melted chocolate to a batch of buttercream.
Colors: I like to use powdered, paste or gel food colors for the most intense color. You can also use natural food dyes but the color will not be as intense and can change colors if you are adding it to something acidic, like lemon buttercream.
Storage: You can store buttercream at room temperature for 24 hours. After that you can refrigerate it for 5 days or freeze it for months. I put the soft buttercream in plastic wrap packets, then double wrap, mark with the date and chill. See below for more information about freezing and using thawed buttercream.
How to Decorate with Buttercream
How to Crumb Coat
The truth is, you don’t HAVE to do the crumb coat, as long as you are confident you can cover the cake without kicking up all kinds of crumbs as you go. This will come with experience. I rarely bother with a crumb coat, but if you’re just getting started in your cake-making journey, give yourself the peace of mind of a solid crumb coat.
You will want to lock in all the loose cake crumbs so they don’t end up speckling the outside of your frosting. This is called a crumb coat. It is a particularly clever move when you have a dark chocolate cake, covered in white frosting. Simply take a small amount of whatever frosting you are using to cover the cake and spread it in a super-thin, even layer. It is okay and even expected that it will be chock-full of crumbs, hence the name. Be careful not to swipe your crumb-coated spatula back into the clean bowl of frosting. I usually swipe the blade clean along the edge of a small bowl.
Once the cake is completely covered, all the gaps in the layers are filled, and you’ve checked to make sure the sides are straight, refrigerate or freeze the cake until the crumb coat is no longer tacky, about 20 minutes. Now the crumbs are locked into this solid layer of frosting, and you can have a sense of serenity as you cover the cake in a final layer of frosting.
Putting on the Final Layer of Frosting
Once your cake is trimmed, filled, stacked, and has a chilled crumb coat, you are ready to put on the final, pristine layer of frosting. Make sure your cake is perfectly centered on the cake turner, with a damp square of paper towel under the cardboard. Put a large amount of frosting on the top of the cake and, using a metal decorating spatula, spread it over the surface; keep the frosting as flat and even as possible. Make the top of the frosting level. You’ll push the frosting ever so slightly over the rim of the cake, just so it is teetering on the edge but not slouching down the side. This slight overhang of frosting will eventually end up creating the crisp right angle on the edge of your cake and takes it from pretty to sleek.
Spackle the sides of the cake with more frosting. If you’ve crumb-coated your cake, this will be easy, and you won’t have to concern yourself with getting crumbs in the frosting as you go. Add a lot of frosting and don’t worry about it being smooth at this point; just cover the cake. Once the whole thing is covered and rather rustic looking, it’s time to clean up the excess frosting and create the smooth sides.
To smooth the frosting evenly, it is crucial to have the cake centered on the cake turner; otherwise, it will be wonky as it spins. Holding a metal icing spatula, a bench scraper, or a decorating comb straight up and down and at a 20-degree angle against the cake, steadily rotate the cake turner. Very gently press the spatula against the spinning cake. Don’t move the spatula. Let the cake turner do all the work; by keeping the spatula in place and allowing the cake turner to do the spinning, you’ll avoid scraping off too much of the frosting or getting swipe marks from the spatula. As frosting builds up on the spatula, wipe it clean. The more cakes you make, the more natural this will feel. Once the frosting is even and smooth, you’ll want to make sure there are no gaps. If there are holes, fill them in and then smooth it out again. If there are pockmarks, you can heat the spatula with hot water to slightly melt the outer layer of frosting and make it as smooth as possible. Try not to overwork the frosting or you’ll start to hit the cake beneath. If that happens, don’t fret; just add more frost- ing and start again.
Once the sides are smooth, you should have a ridge of frosting that is jutting straight up around the edge of the cake, like a crown. Sometimes I leave this crown; but for the sake of this lesson, I’m swiping it clean. Use the spatula to smooth the top edge by dragging it at a 20-degree angle from the outer edge of the “crown” to the center of the cake, then lift the spatula up; don’t go beyond the center. Rotate the cake a quarter turn and repeat, wiping the spatula clean between each swipe. Continue until the top is flat and the sides are a crisp right angle. Don’t be tempted to smooth the frosting up and over from the side to the top of the cake because this will result in a rounded edge. If your edges are not perfect, don’t worry about it; that is why we invented decorative border edge piping—to hide any imperfection.
How to Set Up and Fill a Piping Bag
First, you need to set up and fill your piping bag. Select a piping tip and slip it into a pastry bag, or use a tip coupler if you think you may switch tips along the way. Cut the bottom of the bag to fit the tip or coupler. Start small, since you can always cut more, but if you cut the hole too big, there’s no going back.
Make sure your frosting is nice and smooth by stirring it until all of the air bubbles are worked out. You can do this by hand or in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Air bubbles in a piping bag mean an interruption in the flow of the frosting, so to get a clean line or flower, you want a smooth frosting.
To fill the bag:
- Fold over the top of the bag so you have about a 3-inch / 7.5cm collar. Use a spatula to fill the bag with frosting, trying to keep it as neat as possible. Any frosting that ends up on the outside of the bag will be all over your hands as you work. Every time you need to refill the bag, fold over the top again.
- Unfold the top of the bag and use your fingertips to squeeze the frosting to the bot- tom of the bag. Twist the top of the bag until it creates tight pressure on the frosting inside and some comes out the bottom. It is now ready to use.
- As you are piping, always maintain the tight twist and pressure on the bag, so you’ll have to stop piping on occasion to twist the top. There should be so much pressure in the bag that you can easily squeeze out the frosting with one hand.
- Your other hand should just be used as a guide to lead the tip. So don’t wrap both hands around the bag to create pressure or your hands will warm the buttercream and melt it.
Can buttercream frosting be frozen? Unless otherwise noted in the recipe, you can freeze buttercream or other frostings for several weeks/months. Make the frosting and wrap it really well in plastic (this is how it is done in professional kitchens) or transfer to an airtight container, before putting in the freezer.
When ready to use, let the still-wrapped frosting defrost for at least a few hours (or overnight) at room temperature before remixing in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. The frosting may appear to have separated but should re-emulsify at room temperature. If the frosting hasn’t thawed all the way through, pass it over a pan of simmering water for a few seconds and then mix again. Repeat as needed. I also use my blowtorch for this task because it’s more fun and I can warm chilled frosting while it is mixing. Just wave the tip of the flame quickly over the metal bowl for a few seconds as the mixer is running. Repeat until the frosting is smooth.
Should leftover cake with buttercream be refrigerated? You can, but they can sit out covered for days, as long as there is no whipped cream or other ingredient that will go bad at room temperature. Be sure to bring the cake back to room temperature before serving or the buttercream will taste hard and greasy.
Can you freeze a cake decorated with buttercream icing? Yes. Chill the cake to harden the buttercream, then wrap it in plastic, so it won’t dry out. If there is an intricate design, it will get compressed by the plastic wrap, so keep that in mind if you are hoping to present it later. Best to decorate after it defrosts.
How to avoid buttercream that tastes like a stick of butter. If your butter isn’t whipped enough it can feel greasy and taste just of butter. The trick is having the temperature of the butter soft enough, so it takes on lots of air. Also, you may need to flavor the buttercream more intensely, so that it isn’t just the butter you taste. Finally, make sure you are serving buttercream at room temperature.Any advice for bakers new to cake decorating? Get yourself a few bags and tips and practice a lot. In culinary school we practiced piping simple patterns with thick mayonnaise, just to get the feel for it. Make a batch of buttercream and pipe lots of flowers, you can always throw them back in the bowl, so you’re not wasting any buttercream. Be patient with yourself and have a cup of tea or wine close by!
Cake Decorating Equipment
Here is a list of the equipment I recommend for baking cakes, decorating, and more. If you’re just getting started with decorating, I’d suggest starting with the following tools:
- Revolving cake stand
- 16 inch featherweight or disposable piping bags
- Tips: star tip, rose tip, round tip
- If you’d like to learn to pipe roses, you’ll also need a rose nail.
- Revolving Cake Decorating Stand Let it do the work for you. A must to get a perfectly smooth finish!
- Straight or Offset 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, whichever feels more comfortable.
- Stand 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!
- 2 cups (400g) granulated sugar
- 1 cup (240ml) egg whites from about 5 eggs, at room temperature
- 3 cups (660g) unsalted butter at room temperature
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- pinch kosher salt
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine the sugar and egg whites and beat on medium speed to mix. The mixture will be very thick and grainy.
- Put 1 inch / 2.5cm of water in the bottom of a double boiler or a medium saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer over medium-low heat. Place the bowl with the sugar mixture over the simmering water and stir the mixture with a rubber spatula until the sugar is completely melted. Brush down the sides of the bowl. Feel the mixture between your fingers to check for graininess. Once all the sugar has melted and the mixture is smooth, the syrup is hot enough (140°F / 60°C) to be safe to consume.
- Return the bowl to the stand mixer fitted with a clean whisk attachment and beat on medium-high speed until the egg foam is light, fluffy, and glossy and the bowl feels just about room temperature. (If the egg foam isn't cooled sufficiently, the butter will melt when you add it.)
- Once the egg foam is whipped and cooled, turn the mixer speed to medium, add the butter, two tablespoons at a time, and beat until incorporated. 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. Turn the speed to low, add the vanilla and salt, and mix until incorporated.
- Use immediately.
- Use champagne extract, as I did in the show. Just be sure to start slow and taste as you go.
- PRO TIP from Pastry Chef Minda Ringdahl of Copper Hen Cakery & Kitchen: You can reduce a bottle of champagne to a thick concentrated syrup. You will need to reduce the sugar content of the buttercream and add the syrup to taste. Minda has used this method with red wine in an American buttercream (yum!) and I have tried champagne in buttercream as well!