Baking School Day 7: Buttercream

Baking School Day 7: Buttercream

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Tessa Huff
Oct 13, 2015
(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

The Kitchn's Baking School Day 7: All about buttercream.
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Swirled high atop a cupcake or intricately piped onto a wedding cake, buttercream is the fluffy, sugary, creamy frosting our dreams are made of. There are several different types of buttercream, serving an array of purposes throughout the pastry kitchen. But all of these fillings and frostings have one major component in common with each other: butter.

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

The 6 Major Types of Buttercream

There are six major kinds of buttercream, which range in texture, sweetness, and degree of difficulty. Let's take a closer look at each one and where they might be used, as well as their pros and cons.

American Buttercream

This type of buttercream is made primarily of powdered sugar and unsalted butter — it is as incredibly simple to make as it is sweet and fluffy. It's the kind of frosting most often found on cupcakes at your neighborhood bakery and at birthday parties.

Due to all of the powdered sugar used to stiffen this frosting, it's harder to flavor, especially with other sweet elements like fruit preserves or caramel. Since this is a no-cook buttercream, the sugar does not completely dissolve and may result in a grainy texture. It is not as light and silky as many other kind of buttercream, although this heaviness makes it easy to pipe.

  • Pros: The easiest and quickest buttercream to whip up, requires no cooking, firm and easy to pipe with, easy to color.
  • Cons: Very sweet, does not withstand heat very well, grainy mouthfeel, has a tendency to crust when it dries.

See how to make American buttercream:

How To Make a Basic Buttercream

Swiss Meringue Buttercream

Swiss meringue buttercream is probably the most standard buttercream for pastry professionals. It is incredibly smooth, making it an extremely popular choice for icing cakes. Compared to American buttercream, it has a much stronger butter flavor, but is considerably less sweet. It is also much easier to flavor, like by adding jams, melted chocolate, caramel, or different extracts.

For this buttercream, egg whites and sugar are cooked over a double-boiler until warmed to 160°F before whipping them and adding in the butter. This also pasteurizes the whites, making it safe to consume. The result is an extremely silky, luscious frosting that is perfect for frosting cakes - great for creating super-smooth sides and crisp edges.

  • Pros: Velvety smooth, great for piping and frosting cakes, egg whites are safe to eat, easy to flavor, mild sweetness.
  • Cons: Moderate to difficult to make, requires more time and equipment.

Italian Meringue Buttercream

Similar to Swiss buttercream, Italian meringue buttercream is as creamy and smooth as they come. This is the most stable buttercream and holds up to heat the longest. You've probably eaten Italian meringue buttercream on a fancy wedding cake.

So why is Italian meringue buttercream not more popular? Anything that involves pouring boiling sugar into delicate egg whites might make anyone hesitate. Yes, to make this buttercream, sugar and water are boiled together to 238°F, and then carefully streamed into whipped egg whites. Did I mention this is done with the mixer running on high? The sugar syrup partially cooks the eggs as they're being whipped to medium peaks, and then butter is added. This method might seem scary, but after a few tries and a bit of confidence, it is not as hard as you might think.

  • Pros: Best buttercream to stand up to heat and prolonged exposure (think wedding cake on a warm day), mild sweetness, luxurious mouthfeel.
  • Con: More difficult to make.

French Meringue Buttercream

Similar to Italian in its preparation, French meringue buttercream is extremely rich yet creamy. Instead of using egg whites alone, like in Italian buttercream, this version uses egg yolks. As the sugar and water boil, egg yolks are whipped into pale ribbons. The higher fat content from the yolks makes French buttercream decadent and pleasantly flavorful.

  • Pros: Rich in flavor, yet light in density.
  • Cons: More difficult to make, pale yellow in color from the egg yolks, does not stand up to heat very well, may be more difficult to pipe with.

German Buttercream

Looking for something a bit more refined than American buttercream, but not ready to dive into a meringue-based buttercream yet? Try German buttercream!

This variation starts with a base made from custard — cooked eggs and cream, like classic ice cream base. Once the custard cools, you whip it with butter to create a creamy, dreamy frosting. The custard base makes for a pleasant taste that is not as buttery as a meringue-based buttercream. You can also infuse the custard base to make different flavors!

  • Pros: Moderate difficulty level, creamy and mild taste.
  • Cons: Does not stand up to heat well, too soft for some piping and smaller details, pale yellow in color.

Cooked-Flour Buttercream

Also known as heritage, ermine, and boiled-milk frosting, this buttercream starts with — you guessed it! — cooked flour. If you can make a roux, you can make this buttercream. The roux thickens as it cools, and is then whipped with softened butter and sugar.

This buttercream is a bit old-fashioned; it's actually the original buttercream paired with a classic Red Velvet Cake, not cream cheese frosting like it is usually frosted with today. Cooked-flour buttercream is light and soft with a mild sweet flavor.

  • Pros: Fairly easy to make, mild taste, does not require eggs.
  • Cons: Does not withstand heat very well, too soft for some piping and smaller details.

Putting the "Butter" in Buttercream

It might be obvious (it's right there in the name, after all!), but butter is definitely an important component when it comes to making any of these buttercream frostings. Let's take a moment to actually think about what the butter is doing to create these luscious, spreadable frostings.

The butter in a buttercream recipe makes up the bulk of the frosting. In fact, butter accounts for typically about 30 to 50 percent of a buttercream recipe. Butter is what gives the frosting structure, making it able to be piped or spread in a thick layer.

Since butter makes up so much of a buttercream recipe, it is important to use a good-quality butter — one with a pleasing taste (typically unsalted) and without too high of a water content. Using substitutes like margarine and shortening alter the flavor, mouthfeel, and structure. Sometimes small amounts of shortening are added to help stabilize buttercream and prevent it from melting.

How to Fix a "Broken" Buttercream

Like in all baking, temperature plays an important role in creating a smooth buttercream. In order to emulsify and blend into the frosting easily, the butter and all other ingredients should be room temperature. If while mixing, a buttercream appears to be "broken" — curdled or soupy — then the temperature of the butter is usually to blame.

If the butter is too warm, the buttercream will appear soupy and separated. Try popping the mixing bowl and its contents into the fridge for about 10 minutes, then continue to mix.

If the butter is too cold, the buttercream will appear curdled, chunky, or simply won't come together no matter how much you mix. Sometimes all you need is time, especially for a meringue-based buttercream; just keep mixing until the frosting becomes silky-smooth, even as long as eight minutes. If you are using a stainless steel mixing bowl, try wrapping a towel around the base or heating the outside of the bowl with a kitchen torch. Keep mixing and moving the torch around until the contents gradually heat up and come together.

If you're in a hurry or using a torch sounds intimidating, try removing a portion of the buttercream and gently heating it up in the microwave — just enough to soften it and warm it up, but not so much to melt the butter. Add it back into the buttercream and mix until combined.

(Image credit: Tessa Huff)

Using Buttercream to Frost Baked Goods

Buttercream is a finished recipe, yet something we don't usually eat by itself. When making a cake, it can be spread between layers and used to frost the outside, creating anything from a smooth finish to a fluffy, rustic finish. It can also be carefully piped around the top and bottom edges of the cake to create delicate borders. On cupcakes, it may be piped with various piping tips or spread with a metal spatula for a more homemade look.

Some not-so-obvious uses for buttercream include spreading on brownies, filling macarons, slathering on whoopie pies, and sandwiching between cookies.

Beyond Basic Vanilla Buttercream

The flavor variations for buttercreams are endless. Beyond traditional vanilla and classic chocolate, the only limit is your imagination! Some of my favorites include adding a few tablespoons of strong espresso, stirring in some salted caramel sauce, or adding fresh strawberry puree. For a simple swap, try switching the vanilla extract for others like peppermint, almond, and lemon.

Be careful when adding liquids — adding too much may compromise the structure of the buttercream. Fold in denser ingredients, like peanut butter and praline paste, until fully combined; these are great at adding flavor while keeping the integrity of the buttercream. Another way to flavor your buttercream? Infuse the butter itself before getting started!

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

Every lesson has three homework options. Maybe you’ve already got one down, or you just have time for a quick study session. So pick one, and show us by tagging it with #kitchnbakingschool on Instagram or Twitter.

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

Watch this video on piping buttercream.

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

Make a basic buttercream.

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

Color or flavor the buttercream you just made. Share it with us on Twitter!

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