5 Mistakes to Avoid When Making Buttercream

updated Dec 3, 2022
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(Image credit: Faith Durand)

While I certainly enjoy the cake portion of a slice of cake or a cupcake, I’m really in it for the buttercream frosting. That thick, sugary frosting brings the sweetest finishing touch to these desserts. There are a few different styles of buttercream, but no matter which one you make, be sure to avoid these mistakes.

1. Starting with cold butter.

Not only does cold, hard butter prove much tougher to work with, but it also could be the reason your buttercream frosting doesn’t come together — no matter how long you keep mixing. Cold ingredients can also leave buttercream with a curdled or chunky consistency.

Follow this tip: Always start with room-temperature ingredients — especially when it comes to the butter. Take it out of the fridge 30 to 60 minutes before getting started to bring it to room temperature. The butter should be malleable without being melted or greasy.

2. Using a butter substitute.

As the name implies, butter is meant to be the main ingredient in this sweet frosting. It’s what gives buttercream its structure, so it can be easily piped or spread over the cake. When you opt for a substitute, like margarine or shortening, it will alter the flavor, mouthfeel, and structure of the buttercream.

Follow this tip: Since butter makes up so much of a batch of buttercream (one-third to half is butter!), stick with using good-quality, unsalted butter. Use a brand that tastes good to you, and even better if it has a high percentage of fat and low water content.

3. Using the wrong type of sugar for the job.

When it comes to making buttercream, not all sugar is created equal. Swap granulated for powdered sugar when making a classic American buttercream, and you’ll find yourself with a super gritty frosting. On the flip side, trying to use powdered sugar for a cooked or European-style buttercream won’t quite yield the result you’re hoping for.

Follow this tip: Before getting started, decide which type of buttercream frosting best suits your dessert. When making an American-style buttercream, stick with powdered sugar; it easily dissolves into the butter, resulting in a frosting with a smooth consistency.

When making any European-style buttercream, the sugar is first cooked down into a syrup, so granulated sugar is the best choice to get the job done.

4. Adding too much liquid.

Buttercream needs a little bit of liquid to loosen it up — a splash of milk, a flavored extract like vanilla, or even a touch of liquor – but when you have too much liquid, you may end up with a buttercream that’s too thin and soupy to work with.

Follow this tip: When the consistency of buttercream is just right, it can be easily spread across a cake and piped into decorations that hold their shape. Take it slow when adding liquids. Start with a small amount and add more a spoonful at a time, if necessary. It’s much easier to add more liquid as needed than it is to fix a super-thin buttercream.

5. Giving up on your broken buttercream.

While this can happen with almost any type of buttercream, it’s most common with meringue buttercreams. If the buttercream breaks, trust me — you’ll know it. The fat and liquid don’t emulsify, and you have a mixture that looks like lumpy cottage cheese with a lot of extra liquid.

It could have happened from a difference in temperature between the ingredients, or perhaps from not quite cooking the sugar enough. Either way, this isn’t reason to toss your buttercream.

Follow this tip: Despite how bad that buttercream may look, don’t give up so fast — time could prove to be the simplest fix. Continue mixing the buttercream for a few more minutes and it’s likely to come back together on its own.

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