This Is Why Your Buttercream Is Separating, and How to Fix It

published Apr 11, 2023
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cupcake in wrapper on table
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Buttercream is an iconic staple in the baking universe. Colloquially known as frosting, icing, or that stuff you eat with a spoon when no one’s watching, buttercream does indeed contain butter, but does not contain cream. It does, however, make cakes and cupcakes sing. 

There are a few types of buttercream out there: classic buttercream, Swiss meringue buttercream, Italian meringue buttercream, and so on. They all have their individual quirks, but most often when you’re having issues with the consistency of the buttercream, no matter the variety, it’s almost always due to an issue with temperature. 

When you consider that the main ingredient in buttercream is indeed butter, you can imagine the difference the state of butter — whether it’s hot, room temperature, or cold — can make. Thus, temperature is a massive factor in buttercream’s texture.

What Is Separated Buttercream?

A buttercream that has separated is also sometimes referred to as “broken.” The buttercream will often have unattractive lumps and curds, an indication that the butter in your buttercream is too cold. If you use butter that’s too cold to make proper buttercream, it is more difficult to incorporate it into a fluffy, spreadable mixture.

How to Fix Buttercream That Has Separated

If you have a mixing bowl of buttercream that looks separated, don’t worry: You can fix it with a couple steps. The trick is to soften the butter just enough to bring your buttercream to a smooth state. You can do this by warming the bowl with the heat of your hands, wrapping it in a warm towel, or even by using a (very clean) hairdryer! Set the hair dryer to warm or medium heat and direct around the bottom of the bowl. Keep in mind this is meant to only slightly soften the butter, not melt it.

How to Fix Buttercream That Is Too Thin

On the other hand, when your buttercream is thin and liquidy, rather than soft and fluffy, the butter is too warm and needs to chill to solidify. You can fix this by putting the mixing bowl in the freezer for 10 minutes at a time, and bringing it back to the mixer occasionally to see if it’s solidified enough to produce a thick and airy buttercream. Alternatively, you can also wrap the bowl with towel that has been wet and frozen (if you’ve prepared for such a mistake!), or simply a towel that has been dipped in ice water. 

In either instance, after a few minutes of concentration, your buttercream should be back to its silky, luscious self.