It’s a little more complicated than just mixing butter and sugar.
The world of sweet, fluffy buttercreams that top cupcakes and hold together towering layer cakes is far more intricate than simply whipping butter and sugar together. In fact, many classic buttercream variations rely on slightly more advanced pastry techniques and involve eggs to create their signature light, yet rich, character. Home bakers tend to opt for the less involved varieties, like American buttercream and flour buttercream, but that are definitely others worth exploring. Each frosting in the buttercream family offers unique qualities in terms of color, texture, lightness, and flavor, so I’d always encourage folks to test a few to determine which version they prefer best. They all have deliver a great buttery flavor that can be upgraded with vanilla, lemon, almond, or orange extracts. You can also mix in melted chocolate, pumpkin pie spice, or maple syrup as flavor enhancers. Add a hint of color with sprinkles or food coloring for vibrant hues ready to make an Instagram debut. Now, all you have to do is decide which buttercream you want to start with. Here’s a rundown of the 6 major varieties:
The American-style buttercream is the simplest and sweetest take on buttercream because it utilizes super fine confectioner’s sugar. As there is no cooking involved, this method has become synonymous with the easy go-to for buttercream. Typically about 4 cups of sifted confectioner’s sugar is blended with 1 cup of room temperature butter that has been whipped and loosened slightly with a few tablespoon of cream. One of the best things about American buttercream (especially for beginners) is that it leaves room for error. If the frosting is too thick, add a bit more cream, and if you want it a bit stiffer, add more sugar. When icing cakes, cupcakes, or cookies with this cream frosting, be sure that your baked goods are completely cool. This frosting is prone to melting and slipping straight down the sides of your freshly baked goods if they’re too warm. Remember, this simple icing consists primarily of butter and sugar, so you do not have a sturdy stabilizing agent to prevent the butter from melting rapidly.
The French style of making buttercream involves whipping eggs yolks (sometimes you will see whole eggs whipped, depending on the recipe) into a light yellow frothy mixture, then rapidly whipping a hot sugar syrup into the egg yolks —this mixture is known as a pâte à bombe as it mixes. The sugar syrup is first heated to a softball stage (around 240°F) and proceeds to cook the eggs with its residual heat. You continually whip the mixture as it cools down, and the butter is gradually incorporated in for a fluffy finish. Between the egg yolks and butter, this buttercream is very rich and technically among the most complicated to make.
Italian meringue creates the base of this buttercream utilizing egg whites that are whipped to stiff peaks and, similar to the French style, cooked with a hot sugar mixture heat to 240°F. The egg white and sugar mixture are continually mixed until fluffy, then room temperature butter is gradually worked in. This buttercream is highly stable and can withstand sitting at room temperature for a good while without losing much of its body. The Italian buttercream is pale white and takes on color very well. For decorating, it’s best to make a big batch of this buttercream and use food coloring to tint multiple portions of the frosting with your desired colors.
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Swiss meringue is this base of a Swiss buttercream, which is made by warming egg whites and sugar carefully over a double boiler to a maintain temperature around 140°F. The egg mixture is stirred constantly to prevent any small bits of egg white from fully coagulating. At the desired temperature, the eggs whites and sugar are removed from the heat and whipped into stiff peaks before room temperature butter is whipped in. Pro tip: If you come across cooked egg whites in your meringue mixture, strain the mixture through a fine mesh sieve before whipping it.
Also known as Bavarian buttercream, German buttercream is a custard-based frosting. The custard is made by cooking a mixture of whole eggs or egg yolks, milk, cornstarch, and butter until thickened. The custard is cooled and whipped with room temperature butter and additional sugar if needed. This method yields a more warmly yellow-tinted cream frosting that’s as ideal to use as a filling for donuts as it is to frost cupcakes. However, this buttercream does not fare so well in the heat, so definitely keep this in mind when you’re ready to frost your (completely cooled) baked goods.
Not as well known as its other buttercream brethren, the flour buttercream is an old-school method of cooking flour to make a pudding-based cream. This buttercream goes by a few other names as well—Ermine icing, boiled flour frosting, pudding-style buttercream—making recipes for it a little difficult to track down if you’re not sure what you’re looking for. The flour frosting was traditionally used on Red Velvet Cakes before cream cheese frosting took over. The buttercream starts off by warming milk and flour to create a roux-like mixture. Sugar and butter are creamed together in separate bowl, and the flour mixture is then gradually added until fully incorporates. Since the flour is essentially cooked with the milk, you don’t need to worry about a grainy, floury taste.