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Mastering Buttercream Frosting

Baking a show-stopping layer cake or cupcake requires experience, time and patience, but a great place to start is with buttercream frosting. This delectable filling and topper is made with just a handful of ingredients — primarily high-quality butter — but the temperature, timing and consistency have to be right for the frosting to be its fluffiest, buttery-est best. With a few easy tips and tricks, though, you’ll have no trouble mastering this cornerstone of pastry and baking.

Different cultures have their own versions of buttercream frosting, and each is appropriate for different applications. American buttercream tends to be the most common here in the US, and is sweeter and simpler to make than most others. The main ingredients are butter and powdered sugar, plus cream and any desired flavorings. This frosting is generally easy to flavor with vanilla, cocoa powder, spices and other additions; and its simplicity makes it perfect as a quick option. With its high sugar-to-butter ratio (usually 2:1 by weight), this style of frosting has a tendency to crust over when exposed to air for any period of time, making it fairly stable, and ideal for intricate cake decorations.

Outside of American buttercream, other styles include:

Italian buttercream: Less sweet than American buttercream, this luxurious frosting is made with egg whites that are whipped while melted sugar is trickled in. The result is a thick, viscous, and very stable topping and filler that remains soft when exposed to air.

Swiss buttercream: Also less sweet than American buttercream, this style is similar to Italian buttercream, except the sugar and egg whites are heated together in a double-boiler. It has a silky finish that pipes beautifully.

German buttercream: This frosting is more custard-like than other buttercreams, made with whole eggs, cornstarch, sugar and cream. Due to the inclusion of eggs, the frosting is naturally pale yellow, and works best as a filler.

French buttercream: This style calls for whole eggs to be whipped while hot sugar syrup is drizzled in. This frosting behaves more like a pastry cream than a frosting, is very rich, very yellow, and works best when used as a filling.

Korean buttercream: Delicate, yet remarkably able to hold its shape, this style of buttercream works well for decorating cakes with dainty, near-transparent flowers. The raw ingredients are nearly identical to Italian buttercream, but in this case, the butter is cold rather than room temperature when whipped into the mixture.

While these options have their (delicious) uses, each of them requires extreme care when adding ingredients, as well as focused attention on timing and temperature. For the purpose of mastering buttercream, we’re going to focus on tips for making American-style frosting here. Once you’ve aced those, take on the more advanced buttercreams mentioned above.

So, how does a home cook master buttercream?

Use the best-quality butter you can find.

If you have access to Challenge Butter, you’re well on your way to making a delectable buttercream frosting. Because butter makes up between one quarter and one half of a buttercream batch (depending on the recipe), it’s critical to use the best. Look for unsalted butter with a high percentage of fat, and a low percentage of water.

Start with room-temperature butter.

With buttercream frosting, consistency is key. If butter is too cold, it can’t be creamed properly, causing it to separate and become unworkable. At its essence, buttercream frosting is simply preserved creamed butter. To keep it malleable and soft, the butter has to be at room temperature.

...but keep it from melting.

When butter is too warm, it becomes greasy and thin, unable to hold any kind of shape. If you’re baking on a hot day or in a hot climate, “room temperature” may not be ideal. Here’s a good rule of thumb: remove the butter from the fridge about 30-60 minutes before starting the buttercream recipe. If it becomes too soft or warm, place it in a mixing bowl and refrigerate it for 20 minutes, then try to cream it. Alternatively, cream the butter in a bowl over an ice bath, scraping the sides of the bowl down continually.

Make sure you have the right kind of sugar.

Buttercream frosting should be luxuriously smooth, made from sugar that dissolves effortlessly into the butter. Powdered sugar provides the right texture — don’t attempt to swap in granulated sugar unless you want your buttercream to feel gritty. (Conversely, because European and Korean-style buttercreams use melted sugar, granulated sugar is the best option there.)

Go easy with liquid additions.

Adding vanilla, orange juice, whiskey or any other liquid on top of the cream in a buttercream recipe can potentially make your frosting too loose. Think ahead about the consistency you want (e.g. a frosting that can hold its shape and still spread across a cake) and incrementally add liquids until you achieve it. And remember: it’s always better to add too little than too much.

Don’t let that stop you from getting creative!

Think of your buttercream as a blank canvas. Our recipe for Less-Mess Sugar Snowflake Cookies uses simple vanilla buttercream, but others include spices and eggnog, like the filling in our Double Chocolate Eggnog Sandwich Cookies; freeze-dried blueberries in our recipe for Vanilla Chiffon Cake with Blueberry Buttercream; cocoa powder and melted chocolate chips in the chocolate ganache buttercream for our Chocolate Almond Layer Cake; pumpkin pie spice in these Pumpkin Macarons; and white candy melts (or white chocolate chips) for the filling in our Gingerbread Milk Cream Cookies. The possibilities are endless — just aim to keep the flavoring to less than half the weight of the butter in the recipe.

Use it, chill it, or lose it.

At the ideal temperature and consistency, a buttercream needs to be piped or spread right away. Otherwise, store it in the fridge. It will become much stiffer when refrigerated, but it can easily be brought back to room temperature to be used. Store your prepared buttercream in an airtight container, or even a piping bag that’s ready to use.

When served, bring buttercream to room temperature.

Buttercream frosting can feel greasy if served too warm or too cold. Think of Goldilocks: As a rule of thumb, room temperature for buttercream frosting is just right.