Cooking Tips · Techniques

Buttercream – A Rich Delight

Buttercream – Just the word sounds rich, doesn’t it? Are you the type that licks the buttercream frosting off the cake because you think it is the best part? Or, is it too rich for you and you prefer the underlying cake? Whichever you are, how to make buttercream is an excellent skill to have and is the subject of this week’s Cooking Tip.

Buttercream is a type of frosting/icing that can be used as a filling, an icing or for decorating cakes or pastries. There are different types of buttercream that require different ingredients and techniques.

As the name indicates, butter is a major ingredient in buttercream. So, be sure to use a high quality butter. Unsalted butter is recommended to prevent your buttercream from tasting salty. The butter needs to be softened to incorporate properly. You should be able to press an indentation into the butter. According to Cooks Illustrated, softened butter sold be 65-67°F.

I like the way that Serious Eats categorizes buttercream. They put all buttercreams into two types.

  1. Beaten-butter method. This method has you adding some sort of sweet base into beaten butter. You start by beating softened butter until fluffy. Then, you add your base, which will differ according to which type you are making. (More details below) Finally, you mix in any flavorings you want. Examples include American, flour and German buttercream.

  2. Cubed -butter method. This is made by adding cubes of softened butter to a sweetened egg foam. These would be French, Italian and Swiss buttercreams.

The easiest and quickest type of buttercream is sometimes called Simple Buttercream or American Buttercream. It has three main ingredients: softened butter, powdered sugar and milk/cream. Some like to whip the butter before adding the powdered sugar and then add the cream. Others just cream the softened butter and powdered sugar together and then add milk/cream until the desired consistency is reached. The powdered sugar helps to thicken the mixture without the need for eggs. Flavorings such as vanilla may also be added. This is definitely the easiest buttercream but is also the sweetest. It is the firmest buttercream but the butter tends to melt in very warm environments. If you want to serve this outside on a warm day, this buttercream may not be your best choice.

Flour buttercream has a pudding base made of milk, sugar and flour. This is cooked but then cooled before being mixed into the whipped butter. It results in a buttercream this is less sweet and more stable in heat.

German buttercream uses a custard or pastry cream in place of the simple pudding as in the flour buttercream. Because the custard contains eggs, it will be more yellow than others. It tends to be softer than other buttercreams but you can use a thicker custard base to counteract this. It is another choice not well suited to warmer temperatures.

The buttercreams made by the cubed-butter method are also called European or meringue-based buttercream. Meringues are a topic in and of themselves and one on which I wrote an earlier Cooking Tip. There are three types of meringues – French, Swiss and Italian. peaks. For more detail, see this Cooking Tip. Each of these meringues can be used to create a different type of buttercream.

Swiss method – this starts by cooking egg whites and sugar over a hot water bath until the sugar has dissolved. This is whipped to peaks and then soft butter is beaten into the mixture until it is smooth. This method is quick and easy and yields a very light and fluffy buttercream. It is a very stable buttercream that can be used to ice a cake or pipe decorations.

French method – this is made by whipping whole eggs or egg yolks to a thick foam with a hot sugar syrup and then whipping in soft butter. As you are using eggs or yolks, it will yield a richer buttercream. Because of the egg yolks, this buttercream will be more yellow in color. It is a decadent buttercream but does not hold its shape very well, especially in warm environments.

Italian method – Similar to French with the substitution of egg whites for the whole eggs or egg yolks. Because there are no yolks, this buttercream will be whiter in color. It tends to hold up well in warm temperatures.

According to The Professional Pastry Chef, buttercream can be stored at room temperature for three to four days and in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. For longer storage, freezing is recommended. You will need to remove it from the refrigerator with enough time for it to soften before using it. To speed up the softening, you can break it into small pieces (as you would with cold butter) and place in a warm location. You may even warm these pieces in a bain marie, stirring vigorously until it is smooth and shiny. Continue to stir after removing from the heat as the bowl will remain warm and start to melt the buttercream on the sides of the bowl. Do your best to not overheat

Do you have a favorite buttercream? Or, does it depend on how much time you have or its intended usage?
Let me know.