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A Guide To Buttercream Frostings

If you do much cake baking at all, you probably have your favorite go-to frosting. But have you ever explored the wider world of buttercreams?

The styles range from meringue-based Swiss and Italian to a roux-like flour buttercream. Some styles are lighter than others; some work better as make-aheads; some stand up beautifully in hot weather while others can melt right off the cake.

This handy buttercream guide details the pros and cons of five different styles. Note: though most of the recipe examples below are for basic vanilla buttercreams, almost all of these can be flavored as you like: in place of the vanilla, beat in other flavor extracts or liqueurs, fruit purees, melted (and cooled) chocolate or cocoa, instant espresso, or citrus zest and a little juice.  See the individual recipes for specifics.

Swiss Buttercream

Recipe: Vanilla Swiss Meringue Buttercream

What it is: It starts with a Swiss meringue: that is, egg whites whisked with sugar over a hot-water bath until the sugar is dissolved (and sometimes until the whites are pasteurized), then whipped to a foam. Once your meringue forms stiff, glossy peaks, you beat in softened butter a bit at a time.

Pros: Easiest to make of the egg-based buttercreams, holds its shape beautifully as piped decorations.

Cons: Denser and less stable than Italian buttercream.

Italian Buttercream

Recipe: Italian Buttercream Frosting

What it is: Another meringue-based buttercream, this one starts by beating uncooked egg whites to the soft-peak stage, and then whipping in a hot sugar syrup to form a meringue. Then, as with Swiss buttercream, room temperature butter is beaten in bit by bit. Our Italian buttercream recipe replaces some of the sugar with corn syrup, so that it’s not necessary to monitor the temperature with a thermometer.

Pros: Lighter and fluffier than Swiss buttercream, fairly stable in hot weather.

Cons: Can be a little trickier to make than Swiss buttercream, especially if you don’t have a stand mixer when it’s time to drizzle in the syrup.

Tip: If you’re using a hand mixer, wrap a towel around the bowl to stabilize it when adding the syrup.

French Buttercream

Recipe: White Chocolate French Buttercream

What it is: French buttercream uses the same technique as Italian, except you’re beating the sugar syrup into whole eggs plus extra egg yolks instead of just egg whites. It makes for a decadent, rich buttercream with a distinctly yellow hue.

Pros: Super-rich, soft, creamy texture.

Cons: As with Italian buttercream, drizzling in the sugar syrup can be tricky (see the tip above). Doesn’t hold up well in the heat. Yellow color doesn’t work well for all flavors.

American Buttercream

Recipe: (American) Lemon Buttercream

What it is: Though this is the simple buttercream many of us grew up with, pastry chefs would argue it’s NOT buttercream: softened butter is beaten until light and fluffy, then confectioner’s sugar and flavorings are beaten in.

Pros: Super quick and easy to make.

Cons: Often gritty in texture and overly sweet; without a flour paste or egg foam to give it “structure,” it melts easily in hot weather.

Tip: If you’re looking for a frosting that’s just as quick and easy but not so gritty or straight-up sweet, consider an alternative like whipped cream frosting or mascarpone frosting.

Flour Buttercream

Recipe: Flour-Based Very Vanilla Buttercream Frosting

What it is: Unlike the egg-based buttercreams, this one starts with a roux of sorts: milk, cream, flour, and sugar are cooked to a thick pudding-like consistency, and beaten until cooled. Then copious amounts of butter are beaten into the pudding.

Pros: Not too sweet, light and airy texture, can’t be overwhipped.

Cons: Must be made ahead and rested so that the ingredients come to the same temperature before the final whipping.

Tip: Don’t panic after initially whipping in the butter; the frosting will initially be a lumpy mess. But keep whisking and it will lighten to a smooth and creamy finish.


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