3 Tips for Better Powdered Sugar Frosting

October 13, 2014

Every week, baking expert Alice Medrich is going rogue on Food52 -- with shortcuts, hacks, and game-changing recipes.

Today: Three tricks for making powdered sugar all it can be.

Powdered sugar frosting, also called quick vanilla frosting, or even vanilla buttercream (let’s please not tell the French), is the frosting most Americans grew up with. It’s easy, super sweet, and does the job in a hurry.

Powdered sugar frosting is basically this: 1 stick (4 ounces/113 grams) of softened butter, into which you beat 4 cups (a one-pound box) of powdered sugar, 1/4 teaspoon of salt, 4 to 6 tablespoons of milk (or other liquid), and 2 teaspoons of vanilla until fluffy. Recipes vary slightly, flavorings abound. You may have your own favorite version.

Here are 2 tips for troubleshooting this type of frosting and 1 tip for improving its flavor.

How to fix frosting that is too stiff: 
Resist the urge to add more liquid. Instead, warm the mixture ever-so-slightly by setting the bowl in a wide bowl or pan of hot tap water for a few seconds at a time, beating after each, until you have the desired consistency. Hint: A stainless steel bowl works best because glass heats up very slowly and then holds the heat for a long time after you remove the bowl from the water, so your frosting may continue to soften even when you don’t want it to.

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How to fix frosting that is too soft or even soupy:
Resist the urge to add more powdered sugar and thus even more sweetness (at least until after you try this): Put the bowl in an ice bath -- this will firm up the butter -- and beat to the desired consistency.

To improve the flavor of powdered sugar frosting:
The starch added to most powdered sugar can make frosting taste slightly metallic. Here’s how to fix that: Melt the butter and mix it with the powdered sugar, salt, and milk in a stainless steel bowl. Set the bowl in a wide skillet of barely simmering water for 5 minutes, stirring from time to time. Remove the bowl from the water, add the vanilla, and beat until cool and fluffy; set the bowl in an ice bath to cool and thicken the frosting faster. 

More: Now get baking -- here are 10 of our simplest cakes.

Get excited about Alice's forthcoming book Flavor Flours: nearly 125 recipes -- from Double Oatmeal Cookies to Buckwheat Gingerbread -- made with wheat flour alternatives like rice flour, oat flour, corn flour, sorghum flour, and teff (not only because they're gluten-free, but for an extra dimension of flavor, too). 

Photos by James Ransom


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  • karen
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My career was sparked by a single bite of a chocolate truffle, made by my Paris landlady in 1972. I returned home to open this country’s first chocolate bakery and dessert shop, Cocolat, and I am often “blamed” for introducing chocolate truffles to America. Today I am the James Beard Foundation and IACP award-winning author of ten cookbooks, teach a chocolate dessert class on, and work with some of the world’s best chocolate companies. In 2018, I won the IACP Award for Best Food-Focused Column (this one!).


karen March 11, 2019
I'm so happy to know this trick I hate to taste frosting and can seem to only taste powdered sugar can't wait to use this tip for sure thanks for sharing.
Sandy L. December 18, 2014
what about freezing powder sugar frosting? My dye came out and the frosting had big white bumps!
Dru F. October 20, 2014
My secret that I add to frosting is few Table spoons of Karo syrup this keeps it creamy and avoids a crusty texture on top.

John F. October 15, 2014
why make a simple joy so much more complicated?
Laura415 October 15, 2014
If you have a food processor you can easily make your own powdered sugar by blitzing regular or superfine granulated sugar. I even made it the other day from organic sugar. Came out soft powdery and creamy white. No starch or fillers in that.
ChefJune October 13, 2014
Love this recipe! Grew up on it. We used to make it chocolate by subbing out a few tablespoons of the powdered sugar for the equal amount of cocoa.
AntoniaJames October 13, 2014
So many great ideas here (as usual). I haven't made this kind of frosting in years, but appreciate the tips for the next time I do! Thank you. ;o)
Alanna K. October 13, 2014
Ahh, interesting because I’ve yielded to both temptations. But isn’t warming/cooling the icing just a temporary adjustment, making it easier to frost the cake, say, but still leaving it too thick/too thin on the cake?
Jade October 15, 2014
I was wondering the exact same thing! :) hopefully someone will help :)
Leah March 25, 2017
I know this is way late but I want to add my two cents for future viewers. These are your first go to fixes. Sometimes icing will thin out when it's overworked. The friction from constant beating can warm the butter affecting the consistency. On the other hand if the frosting is too thick it could be that your butter was too cold to begin with. Warming it up a bit will help bring the butter up to the proper temperature which can help thin it out. If these don't work then you can move on the next step where you can alter the ratios of liquid to sugar.