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3 Tips for Better Powdered Sugar Frosting

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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.

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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Tags: Weeknight Cooking, Bake, Tips & Techniques, DIY Food, Everyday Cooking, How-To & Diy