Erin McDowell's Guide to All Things Buttercream

Plus, how to make all six different types.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

Let’s talk about frosting—and in particular, the most commonly used word relating to frosting: buttercream.

Buttercream is a delicious combination of flavorful butter mixed with plenty of sugar (and, depending on the recipe, some other ingredients) to produce a light, airy, and delightfully smooth finishing touch for cakes and cupcakes. But not all buttercreams are created equal—different recipes use different ingredients and methods and can therefore yield some pretty different results. Below, you’ll find a description of and a recipe for six common buttercreams, along with my suggestions for when to use them.

But first, some general buttercream guidelines:

  • Use room-temperature ingredients: Yes, the old baking adage is just as true when making frosting—room-temperature eggs will whip up more efficiently, room-temperature butter will incorporate better with less chance of separation, and room-temperature flavorings (like cooled melted chocolate, a small amount of fruit purée, etc.) will maintain the texture of the finished buttercream without overly thickening or thinning it.

  • But not too soft for the butter. I find that butter that’s too soft is much more likely to cause separation or a curdled look in the mixer. The butter should be soft enough you can easily break off pieces of it to toss into the mixer, but not so soft that it appears melty or overly greasy on the exterior.

  • Separation can happen. Several types of buttercream recipes can look separated or curdled during the process. Usually, this is solved by continued vigorous mixing—so proceed with the recipe as directed, and don’t fret should things look messy somewhere in the middle.

  • Flavoring and coloring. Buttercreams can be easily flavored with extracts without worry of altering the recipe. Other flavorings can also be added, and when and how to add them varies a bit based on the recipe. Coffee, tea, or herbs can be infused into some recipes (like in the pudding-style buttercream below), whereas ingredients like vanilla bean are added to sugar syrups as they cook (as in Italian buttercream). Chocolate and fruit purée, on the other hand, are usually mixed in at the very end and can be added to nearly any kind of buttercream recipe—though exact amounts may vary based on the recipe itself. You can tint buttercream with food coloring, but note that some buttercreams are more white than others, which makes them better for cleanly taking on other colors.

  • Storage. Buttercream can be made ahead and refrigerated for up to 1 week. Just like butter, it should be stored in an airtight container—otherwise, it might take on other flavors in the fridge. You can reconstitute buttercream in a number of ways, but my favorite is to bring it to room temperature for an hour or so, then transfer it to the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Whip the frosting, occasionally applying heat to the side of the bowl with a kitchen torch. If you don’t have a kitchen torch, you can achieve a similar effect by heating the bowl over a small pot of barely simmering water for a few moments before returning it to the mixer. Continue this process of gentle heating and mixing until the buttercream has regained its smooth texture.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

American Buttercream

What it is:
American buttercream is the easiest on this list to make. A relatively thick and dense frosting that's very sweet and rich, it's made by creaming butter with confectioners' sugar until the mixture is spreadable. Vanilla extract is usually added for flavoring, and I like to add a small amount of room-temperature milk or cream to help give it a silkier texture.

When to use it:
This is a great frosting to use for simple recipes, but I do find it especially sweet, so I tend to only use it in places where there’s a single smear of frosting (like atop a cupcake or a single layer cake).

Swiss Buttercream

What it is:
Swiss buttercream uses Swiss meringue as a base (read more about the different types of meringue here). Egg whites and sugar are heated over a pot of barely-simmering water until they reach 160°F (this heats the egg whites to a temperature safe for consumption, at which they’re no longer raw). The egg white mixture is then whipped to stiff peaks and until it's no longer warm, and then room-temperature butter is incorporated until the frosting is light and smooth.

When to use it:
Swiss buttercream is very light in texture, making it a great choice for layer cakes. It’s also relatively white in color, making it one of the best choices if you’re looking to add color to your frosting.

Italian Buttercream

What it is:
Italian buttercream is very similar to Swiss buttercream, except it uses an Italian meringue as a base. Sugar and water are cooked to 240° F while egg whites are beaten to soft peaks. The hot sugar syrup is added to the egg whites, which “cooks” them, making them no longer raw. The meringue is whipped to stiff peaks and until it's no longer warm. Room-temperature butter is added and mixed in until the frosting is light and smooth.

When to use it:
I use Italian buttercream in the same way as Swiss buttercream—for recipes where I’m hoping to color the frosting or when I’m building tall layer cakes. I prefer Italian buttercream, even though cooking the sugar syrup is an extra step: I find it’s easier to achieve a beautiful, glossy meringue with this method, so I opt for it more often.

French Buttercream

What it is:
French buttercream is made following a similar method to Italian buttercream, but it uses a mixture of whole eggs and egg yolks as the base (also known in the pastry world as a pâte à bombe and frequently used as a base for mousse). Because it starts with a base of whole eggs and yolks, this frosting is noticeably richer in color, texture, and flavor. A mixture of sugar and water is cooked to 240°F and poured into the egg mixture with the mixer running. Once the mixture is fully aerated and cool, room-temperature butter is added and the frosting is mixed until light and smooth.

When to use it:
French buttercream is delicious. It’s rich enough to stand on its own in smaller quantities but light and airy enough to be used for layer cakes. However, its pale yellow hue doesn’t make it great for tinting, so I usually go au natural for this one.

German Buttercream

What it is:
German buttercream is made using pastry cream as a base. The finished, cooled pastry cream is then whipped and room-temperature butter is added until the mixture is light and smooth. Sometimes, a small amount of confectioners' sugar is added to maintain the right texture on the finished buttercream.

When to use it:
German buttercream is rich, with a great texture. I don’t necessarily love it for icing the outside of cakes, but it’s great for layering in between layers (it makes great “naked cakes”) and stuffing on the inside of cupcakes (or even doughnuts!). Because you start with pastry cream, it’s easy to infuse the milk with a variety of flavors, from lavender to coffee, to tea, to vanilla bean.

Pudding-Style Buttercream

What it is:
This buttercream is often listed under a variety of names, so I just call it “pudding-style" because it starts with a starch-thickened dairy base that's similar to pudding. The pudding can be very simple, or it can be a more elaborate recipe that will provide the bulk of the flavor to the finished buttercream. Regardless, a pudding is made and cooled, then whipped with room-temperature butter until light and smooth.

When to use it:
This buttercream, in my opinion, is one of the most under-utilized. A bit “old-fashioned,” it was largely discarded by home cooks in favor of the much simpler American buttercream. But pudding-style frosting provides so many options. It’s great for making exciting flavors, like dark chocolate, caramel, or butterscotch—just start with the pudding and go from there. In general, you will want your pudding for buttercream a bit thicker than you might for just eating, so if you’re using a favorite recipe, up the starch by 5 to 10%.

Buttercream Recipes

Now that you're an expert on all six styles of buttercream, it's time to frost some cakes. Here are a few of our favorite recipes that will let your buttercream shine.

This post was updated in March 2023 with more of our favorite buttercream recipes.

What's your favorite style of buttercream? Share below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Kara
  • GigiR
  • Karen Kresak
    Karen Kresak
  • Jennifer
  • flygirl
I always have three kinds of hot sauce in my purse. I have a soft spot for making people their favorite dessert, especially if it's wrapped in a pastry crust. My newest cookbook, Savory Baking, came out in Fall of 2022 - is full of recipes to translate a love of baking into recipes for breakfast, dinner, and everything in between!


Kara April 16, 2023
Hi Erin, love the explanations of all of the buttercreams. I just wanted to note an edit... For the French Buttercream your title is Italian Buttercream. Thought you would want to know. :-)
Nicole D. May 30, 2023
Hi Kara! Thank you for flagging that! I just updated the article.
GigiR March 13, 2023
I have found I miss salt in butter if unsalted butter is called for in baking and icing or frosting. The result of the effort is not so much tasteless, but muted or bland. Salt added to butter helps prevent it going rancid. Large dairy companies measure salt amounts that are added to butter. The amount of salt added is not random. And can someone explain to me the great romance cooks have with sea salt? Why not use a product with iodine in it in a beneficial amount to humans? It helps prevent thyroid disease. I may be missing something regarding the use of salt, and I don’t mind being corrected if I’m wrong. I’m not condemning the use of unsalted butter either. I just don’t understand it’s appeal.
Karen K. March 8, 2023
Great explanation for the different types of icing. Here is mine. For some reason people like it because it’s not sweet. It’s not stiff and colors well. Karen’s Buttercream icing

2 cups of room temp butter (4 sticks)
3 cups Crisco shortening
1 TBSP vanilla
1tsp clear vanilla
2 TBSP Meringue powder
2 lbs powdered sugar
1/8 th cup heavy cream warmed

Start with Butter sliced into mixing bowl, add Crisco beat slowly then increase until well blended. Add Vanilla then Meringue powder.
Slowly 3 spoonfuls of powder sugar - blend until all is put in. Then heavy cream.
At this point i put a tea towel on top of the plastic cover for my KA Mixer, turn on high for ~7mins.

This is a large amount - enough for a full sheet cake and border, maybe some flowers. I usually save colored icing and white icing in the freezer.
Thank you
Jennifer February 19, 2023
My aunt married in the mid 1950s and her wedding cake remains in my mind as the perfect icing. It was made by a bakery in California. I have tasted many recipes looking for that elusive match. What do you suppose it was given the era and setting? It also introduced me to those wilver dragees ….
Karen K. March 8, 2023
You could try mine, i started it from my grandmother, she was born in 1901, not with us now but she taught me to bake
Jennifer March 9, 2023
I think the meringue powder - or one of the recipes with meringue - will be the winner. Thanks!
Karen K. March 9, 2023
Too bad we can't attach pictures here
flygirl February 18, 2022
Thank you for explaining the different types of frostings. I have always made the American Buttercream, but lately I’ve been told it’s too sweet. My friend is having a 70th Birthday Party and I’m looking for a better tasting Buttercream. I have tried making the Swiss, but it tasted too greasy and had a completely different texture. Do you have any suggestions for a Buttercream that’s not too sweet and a nice texture similar to the American Bittercream?
Karen K. March 8, 2023
This is mine, i tweaked my grandmothers a tad, its not sweet, many have said that don’t eat icing.

Karen’s Buttercream icing

2 cups of room temp butter (4 sticks)
3 cups Crisco shortening
1 TBSP vanilla
1tsp clear vanilla
2 TBSP Meringue powder
2 lbs powdered sugar
1/8 th cup heavy cream warmed

Start with Butter sliced into mixing bowl, add Crisco beat slowly then increase until well blended. Add Vanilla then Meringue powder.
Slowly 3 spoonfuls of powder sugar - blend until all is put in. Then heavy cream.
At this point i put a tea towel on top of the plastic cover for my KA Mixer, turn on high for ~7mins.

This is a large amount - enough for a full sheet cake and border, maybe some flowers. I usually save colored icing and white icing in the freezer.
Thank you
GigiR March 13, 2023
Hi. Have you any interest in a cream cheese icing? It has lots of body, and it’s possible to control the sweetness or enhance it as needed. You have the choice of using all icing sugar, or additionally, honey for a touch of sweetness and an additional bit of liquid. Just a thought.
Sarah.B October 13, 2020
This post was so so so helpful thank you!!!!
Meaghan B. April 21, 2019
Your instructions for Swiss Buttercream don’t say when to incorporate vanilla. I’m assuming at the end?
Teresa R. March 11, 2019
Which of these 6 are most like the light frosting on store bought cakes? I have tried Italian Buttercream. It seemed too soft for decorating a cake.
smonfor March 11, 2019
I love the Italian and the Swiss -for flavor and texture they are virtually identical, IMHO. You do have to use HIGH quality butter and if you feel it is soft, just add a bit more or nip it in the fridge for a bit.
GigiR March 13, 2023
In my experience, store bought cakes usually have icing made with lots of margarine or shortening. These two things don’t seem to melt as easily as butter. They’re a bit firmer.
Sean K. February 23, 2019
Thank you for this straightforward recipe comparison. I am about to make French BC for the first time, and I think your recipe looks great. I am going to try them all, so I will let you know of my successes, or failures. Thank you again! I will post pics and a review of how I did when it is all done.
PK February 19, 2018
Pudding butter cream is an amazing option for red velvet cake
Meg I. June 18, 2017
I made the Italian butter cream, and it seemed to come out okay. Its light and fluffy but when u spread it, its full of air pockets! What did I do wrong?? Its impossible to get a smooth surface with it :( I need suggestions fast! I have to frost a wedding cake in a month.
Erin J. June 18, 2017
Hi Meg, you can try two things. Once you've fully mixed the buttercream, switch to the paddle attachment for 1-2 minutes at the end - this helps get rid of excess air pockets formed by aerating the egg whites. Another suggestion is to use a kitchen torch to apply a little heat to the side of the mixing bowl while you use the paddle. The best way to get a smoother surface is to have frosting the texture of mayo - if your buttercream was on the cool side, it can be hard to get it smooth. Warming it up just a smidge makes icing a dream!
Meg I. June 18, 2017
OK. I'll try warming it, dont have a KitchenAid so no paddle. I use an old 1960s Oster. Thanks!!
Kelley P. July 18, 2018
I know this was a year ago, but I just want to add a note for anyone in the future to have the same questions... The air that is incorporated while mixing is what makes this type of buttercream super light and "airy". To obtain smooth edges, try heating a pot of water and placing your metal cake spatula in it, once its hot, wipe the blade of excess water and quickly smooth out icing. repeat this process for the whole cake, reheating blade as needed. Good luck.
Nataly October 21, 2018
besides american buttercream, what would you use with food coloring and is any of these good to be stored in the freezer.?
Yasmine B. January 25, 2022
The German and pudding buttercreams are NOT good for freezing. This is due to the starch which they contain. French buttercream freezes beautifully. In fact, if you have too much, you can always freeze the leftover buttercream for later use (cookies, cupcakes, etc.)
GritHippie May 19, 2017
Great rundown, thanks! Anyone know which ones need to be refrigerated after being applied? IE can cupcakes sit out for a few days?
nancy E. February 23, 2017
An excellent article that answers many questions. You didn't once tell us we were doing anything "All Wrong" I appreciate that. Keep it up
Kerri B. February 22, 2017
Which would you suggest for decorating a drip cake with? I typically use american buttercream but I'm wanting to learn more.
slock July 27, 2016
I recently had eclairs from Tartine. I tried to recreate them but the filling was a bit off using the recipe I found. So I'm thinking that the pudding version of butter cream (here) would be more similar. Can anyone confirm? They were the best eclairs I've ever had but are 11 hours away by car. ☹️
Serena August 19, 2019
I have the Tartine cookbook, and for the eclairs, they fill them with pastry cream made with whole eggs instead of just yolks, which results in a lighter cream. Alternately, I've seen some bakers fill their pate a choux pastries with German buttercream.
Teresa F. July 11, 2016
I do think that the descriptions are done well here. Although, I do want to caution fellow bakers that if you do go with a Swiss or Italian buttercream icing, the resulting shades of colors will be different than expected if you were to color American buttercream
enbell July 11, 2016
I really appreciate this article. You explained each variation clearly and concisely. The steps are simple and easy to follow. Thank you!!
lynn June 26, 2016
Some of us do not facebook. How about using an email link when we want to share as well?
Laura415 June 18, 2016
I find the Swiss style to be the easiest one to make and I freeze extra for use later. It's great to have a cream cheese Swiss buttercream frosting in the freezer waiting when ever it's needed. Thaw in the fridge. Warm on the counter until spreadable. Works every time.
smonfor April 25, 2016
Which one is best under fondant?
Teresa F. July 11, 2016
I would recommend American buttercream because out of all of them, it is the "sturdiest" to support the fondant. Technically, one could use vegetable shortening instead of the butter and add butter flavor to the American buttercream recipe if you want a very stiff frosting.
Whitney March 3, 2017
That makes sense because American buttercream is a lot like English buttercream.
Laura415 March 12, 2019
This also makes sense because fondant doesn't taste great so I would use an American buttercream flavored highly to help make the fondant taste better if people eat it.