Cake

All About Buttercream & How to Make 6 Different Types

March  4, 2016

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

Photo by Bobbi Lin

Buttercream is delicious, a 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.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

Below, you’ll find a description of and a recipe for six common buttercreams, along with my suggestions for when to use them:

  1. American
  2. Swiss
  3. Italian
  4. French
  5. German
  6. Pudding-Style

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.

1. 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).


2. 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.


3. 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.

Photo by James Ransom

4. 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.


5. 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.


6. 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 sort of discarded largely 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%.

Now that you've read the post, can you identify these without our captions? Photo by Bobbi Lin

20 Comments

PK February 19, 2018
Pudding butter cream is an amazing option for red velvet cake <br />
 
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.
 
Author Comment
Erin M. 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. <br />
 
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. ☹️
 
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.
 
Jovet March 21, 2016
Really well done article! Thanks! I will have to try some of these types and see which I prefer.
 
Cookie! March 15, 2016
Ermine (pudding) Buttercream is my favorite!
 
M March 4, 2016
? Love this piece. Great to see their essentials side by side.
 
darksideofthespoon March 4, 2016
Swiss is the only way to go.