Buttercream frosting is one label for a variety of ingredients and flavors. It can be difficult for the novice baker (and even the experienced baker) to figure out what is best in a particular situation. Although one baker may prefer one over the other, the truth is that each has it’s own strengths and weaknesses. One may be perfect for one cake and yet a total failure in another situation.
Knowing what the ingredients are for each type, how they are made, and what the strengths and weaknesses are can help you to have a successful (and delicious) cake in any situation.
Types of Buttercream
Basically there are three kinds of frosting that are called “Buttercream”.
You may never hear it called this – but I am categorizing it as “American” buttercream because it is the type that most bakers in the United States are familiar with. It is a no cook frosting that is made with confectioner’s sugar, butter (or margarine), white shortening, or a combination of shortening and butter.
Although one baker may prefer one over the other, the truth is that each type of buttercream frosting has it’s own strengths and weaknesses.
It is typically very sweet, almost cloying, and holds it’s shape well for decorating. This is the type you will find on the Wilton site, as well as on most bakery cakes (except for maybe artisan bakeries). American buttercream develops a crust as it stands which keeps the decoration from being easily distorted during transport.
The flavor is better when it is made with all butter but if the cake is to be served in warm weather it should be noted that American buttercream that is made with only butter will soften in a room that is 75 degrees or warmer. I did a wedding cake for a friend VERY early in my adult life. It was 1980 in SanAngelo, Texas… the summer that we saw temperatures over 100F degrees for something like 80 days… and there were many 110F-119F days. By the time the wedding was over and we got to the reception the frosting had melted off the cake, even though the room was air conditioned.
The absolute truth is that if you are making a decorated cake in the summer (especially in Texas) or if it will be held for a long time in a heated room you probably want to use Crisco. Use both vanilla and almond flavoring (1 tsp vanilla to 1/4 tsp almond) and you will get that bakery flavor you are looking for.
This is the easiest type of buttercream to make. If you don’t want it to develop that crust you can add a little corn syrup when you make it.
Swiss buttercream is a light, rich frosting that is elegant and not too sweet. It is made by whisking egg whites and sugar together over simmering water until the mixture is warm to the touch and the sugar has dissolved. Dip your index finger and thumb in the mixture and rub them together. There should be no sign of graininess.
Once it reaches temperature you transfer the mixture to a mixer bowl and beat it until it cools and forms peaks. Next you add unsalted butter, a little at a time, and whip it until it is the right consistency.
This is a delicious buttercream but it is usually too soft for very detailed cake decorating. It is best for cakes that will be decorated with other things like chocolate curls or some simple scrollwork. It will usually need to be refrigerated if you plan on holding it very long.
Most people have the same problem with Swiss buttercream: The buttercream breaks when they add the butter. This will happen if your egg whites are still too warm, or the butter is too soft, or the butter is added too much at a time. keep whipping it a few minutes and see if it begins to come together again. If not, you can often chill the broken mixture for a few minutes and then whip it like crazy and it will come back to the correct texture.
Swiss buttercream is perfect on cupcakes, as filling in layer cakes, or between two cookies.
Italian buttercream is very similar to Swiss buttercream – it is just the technique that is different.
When you make Italian buttercream you heat the sugar and water with a few drops of corn syrup (to guard against crystalization) until it reaches 240F, or the soft ball stage. You then add the hot mixture in a slow stream to egg whites that have been whipped until they hold a peak. Keep your mixer running during this process. The hot liquid cooks the egg white while it is being whipped. Continue to whip until the mixture cools to lukewarm. Add softened butter a little at a time as you continue to whip the mixture.
The problem you may have with this is that you can add the sugar too quickly and have cooked egg white in your buttercream. If you over beat the whites you may end up with a grainy butter cream.
The texture and flavor are very similar to the Swiss buttercream and it should be used in the same way.
In each type of buttercream you will want to add the flavoring and any food coloring at the end of the beating time.
American buttercream will hold in the refrigerator for two weeks and you can freeze it. I have not had good results freezing Swiss or Italian buttercream but other people say it freezes just fine. Personally, I won’t do it because I think the texture changes.
The egg white based buttercreams can be difficult to make during humid weather – they are more temperamental.
The egg white based buttercreams are really good for delicately flavored cakes that the American buttercream can overwhelm.
I have several buttercream recipes on site, but I tend to choose Swiss buttercream over the Italian type because I have always had better results with it.