A guide to everything you need to know about making American-style buttercream. What ingredients to use and what to avoid and specific directions to guarantee a creamy texture. Included: a basic recipe along with a list of possible variations so you can make the best buttercream to your taste.
I learned to bake good cakes before I figured out how to make a good buttercream. The specific chemistry that goes into a cake (so much that can go wrong!) makes it seem that by comparison, buttercream is simple and easy. But, it actually does take time to learn about the quality and type of ingredients that make the best buttercream, to learn how they behave, and how your method can have a huge impact on your final product. Below I’ve written up a list of tips and tricks based on my years learning how to make it, to hopefully help you too master the perfect buttercream.
Salt: There’s a bit of a trend lately to use salted butter in baking, I think it stems from a push-back against all the baking greats that told us for so long that only unsalted will do. Sometimes salted actually is ok or even preferable (even when a recipe says unsalted!), but sometimes you want more control over the level of saltiness. I’ve tried both unsalted and salted in my buttercreams and tbh, I’ve found that is totally okay to use salted as long as you are careful with how much additional salt you add.
Temperature: Butter must be at room temp. When soft, it whips easily and creates that perfectly smooth buttercream. However, I have found that if left out of the fridge too long, it can get TOO soft, or worse, begin to melt (in which case it cannot be used for buttercream). Ideally, you’d take it out an hour before you need to make the buttercream (less if your kitchen is warm). Forgot to? I have a little hack I’ll share but please, please, do this with caution: I microwave my butter straight out of the fridge for 10 seconds and find it gets me to the softness I need. This works for me because I know how hot my microwave is and because I’ve experimented with leaving it longer (and melted many a butter in the process). Try it, bearing in mind your microwave could run hotter or colder and you might need to adjust the time. But before you do, take a stick of butter out of the fridge and leave it out for an hour – this way you know what level of softness you are looking for from the microwave.
Cost: I felt so vindicated when I read this article last year. I have bought TJ’s butter for $3 for years; it’s the cheapest and the best for most baking projects. I’ve read many bakers extolling the virtues of european butter and its higher fat content, but in reality it’s uses are specific to certain dishes (like laminated doughs or my yolk cookies). In terms of buttercream, it adds too much moisture, so don’t waste your $$.
Organic vs Conventional: For many years I made buttercreams like most people do, with conventional powdered sugar. I never felt I could eat too much of it and I noticed people pushing it off my cakes as they ate. Organic is more expensive and a hassle because it needs to be sifted but, it is totally worth it. I had started buying organic from TraderJoe’s as that’s where I shop most often and two things happened: I would immediately notice the difference and, I started getting rave reviews about how amazing my buttercream tastes with people licking it off their forks. When I wanted to figure out why; BraveTart had an answer. Conventional is made with cornstarch which only melts at high cooking or baking temperatures. Organic is usually made with tapioca starch (check the package!) which literally melts on your tongue as you eat the buttercream. The answer for which you should choose is pretty straightforward.
Quantity: In my recipe I give you exact quantities for the sugar. But truth is, I think this is best figured out by eye and taste; you may need less or more depending on what you are going for. I start with 1 and 1/4 cup of powdered sugar per stick of butter and add more if I need to. Some people like it sweeter so they’ll add more. Sometimes you want a really stiff buttercream for piping so you’ll add up to a cup more. Decide based on your needs and taste.
Imitation vs Pure: When pairing with chocolate or keeping a straight-up vanilla, you want to use a high quality pure vanilla extract or paste. Imitation is fantastic in vanilla buttercreams that are meant to evoke “birthday cake” flavors. Nielsen Massey makes wonderful pure extract, as does Rodelle Vanilla. To get the lovely bean speckle in the white mallow you can use vanilla paste (I’ve also heard good things about Heilala Vanilla) or even scrape a bean. For imitation I love and use Watkins.
Dutch vs Natural: dutch-process cocoa tastes and looks better in buttercreams. The acidity is removed in the alkalizing process and the result is a richer chocolate taste and a darker color so it looks richer too. For a really dark buttercream I’ll add a bit of black cocoa (see chocolate mascarpone buttercream) but I wouldn’t use all black as it would lack that familiar chocolate taste. For the best dutch cocoa I recommend guittard’s rouge or rodelle’s gourmet, or Saco Pantry’s blend of natural and dutch.
Many recipes forget to tell you to add salt to buttercream; add it anyway. Consider how much sugar is in your buttercream, you need to balance it with some salt. Salt will also bump up every ingredient’s flavor by mounds: chocolates, vanillas, anything. Never leave out the salt.
Most recipes have you add a bit of milk or cream at the end. This is done to make the buttercream smooth and silky, and sometimes because the buttercream is too thick. Start with one tablespoon at a time and beat it in to see what effect it has. I find I usually need a couple of TB milk in a cocoa-based or vanilla buttercream. With a cream cheese buttercream I never add milk because it’s already so soft. If you’ve added lemon juice or another liquid then you probably don’t need to add any milk. Also, if I can pivot here, I recommend using buttermilk, kefir or sour cream instead of plain milk as the tang helps to offset the sweetness of the powdered sugar as well as add another dimension to the overall taste. Because sour cream is thicker, you can add even more.
Beat your butter first: You might be tempted to throw the butter and the sugar in together because you figure they are going to beat together anyway, why not start early? Don’t! Beating butter by itself for awhile first makes a difference because you allow time for the butter to get light and fluffy without sugar blocking the air incorporation. If you are going for a white buttercream, beating the butter alone also helps because it lightens up the color considerably and you won’t have to adjust as much with white food coloring. But even for a dark colored buttercream, you should definitely beat your butter first to make it extra silky and smooth. In the above picture you see a spatula, but it’s not holding buttercream – that’s whipped butter! Also, wait on the powdered sugar in order to…
Add your salt and vanilla to the butter: Years ago, I read that adding the flavorings to the fat is best because it incorporates and distributes better and I have found this to be 100% true. If you can’t decide how much you’ll need as you will be tasting (see below) start with half the amount recommended added to the butter, then once the sugar is added you can taste and adjust to your liking.
Taste and adjust: Everybody has a different tastes, some of us like sweet buttercream and some want it to be more balanced. I also think this applies to salts and vanillas added. Add in small quantities and taste until you get to a point where it pleases you.
Scrape the bowl: I can’t emphasize this enough. In a stand mixer, unmixed butter gets trapped in the bottom of the bowl and dry ingredients like sugar and cocoa sputter to the sides. The attached spatula (which is what you should use for buttercream – not the whisk attachment) can’t incorporate them. Over and over again you’ll need to get in there with a spatula of your own, scrape down, mix and beat.
Temperature: Most buttercream issues come down to temperature. Butter that is too warm at the start, or buttercream that has been sitting in a warm kitchen gets too slimy and soft to work with. Set it in the fridge for 15 minutes to allow it time to firm up. If you had it storing overnight in the fridge, leave it out for an hour to soften before you began frosting.
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Cocoa-based Chocolate: Reduce the powdered sugar to 2 cups and add 1/3 cup cocoa. Taste it, if it’s not chocolatey enough for you add more cocoa by the tablespoon. If it gets too thick, add cream to thin it out.
Melted Chocolate: Check out this post for three different kinds of melted chocolate recipes, and this one for caramelized white chocolate.
Melted Chocolate Sour Cream: Add 3.5oz chopped chocolate which has been melted and 1/3 cup sour cream. Make sure the chocolate has come to room temperature before adding it so it doesn’t melt the base.
Birthday Vanilla: Use a mix of vanillas to give that signature ‘birthday taste’: 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract and 1-2 teaspoons imitation vanilla. You’ll see this recipe accompany all of my rainbow and white cakes. You can add sprinkles to the buttercream itself or you can reserve them to put on top of the finished cake.
Peanut Butter: Add 1/3 cup peanut butter to the buttercream. You might need a bit more milk/cream if it gets too thick. Also, I highly recommend browning the butter first, see brown butter peanut butter buttercream!
Homemade Nut Butter: Homemade butters can be looser than store-bought so add 1/3 cup of the butter and see if you need to add more powdered sugar to thicken in. You might want a bit more salt and vanilla in this, taste and adjust as needed.
Chocolate Hazelnut: Don’t ever add nutella to your buttercream – it’s mostly sugar and oil anyway and the taste will be diluted by the base. Instead, add 1/4 cup of each pure hazelnut butter and dutch cocoa; taste to see if you want a more intense flavor and add accordingly.
Cream Cheese: Take 4oz room temperature cream cheese and smush it down several times with the back of a spatula before you beat in the butter. If you don’t mind a very loose buttercream you can add the full 8oz but it will be very soft so don’t plan to use it for a layer cake or for piping (it would work well for a sheet or snacking cake where it’s just piled on).
Cheesecake (lemon cream cheese): Same as above with regards to 4 oz cream cheese. Add 1 tablespoon lemon juice. If you don’t mind the texture, add 1 tablespoon lemon zest too (this makes it so wonderful). And if you have it, 1/2-1 teaspoon imitation vanilla really makes this taste like cheesecake!
Caramel: Add 1/4-1/3 cup caramel sauce to the buttercream recipe after you’ve added the powdered sugar.
Berry: Some recipes tell you to puree berries then boil them down to get a berry buttercream. In my experience, this has never actually resulted in a buttercream that tasted like the berry because it’s diluted by the butter and sugar. It might work in a swiss meringue buttercream where you can add a lot more and it’ll hold stable, but for american-style, if you really want to try incorporating a berry flavor consider first grinding dried berries (at least 1/2 cup) with the powdered sugar and adding them together.
Lastly, I leave you with this image of chocolate mascarpone buttercream !