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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Buttercream Frostings

Buttercream Frostings

"American, Italian, Swiss and French"

Like most good things in life, buttercream frostings are extremely simple. Sugar and fat - that's all you need for so much deliciousness. Yet as I looked back at the first month of pastry creations,  I realized I've yet to make something with a basic buttercream frosting. Ganache, yes. Buttercream frosting, no. My apologies to all the forlorn cupcake lovers!

...but then again, what is a "basic buttercream frosting"?

Google "Buttercream Frosting", and you'll find a veritable United Nations of options. American... Italian... Swiss... French...

What's the difference, and which is best?

Pastry Piping Tips

An Overview of Buttercream Frostings

"A taste test to remember"

Sugar + fat = buttercream. That's the recipe in its most basic form. The countless variations depend on which types of sugar and fat are used and how they are combined.


The most common sugar in buttercream frosting is white granulated sugar. It incorporates easily into most fats, can help provide structure to egg and butter emulsions, and has a basic sweetness that combines well with many flavors.

Some bakers prefer using caster or "superfine" sugar. As the name implies, it is a finely ground sugar that dissolves more easily in certain preparations (e.g. cold liquids).

Confectioner's sugar (also known as powdered sugar) is finer still. It immediately dissolves into almost any liquid. However, it lacks the structural qualities of granulated sugar that are critical to many recipes, so don't swap one sugar for another and expect the same results. In the U.S., confectioner's sugar also contains some anti-caking additives like corn starch, which can also affect a recipe.


Purists will argue, and they are probably be correct, that if you're not using butter, it's not a buttercream frosting. But there are other sources of fat that appear in many "buttercream" frostings.

Some bakers use shortening in place of some or all of the butter. Shortening helps stabilize a frosting at room temperature, making it easier to use in decorating. However, unlike butter, it does not dissolve in the mouth and can leave a greasy taste (most commercially prepared pastries will use shortening in their "cream" fillings).

Eggs also provide a source of fat. While the more commonly seen Italian and Swiss buttercream frosting are based on egg white meringues (more on that to follow), French buttercream frosting uses a fat-dense, egg yolk base. The end product is richer but less stable at room temperature.

Other Additives:

Buttercream frostings can be flavored in countless ways. By adding various extracts, oils, purees, and powders, the flavor of a buttercream can be adjusted to match or complement any pastry. However, it's important to understand how a flavor element will incorporate into a buttercream (i.e. a watery fruit puree may make the buttercream too liquid while dry cocoa powder may have the opposite effect).

Lastly, cream of tartar is a common butter cream frosting additive. Chemically known as potassium bitartrate, this acidic white powder can be used to help stabilize whipped egg whites.

Chef's note: Cream of tartar can also be added to baking soda to create baking powder. The cream of tartar provides the necessary acidic catalyst that baking soda lacks on its own.

Varieties of Buttercream Frosting

"Sweet sweet options"

American Buttercream (ABC) 

The primary ingredients in ABC are confectioner's sugar and butter. Some recipes may include a small amount of heavy cream or milk to adjust the consistency. 

The heavy concentration of sugar in ABC makes for an exceptionally sweet and dense frosting. But this frosting is also remarkably stable at room temperature and will often form a hard or crispy outer shell over time.

The three most popular buttercream frostings are all meringue-based frostings. Whole or separated eggs are whipped and combined with sugar before they are beaten with butter. Compared to ABC, meringue buttercream is lighter in texture and sweetness, which is why some refer to it as "adult frosting" - a little age-bias in the world of pastry.

The meringue buttercreams vary in how the egg and sugar are combined.

Italian Meringue Buttercream (IMBC)

In an IMBC, egg whites are whipped to soft peaks. Separately, sugar and water are heated to the soft ball stage (240 degrees Fahrenheit). The hot syrup is then slowly added to the egg whites, whipping until the mixture cools. The hot syrup kills any bacteria in the egg whites.

Once the meringue has cooled, butter is slowly beaten into the mixture until a smooth frosting is formed. Light in texture, light in sweetness and relatively stable at room temperature - delicious.

Swiss Meringue Buttercream (SMBC)

The end product of SMBC looks and tastes exactly like IMBC. However, with SMBC, egg whites and sugar are whisked over a double boiler until the mixture form soft peaks and reaches a temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit, killing any bacteria.

As with IMBC, once the meringue cools, butter is slowly beaten into the mixture until a smooth frosting is formed.

French Meringue Buttercream (FMBC)

FMBC is unique in that egg yolks are used rather than egg whites. The fat-dense yolks create a richer frosting. As a result, FMBC is less stable at room temperature and is best suited as a filling and not for decorative work.

Traditional recipes simply call for the yolks and sugar to be whipped before the butter is added. However, those concerned with bacteria can follow either the IMBC and SMBC process of heating the eggs to kill any bacteria without significantly affecting the end product.

Frosting for the Fourth of July

All that is my way of saying, this week's Fourth of July pastry will include buttercream frosting in several forms. With roasted corn on the cob, strawberry and blueberry as the inspiration ingredients, playing with various flavor infusions is inevitable!

Corn on the Cob, Strawberry and Blueberry

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