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Friday, December 25, 2015

Recipe: Buttercream Frosting (Italian)

Chocolate Italian Buttercream

Recipe: Buttercream Frosting (Italian)

Fight! Fight!

Who would have ever guessed that Buttercream Frosting could be such a contentious topic, but the Internet is loaded with surprisingly heated arguments on the subject. Clearly we all have too much time on our hands.

"Why?" you ask. Well, there are two areas of extensive debate. 
  1. What is a Buttercream Frosting?
  2. Which is the best Buttercream Frosting?

To pastry purists, the first question is one of more than semantics. Some would argue that any Frosting made with Butter is a Buttercream Frosting... and they would be wrong. Traditionalists (me included) counter that a true Buttercream Frosting must be Meringue-based. If at some point you haven't whipped Egg Whites with Sugar, your Frosting doesn't qualify. 

The second question is simply a matter of personal preference, and responses vary wildly based on the criteria. Are we debating taste... texture... stability? What about the level of difficulty in execution? There will never be consensus... just endless, snarky, Internet bickering. 

There are five Frostings that are commonly classified as Buttercreams. Here they are ranked based on how closely they adhere to that Meringue-based requirement:
  • Italian Buttercream: A true Buttercream by any definition! An Italian Buttercream is made by beating Butter into an Italian Meringue that has been whipped to stiff peaks. An Italian Meringue is made by pouring a hot Simple Syrup into whipping Egg Whites.
  • Swiss Buttercream: A second gold-standard, the authenticity of which no one can deny. A Swiss Buttercream is made by beating Butter into a Swiss Meringue - one that is made by whipping Egg Whites and Sugar over a double-boiler.
  • French Buttercream (Pate a Bombe): The first of several shades of grey. A French Buttercream is made with a hot Simple Syrup, like an Italian Buttercream, but Egg Yolks take the place of Egg Whites. While it's not Meringue-based, a French Buttercream is incredibly close and gets a pass.
  • German Buttercream (Mousseline): Here the world of Frosting gets very murky. German Buttercream is made by beating Butter into Pastry Cream. Whipped Eggs need not apply. 
  • American Buttercream: This is Frosting at the fringe. An American Buttercream is little more than Butter beaten into Powdered Sugar.

Mint Flavored Italian Buttercream
Classification debates notwithstanding, which Buttercream is the best? As with many things, it depends. But here's my extremely biased opinion:
  • Italian Buttercream: It's light and not overly sweet making it a good tasting Frosting. Italian Buttercream is also relatively stable in warmer weather making it a logical pick for decorative work. On the downside, some find the process of making an Italian Meringue with a hot Simple Syrup to be too daunting.
  • Swiss Buttercream: A close second to its Italian cousin, Swiss Buttercream shares very similar taste and texture characteristics, but the double-boiler Meringue process yields what some believe is a less stable product. 
  • French Buttercream (Pate a Bombe): With Egg Yolks taking the place of Egg Whites, this is an extremely rich Frosting - perfect for some applications but certainly not all. The Egg Yolks result in a yellowish Frosting - something to keep in mind if color is important. Lastly, it is far less stable than either Italian or Swiss Buttercreams. Whipped Egg Yolks are simply less structural than Egg Whites.
  • German Buttercream (Mousseline): Much depends on how the Pastry Cream is made, but a Mousseline tends to be richer than a Meringue-based Buttercream. The nice thing about a Mousseline is that it is easy to flavor - simply infuse the Pastry Cream as desired when it is made. A Mousseline is typically less stable than Meringue-based Buttercreams but more stable than a French Buttercream.
  • American Buttercream: For those who love Sugar, look no further. With Powdered Sugar as the main ingredient, American Buttercream is extremely sweet and very dense. As a result, it is very stable, but the sweetness must be considered when using it as a Frosting.

A Meringue Whipped for a Buttercream
Given that Italian Buttercream is my personal favorite, it is the recipe I'm sharing here. 

The process itself is extremely simple, but there are a few details that must be kept in mind.

Begin by making a French Meringue while simultaneously bringing a Simple Syrup to the soft-ball stage (approximately 240 degrees Fahrenheit / 116 degrees Celsius). The French Meringue should start to take form when the Simple Syrup reaches the appropriate temperature.

If the Simple Syrup is not brought to the appropriate temperature, the Italian Meringue will fail to come together to form stiff peaks.  If that happens, start again! Do not waste good Butter by adding it to a bad Meringue.

Italian Meringue Whipped to Stiff Peaks
When the Simple Syrup reaches temperature, turn the mixer to high speed and stream the Simple Syrup down the side of the bowl into the whipping French Meringue, making an Italian Meringue. Continue to whip the Italian Meringue to stiff peaks.

Stiff peaks are unmistakable. They can stand straight up and retain their shape. And if you're playful, you should be able to hold the bowl over your head without fear of a mess.

Even after the Italian Meringue has been whipped to stiff peaks, it is important to make sure that it has cooled close to room temperature before you add the Butter. If the Butter is added to a hot Meringue, it will melt and may cause the Buttercream to break.

When the Italian Meringue is fully whipped and cool, change to the paddle attachment and add cubes of room temperature Butter. Continue to add and beat the Butter into the Meringue until it comes together into a smooth, shiny Frosting.

Switching to a paddle attachment is important for two reasons. First, the pieces of Butter can bend a whisk attachment. But more importantly, a paddle attachment is better at incorporating the Butter without adding more air to the mixture. You want the Buttercream to be smooth and airy, but without air pockets. 

When you initially add the Butter to the Meringue, the Meringue will deflate and may appear soupy. If the Meringue was properly made, it will come together after several minutes of beating. Nevertheless, if the kitchen is overly warm, if may be necessary to chill the bowl for a few minutes in the refrigerator.

Layer Cake with Buttercream Frosting
You can make a more stable version of a "Buttercream" by replacing some or all of the Butter with Shortening. Unlike Butter, Shortening is solid at room temperature. This higher melting point means that it can withstand the heat - important if the Frosting will be used on, say, a wedding cake in July. 

However, the higher melting point also means that it feels different on the tongue when eaten - what some would described as a greasy mouth feel. It is also hard to consider a Frosting made without Butter a Buttercream.

Cake Decorated with Buttercream Frosting
Italian Buttercream refrigerates and freezes extremely well. However, you must temper the Buttercream to room temperature and re-beat it with the paddle attachment to restore the smooth texture.

- The Recipe -

Buttercream Frosting (Italian):

Yield: 1,000g - 1 Quart

This basic recipe has been adapted from the curriculum for the Professional Pastry Arts Program at the International Culinary Center. Ratios of Sugar can be adjusted slightly to increase or decrease the sweetness of the Frosting.

  • Egg Whites, tempered: 150g (5x)
  • White Granulated Sugar: 100g (0.5 Cup)

  • White Granulated Sugar: 300g (1.5 Cups)
  • Water: 160g (2/3 Cup)

  • Butter, cubed and soft: 450g (2 Cups / 4 Sticks)
  • Salt: 6g (1 Tsp)
  • Vanilla Extract: 4g (1 Tsp)


1. Combine the Egg Whites and 100g of White Granulated Sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment and begin to make a French MeringueAt the same time, combine the 300g of White Granulated Sugar and Water in a medium saucepan over high heat. Heat Sugar and Water mixture (i.e. Simple Syrup) to the Soft-Ball Stage - approximately 240 degrees Fahrenheit (116 degrees Celsius).

Chef's Note: Timing is important. The French Meringue should start to come together as the Simple Syrup is approaching temperature.

2. As the Simple Syrup reaches temperature, increase the mixer speed to high and stream the hot Simple Syrup down the side of the mixer bowl into the whipping Meringue. Continue to whip the Meringue until it reaches stiff peaks and has cooled close to room temperature (i.e. the mixer bowl should not feel hot).

3. Change to the paddle attachment and continue beating on high speed. Add the Salt and Vanilla Extract, then slowly add the cubes of soft Butter. Continue beating the mixture until the pieces of Butter are fully incorporated and the Italian Buttercream comes together into a smooth, shiny Frosting.

Chef's Note: The Italian Meringue may appear soupy when the Butter is first incorporated. Add all of the Butter and continue beating until it comes together into a more stable Frosting, which will take several minutes. If the Buttercream continues to be too liquid, put the mixing bowl in the refrigerator for several minutes.

- Italian Buttercream can be refrigerated for a couple weeks and frozen for several months.
- Before using Italian Buttercream that has been refrigerated or frozen, allow it to temper to room temperature and then beat it smooth in an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment.

Questions? Comments? Send me an email or leave a comment.
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