Thursday, August 2, 2012

Everything I've Learned about Buttercream...

Today, I want to talk about buttercream.  Not Italian or Swiss Meringue buttercream, which I will eventually try when I have time, but today it's just about good old-fashioned American buttercream. 

I've always thought mastering buttercream was something elusive, that only seasoned cake makers could get exactly right, or that I'd have to start making Swiss buttercream to achieve the silky, smooth, pipeable, spreadable consistency that holds its shape perfectly, but the thought of messing with hot syrup and egg whites when I just want to make something quickly isn't all that appealing. 

But what I didn't know, which is sort of embarrassing to admit, is that I was simply doing it all wrong.  The answer was in front of me the whole time, and I just didn't see it.  That I was using way too little butter and way, way WAY too much powdered sugar.  I couldn't understand why the frosting I made was always the wrong consistency, forcing me to add more and more powdered sugar to thicken it, making it overly sweet and overly stiff.  It was either too thin and runny, or too thick and too sweet.  And neither one held its shape well, although there was the occasional time where I seemed to get it sort of right by accident.

So my biggest problem was the wrong ratio of butter to powdered sugar, but my next problem was my method of mixing.  I figured this out kind of by accident, one morning a while back while making doughnuts.  I made a chocolate buttercream filling which needed to be whipped for about 5 minutes to reach a delightfully light and fluffy state.  And when I saw that chocolate filling, how fluffy and soft and silky it was, it hit me.  This is what my buttercream should look like.

I started changing my ways.  Not immediately - for a while I was still stubbornly clinging to some of my old notions.  But now I've given them up completely and I've reformed.  So much so that I felt compelled to go back through all my cake recipes on this blog and rewrite the buttercream portion of the recipes, so that none of my older recipes led anyone astray with bad or ignorant techniques.  And I can now say that what I've come up with is a perfect buttercream that is easier than you can imagine. 

I also learned a secret ingredient in my cake decorating classes I've been taking this month, a secret I thought I'd keep to myself for a while, but now I'm feeling generous after experimenting with it for a while, and I'd like to share that secret with you!

Our teacher used something in the class buttercream, something I'd never heard of before but is available in lots of hobby/craft stores: Meringue Powder.  For some reason, a little bit of this powder just makes buttercream behave a little better.  So I've started adding it to mine, and it's absolutely foolproof.  I think the meringue powder can be optional for the regular buttercream recipes, but I like the stability it seems to add.

And yes, this is a lot of butter.  It's buttercream after all, right?  And you don't eat it every day.

So here goes...

Basic Buttercream Formula:
from Curly Girl Kitchen

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon meringue powder (Optional, but it adds stability.  Also, when I originally wrote this post, I noted that you should use 1 tablespoon meringue powder; however, it's very expensive, and a teaspoon should do the trick.  When I quadruple this recipe, I use 1-2 tablespoons of the powder.)
  • 1 tablespoon milk or heavy cream
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
This makes enough to generously frost 8-10 cupcakes or a single layer of cake.  The recipe needs to be multiplied by 3x to have enough to frost a 2-3 layer cake or 24 cupcakes, depending on how much you like to use.

Understand that these ratios are a guideline, and may vary slightly depending on certain factors; for example, one day you may need an extra half cup of powdered sugar, because you added strawberry jam to the buttercream.  Cream cheese, also, is softer than butter, and it takes more powdered sugar to reach the right consistency for cream cheese buttercreams.  But in general, these ratios shouldn't vary a whole lot.  I have found that by sticking to this formula, I'm never disappointed in the result. 

Whipping the buttercream not only makes it light and fluffy, but also lightens the color of the butter to a paler shade of yellow, but all-butter buttercream will always be an off-white color, never pure white.  If you'd like a really white buttercream, then substitute half the butter with shortening.

The milk or cream also serves as a "placeholder" for other things you might like to add, such as concentrated syrups (like the champagne reduction in the Pink Champagne Cupcakes), or fruit reductions (such as in the strawberry buttercream for the Chocolate-Dipped Strawberry Cake), etc.  If using these sorts of flavor additions, they take the place of the milk, although a little milk may still be needed.  Sometimes I don't use the milk at all if my kitchen is extremely warm and the butter is very soft - use your judgement.

It's always better to have too much buttercream than too little, and leftover buttercream freezes really well for future projects.
Basic steps:
  1. Beat butter for 1 minute with whisk attachment.
  2. Combine powdered sugar with meringue powder (meringue powder should not directly touch any liquid).  Add to butter and mix on low to combine.
  3. Add milk and vanilla.
  4. Increase speed to medium high and whip for 4-5 minutes until impossibly light and fluffy, scraping as needed.
  5. If using any add-ins, such as chocolate chips, fold them in with a spatula after whipping the buttercream.  Be careful of adding whole pieces of fruit or anything that contains water, as it will dissolve the sugar and turn the buttercream too liquidy.
  • Chocolate Buttercream:  Instead of 1 cup powdered sugar, use 3/4 cup powdered sugar and 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder.
  • Coffee Buttercream:  Add 1-2 teaspoons espresso powder per each stick of butter, or as much as you like for the strength of the coffee flavor.  Dissolve the espresso powder in the milk before adding to the buttercream.
  • Mint Buttercream:  Add peppermint extract to taste.  (Same for other flavors of extracts...)
  • Fruit Buttercream (such as strawberry or raspberry):  The fruit must be reduced, or the water content will dissolve the sugar, and the frosting will never get thick and fluffy.  For frosting a whole cake (3x the recipe), combine 1 cup sliced/chopped berries with 1/4 cup granulated sugar.  Let macerate for 1 hour.  Puree in blender until smooth, then strain out and discard the seeds.  Pour liquid into a small saucepan and reduce over medium low until thick and syrupy - reduce to 1/4 cup.  Chill completely.  Beat in with the butter instead of the milk.
  • Lemon or Lime Buttercream:  Add 1-2 tablespoons lemon or lime curd per stick of butter, plus freshly grated lemon or lime zest.  Reduce the milk slightly.
  • Peanut Butter Buttercream:  Substitute half the butter with peanut butter.
  • Cream Cheese Buttercream:  I think this is tricky, since cream cheese tends to get softer and runnier the more it's whipped instead of light and fluffy like butter.  Frosting with just cream cheese is better for spreading over sheet cakes or bars, since it's thinner and runnier.  For frosting a layer cake or piping onto cupcakes where a fluffier consistency that can hold its shape is needed, use half cream cheese / half butter, using the formula above, although a little more powdered sugar may be needed.  (Remember 1/2 package cream cheese is equal to 1 whole stick butter.)


Another great tip I learned in class is how to make buttercream specifically for piping roses, borders, leaves, etc.  While I have used my recipe above for this, it does tend to soften more quickly from the heat of my hand while squeezing the piping bag.  If using the Basic Buttercream Recipe above, you may need to stiffen it with more powdered sugar for techniques like piping roses, and I used it successfully to pipe the roses on my Pink Champagne Cupcakes.


The following recipe is from class, and is not intended to frost an entire cake, but simply for the uses noted below...

Class Buttercream:
This recipe is compliments of Desiree Kelly at The Makery:
  • 1 cup shortening (not Crisco brand), or 1/2 cup shortening and 1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2-4 tablespoons water
  • 1 teaspoon clear vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon clear butter extract
  • pinch salt
  • 1 pound powdered sugar
  • 1 tablespoon meringue powder

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (not whisk - you don't want to whip a lot of air bubbles into it if you're piping small, intricate details), mix the shortening on low for a few seconds, just so that it sticks to the sides of the bowl.

Add 2 tablespoons water, the vanilla, butter extract and salt and mix on low to combine.  Combine the powdered sugar and meringue powder in a separate bowl (the meringue powder should not directly touch any liquid).  Add to the mixing bowl, a cup at a time, mixing on low until combined and smooth, adding just enough additional water as needed to keep it from being too dry.

Now that you've made a batch of buttercream for piping, divide it into three equal portions; each portion will be 1 cup of buttercream.  For the three portions, you're going to keep one stiff, one medium and one thin consistency.

Stiff: Used for Roses and Vertical Decor
  • Use as is; the recipe is already stiff
  • Add 1 drop of food coloring, if desired
Medium: Used for Borders and anything that "grows"
  • Add 1 teaspoon water, per cup of icing
  • Add 1 drop of food coloring, if desired
Thin: Used for Leaves, Dots, Writing or anything that needs to stretch or that has to go through a small hole
  • Add 2 teaspoons water and 1/2 teaspoon Clear Piping Gel (also found in hobby/craft stores)
  • Add 1 drop of food coloring, if desired

And there you have it!  I hope these methods help you as much as they have helped me.  I think you'll be thrilled with the taste, texture and consistency of my buttercream recipe.

As I learn more techniques of piping, I may eventually share some of those tips in a future post.

Happy baking and decorating!

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