Tuesday, November 9, 2010



Many people think that it's all the same; frosting is frosting after all...
In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. There are so many varieties of frosting out there that one could write several research papers and not cover them all but today I am focusing on buttercream.

Buttercream is what most people tend to think they are eating when they buy a can of frosting from the grocery store or purchase a frosted cake from a bakery.
There are many frostings available on the market which are generically called "buttercream" by customers and bakery personnel though if one reads the package labels, the manufacturers don't use that term much and the frosting used on that purchased cake was often delivered premade in a 5 gallon bucket or as a bag of powder to which a person, like some cakes mixes, just adds water and presto! instant "buttercream" frosting-no butter needed.

Most of us have had this frosting at one point or another; there's so much air whipped into it, or it has a certain slightly stale/canned taste to it, maybe it's a little too sweet, often it dries out and gets crusty quickly, or there may even be a little unpleasant film of something left behind in your mouth.

I am not enough of a food snob to say that I don't enjoy commercially made frosting once in a while (don't let anyone at the bakery know though;) but real buttercream it is not.
Frosting it is, buttercream it is not.

In the industrialization frenzy where things made by hand began to lose favour to things that were prepackaged, modern, promising the dream of more convenience-buttercream frosting like so many other things was tweaked and transformed until it lost the pure essence of what it once was; the flavour, the silky texture, the richness of it, gone. It became an empty shell, something people would eat around to get to the actual cake within. Anyone that's ever attending a large party with some half sheet cakes purchased from a grocery store has witnessed the piles of frosting scraped off to the side of the plates and left behind; a sad reminder of the fact that while it looked pretty, people knew better than to actually eat it.

In recent years thanks to dedicated individuals, artisanal bakeries, and organizations such as the Slow Food Movement bucking the trend of relying too much on heavily processed foods; real buttercream is making a comeback and people are discovering that a really good buttercream is an integral part of what makes a cake exceptional.

Appreciating a good buttercream frosting is a bit like learning to appreciate different varieties of wine, beer, or cheese. There are variations on the main theme but each, in their own ways, are delicious.

There are four main methods of making buttercream and then there are variations based on those four, similar to how mother sauces are used in France.
The main methods are:
[drum roll]


French and Italian buttercreams are fairly similar in their methods.

Have some unsalted butter at room temperature, or just slightly warm. Put sugar and water on the stove to boil until it reaches 115 degrees Celsius (240F).

For French style, whip whole eggs and/or yolks until light and slightly fluffy.
For Italian style, whip egg whites.
That's the main difference right there.

Then, with the mixer on, slowly pour in the sugar syrup.

DO NOT TURN THE MIXER ON HIGH until after all of the syrup is poured in.
(unless you enjoy being burned by flying sugar syrup)

Then turn mixer on high and let it whip until cool. After it cools some, with the mixer on low or medium, add the butter until it is absorbed.

The French buttercream usually will have more of an ivory/golden tint to it due to the yolks whereas the Italian will be almost white. Both of these buttercreams are light (almost like whipped cream at room temperature) yet have a richness to them.

The Swiss buttercream heats the whites and sugar together while over a heat source, then the soft butter is added, so essentially it shortens the process of the other two methods by a step. It tends to produce a lighter and fluffier buttercream then the previous two.

The Amercian method follows similar principals to the other three however, it replaces part or all of the butter with margarine or shortening.

*Sigh...I know, I know "Geez, Americans!"*

Let me just say for the record that changing out some of the butter for margarine or shortening is not necessarily a bad thing. It's just that there are a few people/businesses who have gone too far and used all shortening and then have added tons of sugar to try and make the frosting edible...

You have no idea how bad that is until you have tried it.

Let me just say it's really, really, really, really NOT good.

Looks pretty and innocent enough but is really not good to eat.
(I still have the memories...and nightmares)

Anyhow, the reason why it's not a completely horrendous idea to add some to a recipe is because a little margarine or shortening will help stabilize the buttercream which, when you are dealing with a Wedding cake on a hot day, can mean the difference between a beautiful cake that everyone will admire and enjoy (providing that it hasn't been set in direct sunlight on a 90+degree day) or a disaster that will show up eventually on Cake Wrecks blog.

Margarine can work out all right in higher proportion if needed in a recipe but both it and shortening (especially shortening) leaves a coating of fat in your mouth due to their higher melting points. So, if you are going to use a higher %, go for margarine first and do a test batch or two so that you will still have a frosting that people will want to eat.

Rule of thumb for margarine and shortening: Ideally use only if you know the weather is going to be warm and never ever ever go over 50% ratio with shortening.

Other options that you can try instead are using some white chocolate or a couple varieties of cocoa butter available which also work as stabilizers.


  1. This needs to be proclaimed among the masses!

  2. A few questions for you...

    1) What type of buttercream is your Lemon-Raspberry Poppyseed cake?

    2) If for the French and Italian you are using raw eggs is it the 240 degrees that cooks it enough to be safe to eat?

    It's only butter for my homemade buttercream, never shortening, but then again I don't *do wedding cakes* so I don't have to worry about it melting. ;)

    3) How'd the Gingerbread House turn out? Anxious to see photos.

    Stef at TooMuchToDoSoLittleTime.com

  3. We make an Italian style buttercream. Pasteurized whites but the hot sugar syrup cooks it to a safe temperature as well.
    We only use butter too, during the hot weather we keep the cakes chilled as long as possible, and give people a strong talking to about best cake scenario.

    Posting more Gingerbread pictures soon. Didn't win but we had fun doing it.

  4. Thanks for the info! I LOVE that frosting... actually, LOVE LOVE LOVE that cake! Thanks for sharing!

    Sorry to hear about the Gingerbread House not winning, it was really cool!

    Thanks again for sharing!
    Stef at TooMuchToDoSoLittleTime.com