"Food: Science, Art, Passion, Pleasure, Adventure & Exploration"

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The World According to...Buttercream

Classic buttercream icing

I dream, you dream, we all dream about buttercream!

I simply can't get enough of this stuff...on cakes, cupcakes, pettis fours, cookies, you name it, I love it!

This is the real creamy crack.

What can I say? Buttercream leads to sugar bliss! And any fan of buttercream knows they can have it in so many ways. That's THE icing on the cake!

What is buttercream, really? And what self-proclaimed sugar god or goddess decides what real buttercream is?

My macarons w/ hazelnut butter buttercream
I mean, who am I kidding here? A great deal of writing can be done on just this subject alone. Enough to compose a small book!  Now only if the pages were made out of cake, that would be something truly special and most fitting!

Hmmm, well historically boiled icings, which were some of the first icings, were used on yeast cakes. Yeast cakes were popular before the introduction of baking powder. Boiled icings were similar to today's royal icing and they consisted mainly of sugar and egg whites boiled together with added flavorings. The icings would harden on the cakes and create a sugary, candy-like coating, but around the very early part of the 20th century, buttercream icings began to appear in cake recipes, and over time, many cultures adapted their own versions of buttercream icing for their pastries.

Today, classic buttercream is known to contain a sweet, short, and simple list of ingredients: definitely sugar, almost always butter, possibly eggs, and sometimes milk or cream.

Various versions of buttercream icing are created by using a combination of these ingredients in a multitude of ways.

Let's go down a stellar and fascinating list, shall we?
  • French Buttercream (aka pâte á bombe): This icing is made by making sugar syrup from boiled sugar and water and beating it into egg yolks until the mixture is very cooled, airy and creamy. Butter and any flavor extracts or oils are added to the creamed yolk batter to make the final result.
  • German Buttercream (pastry cream-based) : This icing base uses pastry cream (same filling used for choux pastry desserts such as profiteroles, eclairs, and cream puffs) or other custards. Butter is beaten into the pastry cream along with any additional flavors to create the icing. Extra sugar can be added to make the icing even sweeter.
  • Russian Buttercream: This is also a custard or pastry cream-based icing fused with soft butter, however it is further thickened with cornstarch or flour. 
  • Roux Buttercream (aka Heirloom Icing): This is a flour-based buttercream icing. It is made by cooking milk and flour together (roux) and then cooling the roux. A creamed combination of sugar and butter are then added to the roux to make a roux buttercream. 
  • French Meringue Buttercream: This is a meringue-based icing. Meringues icings are icings that incorporate egg whites. This icing is traditionally made by whipping egg whites, powdered sugar, and cream of tartar together to form a creamy meringue base. Butter and flavors are then beaten in to finalize the recipe. Some recipes call for the use of whole eggs.
  • Italian Meringue Buttercream: Italian meringue buttercream is made by adding hot sugar syrup to beaten egg whites. The sugar syrup's heat cooks the egg whites, and the mixture is then beaten until it cools down to 100 degrees (Fahrenheit). Butter is then added for completion.
  • Swiss Meringue Buttercream: Swiss meringue is somewhat similar to Italian meringue, however, sugar (can be brown or white sugar) is cooked with egg whites on a double boiler (bain marie). The mixture is taken off the stove and whipped into stiff peaks. Butter and other flavors are then added to create a Swiss meringue buttercream.
  • American Buttercream: American buttercream is also called classic or decorator's buttercream. It is one of the longest-lasting buttercreams, especially if shortening or margarine is used over butter. It's also the simplest to make and no cooking of the ingredients is required. It's made by mixing together butter and powdered sugar. Milk is often added to further cream the base, and buttermilk, cream, nut milks, coconut milk can be substitutes. Cornstarch is sometimes used to further stabilize the icing and in some cases, small amounts of whole eggs, egg yolks or egg whites are used to compliment the texture and taste. Some people still argue that American buttercream made with margarine, shortening or lard is not real buttercream.
  • Buttercream Fondant (also called Rolled Buttercream): This icing is great for topping cookies and for creating decorations on top of cakes, as the icing can be shaped and cut with cookie cutters. It is sometimes also used to cover cakes as a tastier, albeit shinier, alternative to traditional fondant. It is made by combining a very large amount of powdered sugar with vegetable shortening, glucose or corn syrup, and any flavors, to create an "icing dough,"which can be molded and kneaded.
  • Fruit-based Buttercream: This buttercreams is similar to classic or American buttercream and is sometimes best used as filling or spreads. The icing base is structured around a fruit juice, jam, puree, and the like. Fruit juice, butter, powdered sugar are creamed together to create a fruit buttercream with a strong fruit flavor. Jams, purees, and spreads give fruit buttercreams a fabulous texture. These are especially great used as filling in cake rolls.
Creamy Vanilla French Buttercream Icing
1 cup water
1 cup granulated sugar
4 egg yolks
1 whole egg
1/2 cup butter, cubed and cold (4 oz. / 1 stick)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
  1. In a saucepan, pour in 1 cup of water and 1 cup of granulated sugar and bring to a boil for about 10-15 minutes or until sugar syrup is reduced by half and thickens.
  2. Turn off heat for sugar syrup and set aside.
  3. In a large bowl with a stand or hand mixer, beat 4 egg yolks until they are blended well. Beat on medium speed.
  4. Add in 1 whole egg and continue to beat the eggs.
  5. Take the hot sugar syrup in the saucepan and slowly pour it into the eggs as they are beaten. Beat approximately 10 minutes until the eggs and syrup mixture is cooled, creamy, and light.
  6. Add in 1/2 cup of cubed, cold butter and continue to beat the buttercream into smoothness.
  7. Include 1 tsp. of vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste and blend into the buttercream icing.
  8. Use right away for cake, macarons, or cupcake icing or fillings. Store icing in the fridge if used for later. Also great for layers in sponge cake parfaits or trifles.

Photo of buttercream icing from Baking Bits & Bobs
As you can see, the world of buttercream has many citizens, and although what I listed covers most types of buttercreams, there are still more varieties out there to explore.

I, for one, am glad that buttercream fans have so many styles to choose from. Every person will come to have their favorite by trying different ones.

So, buttercream addicts, what's your favorite kind of buttercream? 

Do you know of any other buttercreams that I haven't listened? I'd love to know!


  1. Do you have a recipe for Russian butter cream frosting.  I have made one from my grandmother that uses a cooked base of milk and cornstarch which is cooled then added to a creamed butter/granlated sugar mixture.  I would like to compare it with a authentic Russian buttercream recipe.

  2. Interesting that you use cold butter.