Here’s What You Need to Know About Buttercream

Plus our top buttercream recipes to try on your next cake.

American Buttercream
Photo: Photo by Huge Galdones / Food Styling by Christina Zerkis

You’ve heard about it, you’ve had it, you’ve probably gotten it all over your face after taking a bite out of a cupcake. But what exactly is buttercream?

By definition, buttercream is a type of frosting made by creaming together sugar and butter . Buttercream is typically (and most easily) made in a stand mixer, but can be whipped up with a hand mixer or a whisk. But there is complexity behind that sweet, simple base; here are the five main varieties. 

American Buttercream

Also known as simple buttercream, American buttercream is the sweetest and easiest type of buttercream to whip up. All you have to do is beat butter until it’s light and fluffy, then mix in powdered sugar (a 1:2 ratio is a safe bet), maybe some vanilla, and a splash of milk or cream. After a couple minutes, the frosting will come together — thick and creamy, making it easy to pipe out detailed shapes and patterns. Pastry chef Paola Velez created a great beginner’s American buttercream with some minor alterations to the traditional version; she combines the butter with a small spoonful of vegetable shortening to make the frosting even more stable. Grace Parisi flavors her classic buttercream recipe with melted white chocolate, which she beats directly into the butter before adding the remaining ingredients. 

Italian Buttercream

The most stable of the buttercreams, Italian buttercream is made from a meringue made bystreaming hot sugar syrup into egg whites as they’re being whisked. You keep whisking until the meringue is completely cool, then gradually mix in small cubes of butter, one at a time. Continue to mix, mix, mix, adding vanilla, salt, and any other flavorings you like until the frosting is soft, shiny, and white. Although Italian buttercream is extremely light, it’s stable enough to hold its shape through warm weather. Check out this traditional recipe from Margaret Braun, or Paola’s recipe, which introduces citric acid and lemon zest for a bit of tang.

Swiss Buttercream:

Similar to Italian, Swiss buttercream is made from meringue. But rather than pouring syrup into the egg whites, when you make Swiss buttercream,  you whisk the egg whites and sugar together directly over a double boiler for a more gentle, gradual heat source. A lot of pastry chefs will also add a stabilizing agent, like cream of tartar, to guarantee that the frosting is strong enough to form stiff peaks. The warm egg white and sugar gets poured into a stand mixer, where it’s whipped until silky-smooth. You then follow the same formula as the Italian buttercream, gradually mixing in small cubes of butter, followed by salt, vanilla, or add-ins like Sasha Piligan’s blueberry-coriander jam or Tom Douglas’ hazelnut praline paste.

German Buttercream

The German variety of buttercream starts with a custard, meaning a thick mixture of whole eggs (or egg yolks), sugar, cornstarch, and warm milk and sugar. You let that custard cool before combining it to whipped, fluffy butter. Then comes the vanilla and salt. Because of the egg yolks, this frosting will be lighter, more yellow in color, and almost ice cream-like than the others. 

French Buttercream

Arguably the most complicated buttercream there is, French buttercream starts with an egg yolk foam, or pâte à bombe. This process takes hot sugar syrup and pours it over whipped egg yolks. It’s then poured into a stand mixer or bowl, and whisked on high speed until thick and fluffy. Then, you know the drill — you’ll gradually add butter cubes, vanilla, and salt. This frosting is light, decadently rich, and, like German buttercream, has a subtle yellow hue. 

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