The Buttercream Test. How to make the best!

the best buttercream frosting

When it comes to frosting, I’ve always made American buttercream for two reasons…

  1. I can make American buttercream one handed and half awake (Mom problems, right?)! But really. It’s powdered sugar, butter, vanilla, a dash of milk and a mixer. Total no brainer.
  2. “Real” buttercream contains eggs, and I’m a food safety nut. Any eggs in my kitchen better be properly cooked….or made of chocolate. (I know…I know you’re thinking about this post here , but the hubs loves a soft yolk!)

So, I’ve slathered American buttercream atop birthday cake after birthday cake, countless sugar cookies, and cupcakes galore. But then I read an article about how a famous baker said American buttercream isn’t real buttercream. I had to do an experiment. Could Swiss meringue be that much better? Or Italian?

Step 1: Research. I read up on different recipes of buttercream and compared popular recipes for similarities. I also called the Egg Board to confirm the proper cook temp for eggs is 160F. No one will be getting sick from eating my cupcakes!

Step 2: Decide on recipes to test. My tested recipes below.

Step 3: Make frosting! I tested three versions, all vanilla with the same amount of flavoring. I made small batches because I didn’t want to have frosting for days. To use these recipes for a standard cake or 24 cupcakes, I suggest doubling the batch. (My small batch size may have had a slight impact on the loft and mixing times…but let’s not get too fussy. ;))

Versions tested:

  • Swiss Buttercream
  • Italian Buttercream
  • American Buttercream

Swiss Meringue Buttercream Frosting

  • Servings: varies
  • Time: 20-30 minutes
  • Difficulty: medium
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Swiss Meringue Buttercream Frosting

Ingredients:

  • 2 egg whites, room temp
  • 3/4c granulated sugar
  • 12 Tbs unsalted butter, softened (use unsalted.)
  • 1 tsp good quality vanilla
  • thermometer

Procedure:

  1. Combine egg whites and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. Put the bowl on top of a simmering pot of water to create a double-boiler. Note: do not let the mixer bowl touch the water. This should make for a gentle heat.
  2. Stir the egg/sugar mixture in the double-boiler until the sugar dissolves in the egg white (and the mixture reaches 160F).
  3. Remove the mixing bowl and transfer it to the stand of your electric mixer fitted with the whip attachment. Turn your mixer on high and whip until the egg forms stiff peaks. (Stiff peaks = no curl on top.)
  4. If the mixture hasn’t already cooled to room temp (it probably has), let it cool for a few minutes.
  5. Add softened butter* in small bits to the mixture until the butter is fully incorporated, and the frosting is smooth and silky. You may have to scrape down the sides of the bowl occasionally to ensure the butter is mixed in.
  6. Add vanilla and mix to combine. Taste. (Yum.) Get out your cake/cupcakes and load those babies up!

Recipe notes:

* for some recipes I’ll use salted and unsalted butter interchangeably. This is not one of those recipes. You must use unsalted butter in this recipe.

The pros of Swiss Buttercream:

  • White color
  • Smooth mouthfeel
  • Great for piping
  • Light with lots of body (almost fluffy looking)

The cons of Swiss Buttercream:

  • If you’re used to American buttercream, this could be a time investment. Not counting the time to temper ingredients, you’re looking at 20-30min to make this frosting.

Recommended applications:

  • Does not taste great on brownies and other very sweet desserts.
  • Tastes awesome on cake.

 

Italian Meringue Buttercream Frosting

  • Servings: varies
  • Time: 30+ minutes
  • Difficulty: medium
  • Print

 

Italian Meringue Buttercream Frosting

Ingredients:

  • 3/4c granulated sugar
  • 1/3c water
  • 2 egg whites, room temp
  • 12 Tbs unsalted butter, softened (use unsalted)
  • 1 tsp good quality vanilla
  • candy thermometer

Method:

  1. Add sugar and water to a saucepan, and heat to 240F. This will become your syrup.
  2. While the syrup is heating to 240F, add the egg whites to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whip attachment. Whip the egg whites on high to stiff peaks.*
  3. When the egg whites reach stiff peaks and the syrup hits 240F, slowly add the hot syrup to the raw egg whites** and mix well to combine. Be careful not to splash the hot syrup out of the bowl. (Yea. It’s hot.)
  4. If not already at room temp, allow this mixture to cool. To speed it along, you might stuff a cold, wet kitchen towel under the bowl of your mixer.
  5. Add softened butter*** in small bits to the mixture until the butter is fully incorporated, and the frosting is smooth and silky. You may have to scrape the sides of the bowl occasionally to ensure all butter is mixed in.
  6. Add vanilla and mix to combine. Taste. (Yum.) Get out your cake/cupcakes and load those babies up!

Recipe notes

*You’ll want to try to time this step right, so the whipped egg whites don’t sit waiting for your syrup to be ready, and vice versa. The first time I waited too long to begin whipping my egg whites, and the syrup began to crystallize. For me, it worked well to start whipping the egg whites when the syrup temp reached about 220F.
** the idea with the hot syrup is that it will “cook” the raw egg. My syrup did reach 240F, but I poked a thermometer in the egg mixture post-syrup addition, and the temp only hit 120F (food safety tells us 160F for safe consumption of eggs)… While I’m not confident the egg was, in fact, “cooked,” my panelists and I all ate the frosting…and we’re all fine. But this recipe came with an “eat at your own risk” disclaimer. 😊
*** for some recipes I’ll use salted and unsalted butter interchangeably. This is not one of those recipes. You must use unsalted butter in this recipe.

The pros of Italian Buttercream:

  • White color (whiter than Swiss)
  • Smooth mouthfeel
  • Spreads and pipes well (but not as well as Swiss)
  • Fluffy appearance
  • Seems to have a stronger loft/fluff factor than Swiss, which might make it better for layer cakes.

The cons of Italian Buttercream:

  • If you’re used to American buttercream, this is definitely a time investment, as there is the extra step in cooking the syrup to 240F. Not counting the time to temper ingredients, this frosting takes more than 30 minutes to make.
  • I’m not convinced the egg actually “cooked,” and reached 160F.

Recommended applications:

  • Does not taste great on brownies and other very sweet desserts.
  • Tastes awesome on cake.
  • White color and fluffy texture may make this frosting a great option for cake decorating.

 

American Buttercream Frosting

  • Servings: varies
  • Time: 5 minutes
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

American Buttercream Frosting

Ingredients:

  • 1 stick butter, softened
  • 2c powdered sugar
  • 1tsp vanilla
  • 1 Tbs milk

Method:

  1. Add softened butter*, powdered sugar, vanilla and milk to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whip attachment. Mix ingredients until smooth and creamy.**

Recipe notes:

*If you must, you can use salted butter in this recipe. The sweetness will likely mask most of the salty flavor.
**I usually start mixing the butter and powdered sugar first, then dose in the milk until I hit the right consistency. However, it’s really not necessary to the success of the frosting – all ingredients can be added in together if you have the measurements correct.

The pros of American Buttercream:

  • Super fast to make. Not counting the time to temper the butter, this frosting whips up in about 5 minutes.
  • Very sweet (if that’s a benefit for you)

The cons of American Buttercream:

  • Yellowish in appearance, and may not color as purely as the meringue buttercreams.
  • Very sweet (if that’s a con for you)
  • Heavier and denser than the Swiss and Italian meringue buttercream
  • Does not spread and pipe as smoothly as either Swiss or Italian meringue buttercream.

Recommended applications:

  • My panelists unanimously agreed this was the best frosting to top a brownie.
  • Also good on cake, though very sweet and doesn’t frost/pipe as smoothly as Swiss or Italian meringue.

My conclusions:

For cake and cupcakes, Swiss meringue buttercream frosting is my preference. The smooth, silky texture offers a really nice mouthfeel and is great for spreading and piping on cakes.

Swiss meringue buttercream takes longer to make than American buttercream, but it’s well worth the time if you can spare it. In my opinion, while Italian meringue may be whiter and fluffier than Swiss, it’s not worth the extra time it takes to make the syrup. Additionally, it’s difficult to be sure the eggs in Italian meringue buttercream meet food safety requirements. Both Swiss and Italian meringue are subtly sweet, light, and fluffy. Delicious.

American buttercream frosting is certainly sweeter, denser, and heavier than its meringue counterparts. American frosting may be the most familiar, and therefore “best” for many home cooks. And, for brownies, I still think American buttercream is the way to go. It mixes up fast, and can stand up to the already-sweet brownie, where meringue buttercream tastes like butter.

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