How to Make Buttercream Frosting
Hands down, one of the best frostings for cakes is buttercream. It’s lighter and more forgiving than fondant, more rich and luscious than a simple meringue or whipped cream, and more versatile than a ganache. But it can be intimidating for novice bakers. After concentrating on baking a cake to perfection, many of us don’t want to go to the added trouble of whipping a frosting together. BUT IT IS SO WORTH IT.
Making buttercream frosting from scratch doesn’t have to be hard. Trust us, you can do it too. And to prove it, we’re walking you through the various types of buttercream frostings, plus giving you a full recipe, and even a video tutorial!
Ready? Put your apron on and get your mixing bowl out. This is going to be a tasty one.
Types of buttercream frosting
Before we move to mixing, here’s a brief overview of the different buttercreams you can make:
American Buttercream - the easiest to create, it requires no cooking and is a super quick recipe that’s almost foolproof. It’s a bit firmer than other buttercreams because of its high butter content, and it offers a light, ivory color.
Flour Buttercream - similar to American buttercream, but a little less sweet and has a more subtle flavor. Plus, it holds up a little better in warmer temperatures.
German Buttercream - made with custard instead of pudding, it’s surprisingly light in texture and taste and ends up a buttery yellow color once beaten together.
French Buttercream - one of the harder buttercreams to bring together, it does include raw eggs and makes a very smooth and velvety frosting.
Italian Meringue Buttercream - similar to French in that it contains raw eggs, but it holds up better in warmer temperatures and only contains egg whites, hence the meringue.
Swiss Meringue Buttercream - made with an egg-foam base, but without any raw eggs, and it offers a silky smooth finish and more sophisticated flavor.
If you want a more detailed breakdown of each type of buttercream, this one from Serious Eats has a great in-depth explanation of the process and pros and cons of each. Our personal favorite is Swiss meringue. It’s a great middle of the road choice, not too dense, not too sweet, not too hard to make, not too quick to melt in heat, free of raw eggs, etc. We love this recipe from Sally’s Baking Addiction, so that is the tutorial we’ll be sharing today.
Swiss Meringue Buttercream Recipe
6 large egg whites (240g)
2 cups (400g) granulated sugar
1 and 1/2 cups (3 sticks; 350g) unsalted butter, softened but still cool and cut into Tbsp size pieces (*see note*)
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
Egg Whites: Egg whites and sugar form the meringue. For best success, use fresh eggs instead of pre-separated egg white mixtures and use them straight from the refrigerator. They will separate easier when they’re cold, so you don’t want to let them rest and get room temperature.
Granulated Sugar: Use regular granulated sugar, not confectioners’ sugar.
Unsalted Butter: Butter is what turns meringue into meringue buttercream. Salted butter can create a very overpowering taste. Remove the butter from the refrigerator 30-40 minutes before you use it. Maybe less if your kitchen is fairly warm. You want your butter slightly cooler than room temperature. If your butter is too warm, your frosting will make your frosting too thin. Too cold, and it won’t incorporate properly. Cut butter into Tablespoon size pieces before using.
Vanilla Extract: Add for (optional) flavor. You can also flavor your buttercream with Baker’s chocolate or flavor extracts like orange, maple, etc.
Salt: Some Swiss meringue buttercream recipes don’t use salt, but we recommend it to add just another layer of flavor. This is NOT the same as using salted butter. You’ll just have to trust us. Or you can read this article for a full explanation if you’re the curious kind.
How to make Swiss meringue buttercream
Swiss Meringue Buttercream | Prep Time: 20 minutes | Cook Time: 5 minutes | Total Time: 30 minutes | Yield: 5 cups
Pro tip: watch the video tutorial below, review the troubleshooting tips, and read the recipe in full before beginning.
Make sure all the tools you are using are completely clean, dry, and grease-free. Wiping them down with a little lemon juice or white vinegar cuts any grease or fat and ensures your meringue sets up correctly.
Start by separating the eggs. Separate each egg white in a small bowl, then place each egg white in a heatproof mixing bowl. By separating them each individually over the small bowl, you prevent ruining the whole batch if one yolk breaks.
Mix sugar into egg whites. Heat just two inches of water to a simmer in a saucepan over the stove (your saucepan should be able to fit your heatproof mixing bowl on top of it comfortably). Whisk all your sugar into the egg whites, then set the bowl over the saucepan on medium heat. The bottom of the egg whites bowl should not touch the water, but just set over top of it. Whisk the whites and sugar constantly until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture has thinned out (about 4 minutes). Tip from Sally’s Baking Addiction: The mixture will be thick and tacky at first, then thin out and be frothy white on top. To test that it’s ready, you can use your finger or an instant read thermometer. Lightly and quickly dip your finger (it’s very hot, be careful) and rub the mixture between your thumb and finger. You shouldn’t feel any sugar granules. If using a thermometer, the temperature should read 160°F (71°C).
Beat together with a mixer. You can start the next step while your egg and sugar mixture is still warm. Transfer it to a stand mixer or use a hand mixer with a whisking attachment. Note: a hand mixer is more time-consuming and tiring, but give it a try if that’s what you’ve got! On medium-high speed, beat the mixture until stiff glossy peaks form and the meringue is no longer warm - feel the outside of the mixing bowl, and if it still feels at all warm, keep going. This will take at least 10-15 minutes or 17-18 minutes on more humid days. If your mixture does not reach stiff peaks after this point, place the uncovered mixing bowl in the refrigerator for 10 minutes. Then you can return it to the mixer and resume beating until stiff peaks form. If the bowl or meringue still feel warm, wait until both cool to room temperature before adding the butter in the next step. You can place it in the refrigerator as much as you need to. If it’s at all warm, it will melt the butter in the next step, so it’s important to allow it to cool for the texture to set properly. (What are “stiff peaks?” This means it forms stiff, smooth, and sharp points in the bowl or on the whisk attachment. Stiff peaks do not droop down. Like in the image below.)
Add butter one pad at a time. Switch to a paddle attachment on the mixer to the paddle. Using medium-high speed, add the butter one Tablespoon at a time. Wait for each pad of butter to fully mix in before adding the next Tablespoon.
Add flavor and salt. After all the butter has been added, turn the mixer down to medium speed and beat in the vanilla and salt. This should just take 30 seconds.
Pipe and serve! Your Swiss meringue buttercream should be thick, silky smooth and scrumptious. You’re ready to fill a piping bag and use it right away on any cake, cupcake, or spread it between two cookies for a cookie sandwich.
Coloring your frosting: It’s best to tint SMBC with gel food coloring so you aren’t adding a lot of extra liquid. Beat food coloring into the frosting on low speed as a last step after adding your flavoring.
Yield: This recipe makes about 5 cups of frosting. This a generous yield that will allow you to:
Fill and frost a two layer 9-inch cake with a generous amount
Fill and frost a three layer 9-inch cake with just enough frosting
Frost a 9×13 inch sheet cake (with some frosting leftover).
Lightly frost 2 dozen cupcakes
Or heavily frost 1 dozen cupcakes
Make-ahead, storing, and freezing instructions: Swiss meringue buttercream is perfectly safe and yummy left covered at room temperature for 1-2 days. After that, refrigerate it for up to another 5 days or freeze up to 3 months. If you freeze it, store it in an airtight container, then thaw it to room temperature on the counter when you’re ready to use it. Once brought to room temperature, beat it with the paddle attachment for 2-3 minutes until it’s creamy again. If it separates or curdles, see troubleshooting tips below.
Photo Source: Preppy Kitchen
Troubleshooting Swiss Meringue Buttercream
(Courtesy of Sally’s Baking Addiction)
Meringue won’t reach stiff peaks: This step in the recipe requires a long period of mixing the cooked egg whites and sugar together. The meringue won’t reach stiff peaks if there is even a drop of egg yolk (fat) or grease in the mixture, mixing bowl, or on any tools you are using. That’s why it is so important to clean your tools well before use and even wipe down with lemon juice or white vinegar. If you’re not comfortable with manually separating eggs, use an egg separator. And always separate and add the egg whites one at a time to the mixing bowl.
Buttercream is curdled/too thick: If your meringue has separated, curdled, or is too thick at any point after you mix in all of the butter, just keep beating it and it will eventually come together. If only continues to get thicker and chunkier, here’s a quick fix: place the mixture in your heat-proof bowl back over a pot of 2 inches of simmering water. Without stirring, let the edges of the meringue warm up and become liquid (the center of the meringue will still be solid), about 1-2 minutes. Remove from heat and return to the mixer. Beat meringue on low speed for 30 seconds, then switch to medium-high speed and beat until smooth, about 2 minutes. This is a common trick you’ll have to use, but it actually makes for an even creamier frosting. Double-whipped Swiss meringue buttercream… yum!
Buttercream is soupy/too thin: If your mixture becomes too thin after adding the butter, your butter was likely too warm when you added it or the meringue might have still been too warm. All you need to do to correct it is bring down the temperature. Place the bowl in the refrigerator (covered or uncovered, doesn’t matter) for 20 minutes to cool down, then return it to the mixer and beat on medium-high speed until thickened. Any longer than this will solidify the butter, so only refrigerate in 20 minute increments between beating. If it’s still soupy, place it back in the refrigerator again before re-whipping.
Buttercream just tastes like butter: Make sure you’re using unsalted butter because salted butter leaves your frosting with an overwhelmingly salty/buttery flavor. Use pure vanilla extract to flavor it and add a pinch of regular table salt. Other flavored extracts work too– see the Ingredients section above.
Buttercream solidified in the refrigerator: There’s a lot of butter in this frosting, so if it’s stored in a bowl in the refrigerator for too long, it will solidify into one large mass just like a bowl of cookie dough. You can either bring it to room temperature on the counter or use the double boiler method to heat the edges melt, then beat it again with the paddle attachment for 2-3 minutes to bring it together.
We just gave you a lot of information, so if it seems complicated at first, remember that all you have to do is try. No one said you have to make the recipe perfectly your first time. Luckily, Swiss meringue buttercream frosting is fairly forgiving and if you end up with a mixture that’s slightly off, it’s very easy to correct the texture without and adjusting of ingredients. Try to remain patient, read through this entire post, watch the video below, and prepare yourself by even printing the recipe to have an easy reference guide when you begin. Trust us, the results of your labor will be so delicious, it will be well worth 30 minutes of your time.
If you’re more of a visual person or want a full, step-by-step walk through of how to make Swiss meringue buttercream, this is a great video to watch before trying on your own.