buttercream 101: how to make perfect buttercream

This may seem odd, but I learned to bake good cakes before I figured out how to make a decent American buttercream. There’s specific chemistry that goes into a cake (so much that can go wrong!) that by comparison, buttercreams are quite straightforward. This is probably why there is little focus on how to perfect it. But, it actually does take time to learn about the quality and type of ingredients that go into buttercream, how they behave, and how your method can have a huge impact on your final product. Below I’ve written up a list of tips and tricks I’ve picked up in my many years of learning how to master the perfect buttercream. I hope it will be useful to any hobbyist baker!

ingredients

the butter:

  • salt: there’s a bit of a trend lately to use salted butter in baking, I think it stems from a push-back against all the baking greats telling us only unsalted will do. Sometimes salted actually is ok or even preferable (even though most recipes will tell you it’s never ok), but sometimes you want more control over  how much salt goes in your recipe. I’ve tried both unsalted and salted in my buttercreams and tbh, I’ve found that is okay to use salted (as long as you don’t add any salt yourself or are very careful with how much you add). But generally, a baker keeps unsalted in the fridge and that is the preferable choice.

  • temperature: you absolutely need the butter to be soft. When soft, it beats easily and becomes perfectly smooth buttercream. Problem is, I have found that if left out of the fridge too long, it can get TOO soft, or worse, begin to melt. Ideally, you would take it out an hour before you need to make the buttercream (less if your kitchen is warm). Forgot to? I have a little hack I’ll share but please, please, do this with caution: I microwave my butter straight out of the fridge for 10 seconds and find it gets me to the softness I need. This works for me because I know how hot my microwave is and because I’ve experimented with leaving it longer (and melted many a butter in the process). Try it, bearing in mind your microwave could run hotter or colder and you might need to adjust the time. But before you do, take a stick of butter out of the fridge and leave it out for an hour - this way you know what level of softness you are looking for from the microwave.

  • cost: I felt so vindicated when I read this article last week. I have bought TJ’s butter for $2.99 for years; it’s the cheapest and the absolute best for most baking projects I take on. I’ve read many bakers extolling the virtues of european butter and its higher fat content, but in reality it’s uses are specific to certain dishes (like laminated doughs). In terms of buttercream, it adds too much fat/moisture, so don’t waste your $$.

the sugar:

  • organic vs conventional: for many years I made buttercreams like most people do, with conventional powdered sugar. I never felt I could eat too much of it and I noticed people pushing it off my cakes as they ate. Organic is more expensive and a hassle because it needs to be sifted but, guess what? It’s totally worth it. I started buying organic at TJ’s awhile back and two things happened: I would immediately notice the difference between which sugar was used, and, I started getting rave reviews about how amazing my buttercream tastes with people licking it off their forks. Conventional is made with cornstarch which only melts at high cooking or baking temperatures. Organic is made with tapioca starch which literally melts on your tongue as you eat the buttercream. The answer is pretty straightforward.

  • quantity: in my recipe and and any other recipes you find here, I give you exact quantities for the sugar. But truth is, I think this is best figured out by eye and taste; you may need less or more depending on what you are going for. I start with 1 and 1/4 cup of powdered sugar per stick of butter and add more if I need to. Some people like it sweeter so they’ll add more. Sometimes you want a really stiff buttercream for piping so you’ll add much more. Decide based on your needs and taste.

the vanilla:

  • imitation vs pure: When pairing with chocolate, you want the pure vanilla taste and not the fake stuff. Imitation is fantastic in vanilla buttercreams that are meant to evoke birthday cake flavors.

the cocoa:

  • dutched, always dutched: dutch-process cocoa both tastes and looks better in buttercreams. The acidity is removed in the alkalizing process and the result is a richer chocolate taste and a darker color so it looks richer too. For a really dark buttercream I’ll add a bit of black cocoa (see chocolate mascarpone buttercream).

the salt:

  • so many recipes forget to tell you to add salt to buttercream; this is just crazy. Consider how much sugar is in your buttercream, you need to balance it with some salt. Further, salt will bump up every ingredient’s flavor by mounds: chocolates, vanillas, anything. Never leave out the salt.

the milk:

  • most recipes have you add a bit of milk or cream at the end. This is done to make the buttercream smoother and silky, and sometimes because your buttercream is too thick. Start with one tablespoon at a time to see what effect it has. I find I usually need a couple of TB in a basic chocolate or vanilla buttercream. With a cream cheese buttercream I never add milk because it’s already so soft. With mascarpone, I add just a tad. If you’ve added lemon juice or something similar then you probably don’t need the extra liquid.

methodology

  • beat your butter first: sometimes we throw the butter and the sugar in together because we figure they are going to beat together anyway, why not start early? Not quite. Beating butter by itself for awhile first makes a difference because you allow time for the butter to get light and fluffy without the interference of sugar. If you are going for a white buttercream, beating the butter alone is essential because it lightens up the color considerably and you won’t have to adjust as much with white food coloring. But even for a chocolate buttercream, you should definitely beat your butter first to make it extra silky and smooth. Also, you need to wait on the powdered sugar in order to…

  • add your salt and vanilla to the butter before anything else: Years ago, I read that adding the flavorings to the fat is best because it incorporates and distributes better and I have found this to be 100% true. If you can’t decide how much you’ll need as you will be tasting (see below) start with half the amount recommended added to the fat, then once the sugar is added and it’s all beat up - add more.

  • taste as you add and beat: I mentioned this earlier in the sugar section. Everybody has a different tastes, some of us like sweeter buttercreams and some want it to be more balanced. I also think this applies to salts and vanillas added. Add in small quantities and taste until you get to your sweet point.

  • scraping the bowl: I can’t emphasize this enough. In a stand mixer, unmixed butter gets trapped in the bottom of the bowl and other ingredients like sugar and cocoa sputter to the sides. The attached spatula (which is what you should use - not the whisk attachment) can’t incorporate them. Over and over again you’ll need to get in there with a spatula of your own, scrape down, mix and beat.

  • temperature: most buttercream issues are down to temperature. Butter that is too warm at the start, or buttercream that has been sitting in a warm kitchen is too slimy and soft to work with. Set it in the fridge for 15 minutes to allow it time to firm up. If you had it storing overnight in the fridge, leave it out for an hour to soften before you began frosting.