The World of Buttercreams: 6 Varieties to Try at Home

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Do you know your buttercreams? [Photographs: Nila Jones of The Tough Cookie]

Let me start this lengthy guide with a very simple, but often overlooked, tip: don't ever serve buttercream—any kind of buttercream—cold. Don't do it! Why? Because cold buttercream is very, very firm, which makes it way less creamy and a whole lot more like you're just eating sweet cold butter. So never, ever serve it cold. Always allow it to come to room temperature before serving.

Got it? Good. Moving on then...

Buttercream. I love everything about it. Making it, eating it, eating a little more of it...Buttercream is amazing spread over cake, piped onto cupcakes, or smushed between two cookies.

Anyone who has ever baked cupcakes has probably tried their hand at making buttercream. But did you know there are actually a lot of different types of buttercream? I know of six! Each one more delicious than the other.

Here they are, in alphabetical order:

  • American buttercream
  • Flour buttercream, also known as flour icing/frosting or ermine frosting
  • French buttercream
  • German buttercream, also known as custard buttercream or custard icing
  • Italian buttercream
  • Swiss buttercream

About a year ago, I decided to throw a little buttercream tasting party, where guests could taste all the different buttercreams and vote for their favorite. It was super fun, but it ended up being so hard to pick a winner that I don't want to tell you which one won. Instead, I think you need to taste-test them for yourself. Besides, I've since updated my buttercream recipes, so my old test results are hardly valid anymore...

So let's just get on with it! This is the Battle of the Buttercreams 2.0!

Two Different Methods

The six kinds of buttercream can be roughly divided into two categories, according to their preparation method:

  • Buttercreams that are made by adding a sweet base (mostly some sort of pudding) to beaten butter. I like to call this method the 'beaten-butter method.'
  • Buttercreams that are made by adding cubes of softened butter to a sweet base (an egg foam). I call this one the 'cubed-butter method.'

American buttercream, flour buttercream, and German buttercream all fall into the first category.

French, Italian and Swiss buttercream all fall into the second category.

The beaten-butter method is easiest, so let's start with that.

Beaten-Butter Method

Let me first tell you a little secret: all the buttercreams made using the beaten-butter method can also be made with the cubed-butter method. However, if you use the beaten-butter method, the buttercream not only comes together more willingly, it's also less likely to separate.

The method itself is easy: just three simple steps.

By the way, to explain how this method works, I've included photos in which I'm making flour buttercream. It's a gorgeously smooth, egg-free buttercream made with a simple pudding base. For American buttercream, you'd replace the pudding with a base made from a ton of powdered sugar and a splash of cream, and for the German buttercream you'd replace the pudding with a basic custard made with egg yolks and milk.

Step 1: Beat the Butter

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The first thing you'll need to do is beat softened butter until it's smooth and fluffy. As you beat air into it, it will lighten in color. Obviously, it's best to use a mixer for this. Fit it with a whisk or paddle attachment, it should work either way. I don't have a paddle attachment—because I still don't own a stand mixer!—so I used my trusty old hand-held mixer for this.

Just make sure the butter you're using has come to room temperature before you start beating it. I usually take my butter out of the fridge about 30 minutes before I need it and cut it into little cubes so that it comes to room temperature a bit faster. Oh, and when I say 'room temperature,' I mean somewhere between 65-68°F. Don't try to warm the butter in the microwave or oven, because you don't want melted butter! Otherwise you'll run into all sorts of issues; it's pretty hard to whip up melted butter.

Step 2: Add the Base

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Once the butter is nice and fluffy, you can start adding the base. For a flour buttercream, this means a pudding made with milk, sugar, and a little flour. The base kind of looks like glue, but the resulting buttercream will be delicious, I promise.

By adding the base one spoonful at a time and mixing well after each addition, you give the butter a chance to absorb the added moisture from the pudding. As you may know, fat and water don't mix very well—just try to mix a few drops of oil into a cup of water. When you're making buttercream, you're essentially doing the same thing: you're trying to make a water-in-fat emulsion. Add all the pudding at once, and the buttercream may separate. Add the pudding slowly, and the buttercream comes together beautifully!

By the way, for a German buttercream you would add spoonfuls of custard to the beaten butter at this point. For an American buttercream you would simply mix in powdered sugar and cream.

Step 3: Mix in Flavorings

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Once you've added the pudding base (or custard, or powdered sugar and cream), continue to mix on high speed for another few minutes, or until the buttercream is smooth, creamy and fluffy.

Mix in a little vanilla extract or other flavoring and you're done. You've made deliciously smooth buttercream using the beaten-butter method!

Now that I've explained all about the method, let's take a look at the different buttercreams you can make with it.

American Buttercream

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American buttercream is deliciously creamy, super sweet, and incredibly fluffy, and by far the easiest buttercream to master. It's just a matter of beating softened butter until it's fluffy, adding powdered sugar, cream, and a little vanilla and whipping it all together. No cooking required!

Some recipes will instruct you to combine the ingredients for this buttercream (so butter, powdered sugar, cream, and vanilla) in a mixing bowl all at once and start mixing it together like that, but I find that by first beating the butter until it's light and fluffy, the buttercream becomes a lot lighter and fluffier as well.

The cream also helps to make the frosting fluffy and creamy, because it makes the buttercream a little thinner. If you'd like a thicker buttercream, you can always add a bit more powdered sugar. Like it thinner? Add more cream.

American buttercream has a pale ivory color and is a bit firmer than most other buttercreams, because it has a very high butter content. I hate to break it to you, but American buttercream really is just fat and sugar. (That's why it's so good.) However, this also means that it doesn't hold up very well in warmer temperatures, because once the butter starts to melt, the buttercream won't be able to hold onto all those tiny air bubbles you've managed to beat into it. Once the butter melts, the buttercream will quickly become a sad little puddle, because its structure (the butter) has just collapsed.

So if you're planning a summer birthday party outside, or another outdoor event where you intend to serve cake or cupcakes frosted with buttercream, you'll want to use a buttercream that's a bit more heat-resistant.

Oh, and about the butter, I always use the unsalted kind. You can certainly make this buttercream with salted butter, but I like to control how much salt actually goes into my buttercream. For this reason, I use unsalted butter in all of my buttercream recipes, and only add salt to taste at the very end. I also like to use fine table salt for this, since I've found that kosher or sea salt won't dissolve properly.

Salt aside, American buttercream really is very sweet. If you prefer a buttercream that is almost as easy to make but a little less sweet, try flour buttercream.

Flour Buttercream

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Although flour buttercream is hardly any more difficult to make than American buttercream, it's less sweet and has a more subtle flavor. It also holds up a lot better in warm temperatures because of its lower fat content and the added structure of the pudding base. Bonus, bonus, bonus!

Like I said, you make it by first cooking up a simple pudding base made with milk, sugar, and a little flour.

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By whisking the flour into the sugar before adding the milk, you minimize the risk of getting flour lumps.

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Whisk to incorporate the milk.

(And please notice the complete lack of flour lumps!)

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Then place the pan over low heat and allow the mixture to come to a boil, whisking continuously to avoid lumps in the pudding. Once the mixture is boiling, turn the heat down to low and cook the pudding for a few minutes to cook the flour, stirring continuously.

Once cooked through, transfer the pudding to a shallow, heatproof container and immediately cover it with plastic wrap, pressing the plastic directly onto the pudding to prevent a skin from forming. Set aside and allow to cool to room temperature before adding it to the beaten butter.

It will kind of look like glue, but that's okay...

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One last note on the sugar: some other recipes for flour buttercream instruct you to make the pudding base with just milk and flour. The idea is that you then beat the butter and sugar together until fluffy and only then do you mix in the pudding base. This method has never worked for me. Somehow, the granulated sugar never dissolves completely, resulting in a grainy, crunchy buttercream. Personally, I like buttercream to be smooth, but if crunchy is your thing, you now know what to do!

German Buttercream

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German buttercream might actually be my favorite. Or, um, one of my favorites, at least. It's just as easy to make as the flour buttercream, except you use custard instead of pudding. To make things even easier, cornstarch is added to the uncooked custard mixture, helping to thicken the custard and reducing the chances of accidentally overcooking the eggs.

You still shouldn't boil it, though, so keep a close eye on the custard as it cooks.

Because this buttercream is custard-based, it has a gorgeous yellow color. And although this buttercream contains a fair amount of butter and three egg yolks, it is surprisingly light for a buttercream, both in texture and taste. It's also a bit softer than most buttercreams and, like American buttercream, it doesn't hold up well in warmer temperatures. However, you can easily thicken it by using a thicker custard base, such as homemade pastry cream. That stuff is amazing!

So those are the three kinds of buttercream you can make using the beaten-butter method. Now let's take a closer look at the cubed-butter method.

Cubed-Butter Method

This method is a little bit trickier to pull off than the beaten-butter method, though the theory is still pretty straightforward.

In the following photos I'm making a Swiss buttercream, but the method is similar if you're making an Italian buttercream or French buttercream.

Step 1: Prepare Your Egg-Foam Base

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You start with a prepared egg-foam base: Swiss or Italian meringue, or pâte à bombe (egg yolks beaten with a hot sugar syrup). Like I said, I'm using Swiss meringue here.

Step 2: Add Softened Butter

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You then add cubes of softened butter to the meringue (or pâte à bombe) one at a time. It's important to keep mixing as you do this, because you're again trying to create a water-in-fat emulsion. Take your time!

Step 3: Keep Mixing

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Once you've added all the butter, the mixture may start to look separated, despite all that careful mixing. Don't panic! Just keep mixing and the buttercream will eventually come together. It usually doesn't take longer than a few minutes of mixing before the mixture magically transforms into smooth and creamy buttercream.

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So remember: should the buttercream separate, just keep mixing until it's smooth!

Here are the three different kinds of buttercream that can be made using the cubed-butter method.

French Buttercream

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French buttercream is a gorgeously smooth, velvety, rich buttercream. Because it's made with an egg-yolk foam (i.e., pâte à bombe), it naturally has a bright yellow color and a higher fat content than Swiss or Italian buttercream, which are both made with egg whites. As a result, it doesn't hold up very well in warm temperatures.

Personally, I think French buttercream is the most difficult buttercream to master, because it requires cooking up a hot sugar syrup and carefully drizzling it into beaten yolks with the mixer running to prevent the yolks from scrambling. But it's totally worth it! Just make sure to keep kids and pets (and clumsy relatives) out of the kitchen.

Although there is still some debate among pastry chefs about whether pouring hot sugar syrup into an egg foam actually pasteurizes the egg, I'm not convinced a drizzle of hot syrup is guaranteed to bring the temperature of a bowl of egg whites or yolks up enough for pasteurization. So yeah, you could say there are raw eggs in this recipe.* This is not a worry for me personally, but you can decide that for yourself (it is generally recommended that products made with raw eggs should not be consumed by kids under the age of 5, pregnant women, the elderly, or anyone with a weakened immune system.)

*For those who are interested, there is a work-around here: you can also make French buttercream using the Swiss buttercream method. In that case, instead of cooking up a hot sugar syrup and drizzling it into the yolks, you dissolve the sugar into the yolks in a hot water bath and heat the yolks until pasteurized. This is not a very traditional or even conventional thing to do, but it can certainly be done. And bonus: the Swiss method is also a little easier!

Italian Buttercream

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Because Italian buttercream is made with Italian meringue, it's a lot lighter in color than most buttercreams and it looks almost white against a dark chocolate cake. It also holds up pretty well in warmer temperatures, so if you're planning a summer party outside, this is your go-to buttercream. Well, as long as you don't live in the desert, or something...

Like French buttercream, Italian buttercream can be quite tricky to make, because again you have to cook up a sugar syrup and drizzle it into an egg foam (egg whites, this time). This also means that, like French buttercream, this buttercream contains raw eggs. Like I said, this doesn't bother me, but if raw eggs are a problem for you, go with the Swiss buttercream.

Swiss Buttercream

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Swiss buttercream is definitely one of my favorites. (Noticing a pattern here? They're all my favorites!) It's made with Swiss meringue and is therefore the only method of egg-foam-based buttercreams that you can make without any raw-egg related fears.

The fact that it's made with meringue also means that, like the Italian buttercream, it looks almost white against a dark chocolate cake and that it holds up pretty well in warmer temperatures. Plus, it's the easiest egg-foam-based buttercream you can make, because there's no hot sugar syrup involved.

Make 'Em All!

I hope these six buttercreams inspire you to come up with all kinds of amazing winter desserts. I'm sure they'll be great...as long as you remember to always serve buttercream at room temperature!