Learn the differences between the three most common kinds of buttercream: American buttercream, Swiss meringue buttercream, and Italian meringue buttercream.
What is Buttercream?
Buttercream, in its most simple form, is a mixture of butter and sugar that has been creamed together to make a fluffy frosting. Buttercream is used for filling, icing, and decorating cakes and pastries.
It is no surprise that the fat in buttercream is typically all butter, which is where the name comes from. However, some buttercream recipes do call for other fats, like shortening, to create a more stable style of buttercream called decorators buttercream.
Types of Buttercream
There are a variety of styles of buttercreams all varying in their degree of difficulty to make. Each style of buttercream has different pros and cons as well as best uses in the pastry kitchen.
There are three types of buttercreams that are most often used: American Buttercream, Swiss Meringue Buttercream, and Italian Meringue Buttercream.
General Buttercream Guidelines
- To properly cream the butter to form the buttercream, the butter must start at room temperature. If the butter is too cold, the emulsion might break causing a separated buttercream.
- Buttercream is a blank canvas that can be flavored with virtually anything such as extracts, spices, melted chocolate, jams, and curds. As a general rule of thumb, the flavoring added to the buttercream should not exceed half the weight of the butter in the recipe.
- If the buttercream will not be used right away it must be stored in the refrigerator. It will firm up quite a bit and should be allowed to come back to room temperature before piping or spreading.
- Buttercream should always be served at room temperature. Because buttercream has such a high fat content, the texture will not be pleasant if eaten cold and will leave an extra greasy mouthfeel.
American buttercream is the easiest buttercream frosting to make and the one most commonly used in non-professional kitchens. American buttercream is made simply by creaming together butter and confectioners sugar with milk or cream. If desired, vanilla extract or another flavoring may be added.
American buttercream is typically made from a ratio of 2:1 sugar to butter by weight. This ratio makes this style of buttercream the sweetest of all the styles.
American buttercream is also sometimes referred to as “crusting buttercream” because it forms a thin crust after exposed to air for some time, which can be desirable in some situations.
American Buttercream Overview
- Skill Level: Beginner
- Characteristics: ivory color, relatively thick texture, easy to pipe, very sweet flavor, forms thin crust when exposed to air
- Best for: simple cakes and cupcakes such as this classic white cake, last minute frosting needs, base for intricate designs, when crusting is desired
- Find the Recipe for American Buttercream here »
Note: A lighter variation on this buttercream can be made by whipping the butter with marscarpone cheese.
Swiss Meringue Buttercream
Swiss meringue buttercream, also known simply as Swiss buttercream, is perhaps the buttercream most commonly used in professional pastry kitchens. This style of buttercream gets its name because it starts out with the process of making Swiss meringue.
Swiss meringue buttercream is somewhat more difficult than American buttercream because it involves a double boiler to heat the egg whites and sugar. This mixture is beaten into a meringue and then butter and flavorings are added.
Swiss meringue buttercream is silky smooth and less sweet than American buttercream. Because of the cooked sugar, it also does not form a crust and is a relatively stable style of buttercream. It is also a very pale ivory color which makes it perfect for adding color.
Swiss Meringue Buttercream Overview
- Skill Level: Intermediate
- Characteristics: pale white color, fairly stable, silky smooth texture, not overly sweet, strong butter flavor, remains soft when exposed to air
- Best for: layer cakes, creating a silky smooth finish, frosting that will be colored like for Succulent Cupcakes, when jams or curds will be used as flavoring
- Find the Recipe for Swiss Meringue Buttercream here »
Italian Meringue Buttercream
Italian meringue buttercream, also known simply as Italian buttercream, is the most stable of all of the buttercreams but also the most difficult to make. This style of buttercream gets its name because it starts out with the process of making Italian meringue.
The element of Italian meringue buttercream that makes it so difficult to make is that a boiling hot sugar syrup must be streamed into the egg whites as they are whipped. This process requires the baker to take great care not to burn themselves and to cook the sugar syrup to a very specific temperature.
Italian Meringue Buttercream Overview
- Skill Level: Advanced
- Characteristics: pale white color, most stable of all the buttercreams, luxurious mouthfeel, lightest texture, not overly sweet, remains soft when exposed to air
- Best for: standing up to higher temperatures, frosting that will be colored, intricate designs like the Basket of Flowers Cake, layer cakes
- Find the Recipe for Swiss Meringue Buttercream here »
Buttercream Flavor Options
You can flavor any style of buttercream. Here a few flavoring ideas!
- Vanilla Buttercream: Beat in 2 tsp vanilla extract to any recipe above.
- “Wedding Cake” Buttercream: Beat in 1 tsp vanilla extract and 1/2 tsp almond extract to any recipe above.
- Chocolate Buttercream: Beat in 8 oz melted and cooled dark or bittersweet chocolate to any recipe above.
- Lemon Curd Buttercream: Fold in 1 cup of lemon curd to any recipe above.
- Strawberry, Raspberry, or Blackberry Buttercream: Fold in 1 cup of seedless preserves into any recipe above.