Buttercream is a common and popular filling, frosting, icing or topping for butter cakes, cupcakes and sponge cakes. Flavorings and colorings such as extracts or oils are often added. Chocolate, citrus zest, fruit purées, juices and sauces, or liqueurs are often used to flavor buttercream.
At a cool temperature, some buttercream icings can form a thin crust after prolonged time, which prevents sticking. Of course, this is due to the high sugar content. To prevent crusting, invert sugars are generally added. In general, compared to other buttercreams, simple or American Buttercream has a high sugar content making it the sweetest of all buttercreams.
Meringue-based buttercreams are light and creamy in texture and balanced between sweetness and richness. They are also easy to work with when frosting and decorating cakes with piping work.
Not as widely known and used but just as delicious and satisfying is German Buttercream, which is a custard-based buttercream best suited as a filling or icing, but not decorations.
American Buttercream: Classically made by creaming butter and confectioners’ sugar, also known as powdered sugar. Typically, twice as much sugar (by weight) as butter is used making this buttercream especially sweet. This buttercream is often thinned with a small amount of milk, half and half cream, heavy cream or corn syrup. Boiling water can be used to create an emulsion for a creamy, light and silky texture making it similar to European buttercreams but without all the fuss. Also known as Easy Buttercream, Simple Buttercream, Decorator’s Buttercream or Decorator’s Frosting. Although not considered a “true” buttercream by some, I beg to differ.
French Buttercreams: As an uncooked meringue-based buttercream, the meringue is made by whipping egg whites, cream of tartar and caster sugar until stiff, glossy peaks form. When used as a base in making buttercream, the meringue remains uncooked before adding the butter and flavoring (extracts or oils). However, classically, French Buttercream is made the same way as Italian Buttercream except egg yolks are used versus egg whites. Some versions call for whole eggs or a mixture of whole eggs and yolks. Next, hot sugar syrup that has reached soft-ball stage is beaten into the egg yolks which have first been beaten until thick and pale yellow. The syrup and yolk mixture is whipped further until it has cooled and formed a light foam before adding the butter and flavorings (extracts or oils). French Buttercream tends to melt faster than other buttercreams making it best suited as a filling than for decorations. Of course, this is due to its high fat content from the egg yolks and butter. French Buttercream is also referred to as Common Buttercream or Pâte à Bombe based buttercream.
Italian Buttercream: A cooked meringue-based buttercream, where the meringue is made with the addition of sugar syrup heated to soft-ball stage (118ºC, 240ºF) to whipped egg whites at soft peak stage. The sugar syrup cooks the egg whites, heating them well past 60ºC or 140ºF. The meringue must be cooled before adding the butter and flavoring (extracts or oils). Buttercream prepared by using this method is often referred to Mousseline Buttercream.
Swiss Meringue Buttercream: A cooked meringue-based buttercream, where the meringue is prepared by cooking the egg whites and sugar together in a bowl placed on a pot of boiling water. The mixture is whisked while it cooks. Once the temperature of the mix reaches 60ºC to 71ºC or 140ºF to 160ºF, and the sugar granules are dissolved (they dissolve at 60ºC or 140ºF), it is removed from the heat and whipped at high speed until it forms stiff peaks and has cooled. As with Italian Buttercream, the meringue must be cooled before adding the butter and flavoring (extracts or oils).
German Buttercream: A custard-based buttercream, prepared by beating together prepared pastry cream (a thick custard) and softened butter. It is sweetened with extra confectioners’ sugar. Like French Buttercream, this icing is very rich and smooth. Due to its high fat content, it is best suited as a filling or an icing but not decorations. German Buttercream is also known as Bavarian Buttercream, Crème Mousseline or Light Buttercream.
Tips For Handling and Storing Buttercreams
Most buttercreams can be left at room temperature without melting. When buttercreams are made with shortening and a high sugar content, they withstand warmer temperatures better than those made with butter alone.
When frosting a cake with buttercream, it is best to work with the buttercream when it is soft and spreadable.
In a warm kitchen or on a hot day, it is best to use chilled hands when handling a pastry bag as warm hands can melt the buttercream.
Cooling or chilling buttercream will cause it to harden. For instance, if a frosted cake is chilled the buttercream may crack and flake.
If not using immediately, buttercream can be refrigerated for up to 1 to 2 weeks in an airtight container. Before using, bring to room temperature before beating smooth again.