What’s a cake without creamy, unctuous frosting?
If you bake often, you've probably tried at least one type of buttercream frosting. But with so many different kinds, how do you tell them apart — and how do you know which one is the best for what you’re baking?
Buttercream is the most common type of frosting, filling, and decoration for cakes and cupcakes. A favorite among cake decorators and bakers, it is traditionally made from butter, powdered sugar, and milk or cream, but the ingredients and procedures vary based on the type of buttercream you’re making.
In addition to frosting cakes, it is also commonly used as a topping or filling for baked goods like cookies, brownies, and cake pops.
Buttercream tastes sweet, rich, and creamy, and can have added flavors like cream cheese, chocolate, or fruit.
American buttercream is the simplest and easiest type to make, and because of that is the most common option for home cooks.
To make American buttercream, you simply cream together butter and powdered sugar with milk or cream, using a sugar-to-butter ratio of 2:1 by weight.
American buttercream is known for being incredibly sweet — in fact, too sweet for some people.
However, American buttercream is a favorite amongst cake decorators because it easy to work with. It adds structural integrity so it is great for multiple-tier cakes, and it stiffens after it is cooled or exposed to air for a while, making it easy to smooth in coats and form into shapes.
Swiss meringue buttercream is a more popular option amongst professional chefs.
It is significantly more complicated to make than American buttercream and has to be cooked. In order to make this buttercream, you start with a base of Swiss meringue, with egg whites and sugar whisked in a double-boiler, and then mixed into a meringue.
Temperatures are important here: if the heat is too high, the eggs can cook, but if the heat is not high enough or if you don’t cook it for long enough, you will end up with grainy frosting. It also takes significantly longer to make not only because you have to cook the meringue, but you also have to let it cool fully before adding the butter.
Most people find Swiss meringue buttercream to have a more pleasant taste and texture than American. It does not “crust” which makes it better to eat, but makes it more difficult to decorate intricately.
Italian meringue buttercream is sometimes referred to simply as “Italian buttercream”. It has a highly stable structure but also involves advanced techniques that are hard for some home cooks to master.
As the name implies, to make this frosting you start with a base of Italian meringue. Italian meringue is made by boiling sugar into a syrup, and then slowly stream it into whipping eggwhites.
This can be tricky because the temperature must be very precise, and it’s easy to burn yourself in the process.
Italian meringue has similar benefits to Swiss meringue buttercream in that it is less sweet, and has a luxurious, light mouthfeel, however it is also highly stable which makes it great for taller cakes and intricate designs. It also dries soft after being exposed to air, rather than getting crusty.
French buttercream is less common than American, Swiss, and Italian, but is very similar in process to Italian.
However, instead of using egg whites, French buttercream uses egg yolks. Sugar syrup is boiled to 240 degrees, and then slowly streamed into the egg yolks as they are beaten.
Because French buttercream uses yolks, the coloring is slightly yellow rather than white.
Taste-wise, French buttercream is very rich, and it tastes almost like pastry cream. However, because it uses yolks rather than whites, it is less stable than Italian buttercream, and does not hold up well to heat.
German buttercream (creme mousseline) is built from a base similar to traditional pastry cream. Eggs are mixed with sugar and corn starch and then tempered into hot cream.
This custard is chilled completely in the fridge and then whipped with butter into a fluffy frosting.
Similar to French buttercream, German buttercream is slightly yellow in color because it contains the yolks of the eggs. It is softer and richer than American buttercream, but it is less stable and doesn’t stand up well to heat.
Korean buttercream is known for being glossy and is a popular option for making beautiful edible flower decorations for cakes.
This method was invented by GG Cakraft and uses patented methods. You can learn more about this recipe and learn how to make Korean glossy buttercream here.
In short, Korean buttercream uses the Italian meringue method, but instead of using room-temperature butter, it uses cold butter which gives it the glossy look.
Russian buttercream is completely like any other type of buttercream! It is traditionally made with only two ingredients — butter and sweetened condensed milk. Because of this, it’s also commonly referred to as sweetened condensed milk buttercream.
Russian buttercream is less stable than Italian or American buttercream and has a distinctive milky flavor. It is a great option to use as a filling between layers of cake, but will not hold up well for very long, so it’s not a popular option for cake decorating.
Flour buttercream, or ermine buttercream, involves a base of roux made with milk, flour, and sugar. This paste is then whipped into frosting with room-temperature butter.
The flavor of ermine buttercream is reminiscent of cream cheese frosting. It works great for rich chocolate cakes and red velvet. Texture-wise, it is softer and fluffier than other types of buttercream, and reminiscent of the filling in a Twinkie.
Flour buttercream is a great pick for people who are allergic to eggs.
Traditional buttercream of any variety is not vegan-friendly. Even the name implies it! However, that doesn’t mean that you have to miss out on deliciously frosted cakes if you are vegan or dairy-intolerant.
The easiest type of buttercream to vegan-ify is American buttercream. That’s because the only dairy ingredients, butter and milk/cream, have plenty of dairy-free alternatives.
Swap out the butter for your favorite vegan butter and the milk for soy, almond, or coconut milk, and you’re good to go!
Because the other types of buttercreams use eggs as well, they are a little more difficult to make. While there are convincing egg substitutes, most vegan renditions of meringue-based buttercreams use aquafaba (chickpea water) rather than egg replacements.
Ultimately buttercream frosting is buttercream frosting no matter what you choose—as long as you have plenty of butter and sugar. But some people prefer specific types for flavor, texture, or structure.