What is Buttercream + Troubleshooting Tips

Are you wondering about the difference between American and meringue buttercreams? Want to learn about Swiss vs. Italian Meringue? I’ve got you covered! Keep reading to learn how to bake buttercream as well as other basics!
Baking 101: Buttercream Basics - Learn all about the various types of buttercream and which ones to use in this tutorial from Savory Simple!

For many cake lovers, it’s truly all about the frosting; it can make of break a dessert. A fluffy, delicate buttercream with just the right level of sweetness can take a spectacular cake to the next level, or it can elevate even the most basic of desserts. Meanwhile, a gritty, cloying frosting can ruin what would otherwise be the perfect cupcake. Knowledge is power! Let’s explore the various types of buttercreams, and learn which ones are best to use.

Types of Buttercream

There are 6 types of buttercream, 3 of which are meringue-based: American, Swiss Meringue, Italian Meringue, French Meringue, German, and Ermine (also known as Flour Buttercream). American, Swiss Meringue, and Italian Meringue are the most commonly used, so I’ll cover those in more detail.

American Buttercream

This is the most common type of buttercream used in desserts and online recipes these days, at least in the states. It’s comprised mainly of butter and powdered (aka confectioners’) sugar, though flavoring agents and food coloring are often added. It’s easy, inexpensive and fast to prepare, making it a favorite among grocery store bakeries and novice bakers. However, it is extremely dense, rich and cloyingly sweet. Due to the high level of cornstarch in the powdered sugar, a crusty layer is quick to form on top, which in turn can lead to a gritty mouthfeel. If you don’t like overly sweet desserts, this is not a great choice of buttercream.

Swiss Meringue Buttercream

Swiss Meringue Buttercream is probably the most common of the 3 meringue options. It’s prepared by cooking sugar and egg whites in a double boiler until they reach a temperature of 160 degrees F, making the eggs safe to consume. The mixture is then transferred to a stand mixer where it is whipped into a fluffy white meringue as it cools. Then room temperature butter is added along with additional flavorings and colorings. The results are light, fluffy, and not overly sweet.

Italian Meringue Buttercream

Italian Meringue Buttercream is almost identical to the Swiss version referenced above in terms of taste and texture, but it’s prepared using a slightly different method. Egg whites are whipped to a soft peak while the sugar and water are cooked in a saucepan until they reach a temperature of 230-235 degrees F, aka the soft-ball stage. The sugar syrup is then slowly poured into the mixer while the meringue whips on high speed, making the raw eggs safe to consume. This mixture then continues to whip as it cools to room temperature, then the butter is added along with additional flavorings and colors.

For reference, this is the method I almost always use. Why? It’s how I was trained in culinary school, and I’m a creature of habit. 

French Meringue Buttercream

French Meringue Buttercream is prepared using the same method described above for Italian Meringue, except the hot sugar syrup is added into whipping egg yolks instead of whites.

German Buttercream

A traditional custard is prepared and cooled, similar to crème anglaise. Once it cools,room temperature butter is whipped in.

Ermine / Flour Buttercream

This is an old-fashioned buttercream that you’re unlikely to run across in many modern recipes. Butter and sugar are whipped into a cooked roux that has been cooled.

Why Use Meringue Buttercream?

  • While meringue buttercreams are more time-consuming and require a bit of skill, the results are undeniably better than American buttercream when it comes to flavor, richness level and texture. This is honestly the only reason I care about. I personally cannot stomach American buttercreams.
  • I have yet to try German or flour buttercreams, but from what I’ve read they are less stable and will not hold their shape as well when piped, making them a poor choice for cupcakes or intricately piped cakes. Meringue buttercreams hold their shape beautifully.
  • Swiss and Italian buttercreams are more versatile than their French counterpart because of their shiny white finish. It’s an excellent base for any number of colors, whereas the yolks in French buttercream will create a yellow base.
  • Meringue buttercream is the most stable frosting choice, though it will melt under intense heat (they all will).
  • Leftover buttercream can be frozen and reused!

A slice of layer cake frosted with Italian Meringue Buttercream

How To Fix Broken Meringue Buttercream

Buttercream will break if the butter is added too quickly, or if the temperature of the butter is different from the meringue. This most likely means the meringue hasn’t cooled enough or the butter is too cold. I’ve found that buttercream is more likely to break if the butter is not left out overnight to reach room temperature. Broken buttercream will look a bit like cottage cheese.

But it’s OK! If your buttercream breaks, don’t panic. Do not throw it away! I’ve never met a broken buttercream I wasn’t able to fix. To bring it back together, the temperatures needs to be equalized. There are several ways to do this, but I find the easiest, most foolproof method is to scoop about 2-3 tablespoons of the broken buttercream into a small ramekin and microwave it for 5-10 seconds until it’s just barely thinned out. Turn the mixer on high speed and pour the liquified buttercream back into the bowl to incorporate. If that doesn’t fix it, repeat the process a few more times. This always works for me.

Additional Tips

  • If you’re preparing an Italian meringue buttercream, you’ll be cooking a sugar syrup to the soft-boil stage. This type of sugar syrup can potentially crystalize at first, but there are steps you can take to avoid this. Simply placing a lid over the pot while the syrup is first heating up will create steam, which prevents crystallization. Once the mixture is simmering, you can remove the lid. Another option is to add 1 teaspoon of corn syrup. I used to always add corn syrup, but I find that starting with the lid works just as well so I no longer include corn syrup in my recipes.
  • Use gel food coloring instead of the more watery colors you’ll find at the grocery store. They’re extremely vibrant!
  • Leave the butter out on the counter overnight before preparing the buttercream, as opposed to doing a quick defrost in the microwave. It’s less likely to break when added to the meringue.
  • If you’re concerned about undercooked eggs, buy them pasteurized. Much safer to consume!

Ready To Try Making Buttercream?

Here are some of my recipes that use Meringue Buttercream:

Want To Learn About Layer Cakes?

My Eggnog Rum Layer Cake recipe post is full of information, including tools I recommend and how to get a perfect slice!

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