Are you wondering about the difference between American and meringue buttercreams? Want to learn about Swiss vs. Italian Meringue? I’ve got you covered! It’s not nearly as complicated as you might think. Keep reading to learn how to make buttercream! I’ve also included tips for how to troubleshoot broken buttercream.
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.
This is the most common type of frosting 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, I would avoid this type of buttercream.
Swiss Meringue Buttercream
Swiss Meringue 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 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 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.
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 versions 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).
- Leftovers can be frozen and reused!
How To Fix Broken 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 it 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 mixture 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 Buttercream 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 Homemade Buttercream?
Here are some of my recipes that use Meringue Buttercream:
- Italian Meringue Buttercream
- Chocolate Espresso Layer Cake
- Banana Peanut Butter Layer Cake with Chocolate Ganache
- Peach Bourbon Cupcakes
Want To Learn How to Make Perfect Layer Cakes?
Ready to put all of this buttercream knowledge to good use? Check out my all-inclusive guide to layer cakes!
Aysegul Sanford says
What a great post! I am one of those people, who eats cake for the buttercream. I have never tried any of these meringue buttercream types, but I know I will be giving it a try soon.
Thanks for such a comprehensive and helpful post.
So helpful. I am such a baking novice and a little intimidated, so this was a great read. Thanks!
Love this guideline for the basic difference between buttercreams! Love your fix for broken buttercream – genius.
Mary Ann | The Beach House Kitchen says
Great post Jennifer! Always looking for ways to perfect my buttercream!
Such a great post! American buttercream makes me want to gag with its sweetness and grittiness. I’ll happily eat any of the others though :)
Jennifer @ Show Me the Yummy says
This post is everything! Thanks so much!!
Alice @ Hip Foodie Mom says
oh my gosh, I love this post! so informative!!
Love this – I usually make American buttercream because it’s easiest and I’m lazy, but I’m also fond of Swiss meringue. The Ermine/flour buttercream is surprisingly tasty (also less cloying than American buttercream), though it won’t hold a piped shape. It’s especially delicious on chocolate sheet cake. :)
So many amazing tips in this post! Now I need to go make buttercream!
I just made this cake for my office Christmas party. We are divided into teams and are having a bake-off. My first time making a meringue buttercream. It broke and I used your ingenious tip to fix it. Came out perfectly! Thanks so much!!!
I have made the Italian buttercream several times and it turned out great. This time it turned to soup. What did I do wrong?
It turned to soup when I added the butter and before the flavorings.
Well I fixed it! I just kept whipping it on high and eventually thickened.
Jennifer Farley says
Hi Valerie, I’m glad you were able to fix it! Sorry I wasn’t online to help you troubleshoot. Many times it will come back together if you keep whipping it on high speed, as you discovered. When it breaks like that, it’s usually because of a temperature discrepancy. Either the meringue is still too warm when you start adding the butter, or the butter still has a chill in the center. Something like that. Fixing a broken buttercream is all about creating a harmonious temperature, and sometimes patience gets it done!
Great post! Tips to fix my experiments will never go unappreciated :)
I wonder if you can answer a question about my most recent American buttercream. It came together beautifully and tasted great, but I needed it to be stiffer for piping flowers. I added more sugar and it actually got more runny than it had been beforehand. What went wrong and how can I fix it?
Thanks for writing this out!
Hi. Don’t know if you’ll still be checking on this article, but I have made Swiss and Italian butter cream a few times now and feel pretty good about being able to do it. I have also brought broken butter cream back to life a couple times. However, today I was making an Italian Butter Cream that seemed to be going great till I added cocoa powder to it….uh oh….. I thought I could add cocoa powder just as I would for American butter cream. I have heated and chilled the mixture several times now, and have beat the hell out of it. Although I have gotten it pretty thick, I have failed at bringing it fully back together….any suggestions? I really appreciate any help you could give me. Thank you.
Jennifer Farley says
Hi Connie. I’m sorry to hear you’re having issues with the cocoa powder! I typically only add liquid/melted ingredients to meringue buttercream since it can be temperamental. For chocolate buttercream, I always stick with melted but cooled unsweetened chocolate. I’m thinking that the cocoa powder created clumps similar to what you’d get with cornstarch. If the standard methods didn’t work, I’m not sure what else to suggest.
Could I add pineapple to the Italian Buttercream frosting to put on a pineapple cake ( I plan to try yours). Several of my family don’t care for coconut. My mom used to make pineapple cakes and I seem to remember her putting pineapple in the frosting, also.
Thanks for any help you can give me.
Jennifer Farley says
Hi Donnie, I think that will work just fine! I’d go with pineapple juice from the can and add a couple tablespoons at a time, slowly, until you get the desired flavor.
The troubleshooting works!!! I added my butter fast and cooler than the meringue and I ended up with a cottage cheese texture. Thank you for saving my buttercream
Jennifer Farley says
You’re very welcome!