Creamy, silky, light, never gritty, greasy or oily, melts on the tongue and not too sweet…the perfect American Buttercream frosting for cakes and cupcakes! Learn the secret ingredients and easy technique in our step-by-step tutorial complete with photos. You are going to love this one…it tastes just like it came from an upscale bakery! All-natural, egg and soy free.
My dear friends, today I am picking up right where I left off last spring by sharing yet another buttercream recipe as a part of Wicked Good Kitchen’s popular buttercream series, Best Ever American Buttercream.
Originally, this recipe was planned last year for the month of May for my patriotic layer cake for both Memorial Day and Independence Day or 4th of July. However, soon I will be showing you how to make a unique buttercream, based on this buttercream, for an upcoming special occasion layer cake to be featured on the blog.
First, before we get started with the actual tutorial, let’s discuss the problems with Classic American Buttercream, also known as Simple or Basic American Buttercream, for those who have complaints. For all others, enjoy your favorite recipe!
Most who do not care for American Buttercream will readily tell you the following:
- It’s way too sweet.
- It’s just too gritty.
- It’s too heavy.
Frank and honest, these folks know what they are talking about. They much prefer European buttercreams because they are rich and silky without being greasy or too cloyingly sweet and melt ethereally on the tongue. European buttercreams are indeed sublime.
Having aired the dirty laundry of American Buttercream when standard recipes call to cream the butter and/or shortening with confectioners’ sugar, also known as powdered sugar (for my international readers), I am here to tell you that making a true American Buttercream that is rich and silky without being greasy, is definitely not too sweet and melts on the tongue, is entirely possible. And, it can be made in record time…like within 25 minutes! No, you are not dreaming.
Secondly, let’s discuss what a “true” American Buttercream is or should be.
What is American Buttercream, exactly?
As mentioned above, the two main complaints with American Buttercream are that the classic version is often found to be both too gritty and too sweet. Other complaints are that American Buttercream is too heavy and not creamy and light like European Buttercreams. However, many of us adore our American Buttercream and are quite nostalgic about it. So, giving up on it is not a consideration.
Due to the problems mentioned above, American Style Buttercream has never been recognized as an outstanding or sophisticated choice to frost layer cakes by upscale or high-end bakeries. These bakeries as well as serious bakers prefer European Buttercreams with Swiss Meringue Buttercream being the hands down favorite…for good reason. I am a huge fan myself!
Luckily, these problems can easily be remedied by employing a new technique using the same ingredients found in American Buttercream yet remain true to it by keeping it “authentic”.
Now, let’s outline below the 7 Hallmarks of Classic American Buttercream to include the standard fat to sugar ratio:
- It must be made with all or part butter.* Butter is a required ingredient in order to be called a buttercream and the ratio of butter to shortening, if used, should be 1:1.
- The standard ingredients ratio of fat to sugar is: for every 4 ounces (1 stick) of butter, 2 cups of confectioners’ sugar is used.
- There must be no cooking involved. Boiling water as a standalone ingredient is different.
- It must not contain whole eggs, egg yolks or egg whites.
- Furthermore, it must not contain meringue powder or dried egg white powder. If meringue power is used, it should be called Stabilized American Buttercream. (More on this in another post.)
- It must be made with confectioners’ sugar, also known as powdered sugar, not with granulated sugar.
- It is acceptable to thin and smooth American Buttercream with milk, half and half or heavy cream. Customarily, up to 4 tablespoons or ¼ cup is recommended per 1 cup of fat. Corn syrup (invert sugar or inverted sugar syrup) is used in Decorator’s Buttercream recipes, usually not in Classic American Buttercream. In this case, we will be using boiling water to make an emulsion in lieu of creaming the fats and sugar or using dairy to thin and smooth the buttercream.
*Note: Whether buttercream with no butter or a butter equivalent can rightly be called buttercream is debated among bakers, pastry chefs and cake decorators.
Since we have outlined what I call the 7 Hallmarks of Classic American Buttercream, let’s talk about my “secret ingredients” or “secret weapons” when making Best Ever American Buttercream, how they contribute and why I use less sugar—like half the amount.
Secret Ingredient No. 1: Palm Shortening
Secret Ingredient No. 2: Water
Palm Shortening vs. Crisco® or High-Ratio Shortening
Hands down, my choice of shortening when making Classic American Buttercream, for Best Ever American Buttercream, is palm shortening and my favorite brand is Spectrum®. Spectrum® brand Organic Shortening lends a rich and creamy texture just like butter and emulsifies very well. It is never greasy on the tongue like Crisco® can be. Not only that, palm shortening is organic, non-gmo and non-hydrogenated while containing zero trans fats. Furthermore, it contains nutrients and therefore is not just empty calories like other fats that are highly processed. As a bonus, especially for those who are dairy intolerant and therefore must avoid butter, Spectrum® brand Organic Butter Flavor Shortening is available. See the Notes section below the recipe for the variation for Dairy and Soy Free American Buttercream.
Nutrient-Rich Palm Fruit Oil or Shortening is Good For You
Before going into the nutrition of palm fruit oil or shortening, it is first important to differentiate between palm fruit oil and palm kernel oil. Palm fruit oil is pressed from the flesh of the palm fruit. This oil consists of equal parts saturated and unsaturated oils as well as a host of nutrients. When non-hydrogenated, it is free of trans fats.
On the other hand, palm kernel oil is made from the seed or kernel of the palm fruit. The kernels are removed from the fruit and pressed for the rich oil they produce. In stark contrast to palm fruit oil, palm kernel oil consists of 85% saturated fats and can raise cholesterol levels.
As for nutrition, palm fruit oil when made from red palm fruit is an excellent source of beta-carotene and Vitamin E in the forms of tocotrienol and tocopherals. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, beta-carotene and Vitamin E are fat-soluble antioxidants that destroy free radicals. Free radicals are believed to contribute to a number of conditions including heart disease.
By increasing your intake of beta-carotene and Vitamin E, free radicals can be prevented from destroying cells through oxidation and helps heart health. Furthermore, according to Dr. Timothy S. Harlan, M.D., of Ask Dr. Gourmet for Sur la Table, early research shows that palm fruit oil has similar effects on cholesterol profiles (total cholesterol, HDL and LDL cholesterol) as olive oil. Imagine that!
My Top 10 Reasons for Using Spectrum® Organic Palm Shortening:
- It is all-natural
- It is organic
- It is non-gmo
- It is non-hydrogenated
- It has zero trans fats
- It has a creaminess and mouth feel like butter
- It is never greasy tasting
- It is non-dairy and a butter flavor variety is available
- It is nutritious
- It tastes great and performs well in classic recipes
What exactly is high-ratio shortening?
High-ratio shortening is made of partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oils with emulsifiers added. The emulsifiers allow baking or buttercream recipes to hold more sugar and liquid. For cakes, high-ratio shortening provides a fine crumb texture and helps keep them moist. For buttercreams, it stabilizes for warmer weather while providing a creamy consistency for a less greasy mouth feel.
High-ratio shortening is used by commercial bakeries and popular brands are Alpine, CK Products and Sweetex. There are even more commercially made shortenings available, however Sweetex Z is made with no hydrogenated oils, has zero trans fats and, I believe, is made from 100% palm oil. High-ratio shortening is sold in small 3-pound tubs for home or small batch use and large 50-pound tubs for commercial use.
Why don’t I recommend high-ratio shortening, you ask?
Well, I have worked with it once and understand why so many bakers and cake decorators swear by it and enjoy working with it. They all appreciate the fact that high-ratio shortening emulsifies and stabilizes their buttercreams while providing a creamy texture and, therefore, wonderful mouth feel.
However, due to high-ratio shortening containing trans fats and usually soy (soybean oil), in addition to the additives mono and diglycerides (made from soybean oil, cottonseed oil or sunflower seed oil) as well as being processed on equipment with several known food allergens such as wheat, milk, eggs, soy, peanuts and tree nuts, and because I am an all-natural baker taking food allergens into account, I no longer work with it or recommend it. In fact, it is also important to note that soy is known to be an endocrine (hormone) disruptor, which can be dangerous to human health.
Please read Dr. Mercola’s article, Soy is an Endorine Disruptor and Can Disrupt Your Child’s Health. As you will read at the bottom of Dr. Mercola’s article, with a link provided, even the U.S. Government recommends against soy products.
Did You Know?
Crisco® Vegetable Shortening is 12% micro hydrogen bubbles giving the shortening an attractive white, creamy, and light appearance that would otherwise be clear, heavy and unappealing to the eye.
A Note About Water
Finally, water is my second secret ingredient. Boiling water is used in the first step of making Best Ever American Buttercream to help dissolve the sugar and create an emulsion (see “What’s an Emulsion?” below) to stabilize the buttercream. This buttercream is very soft and light and is not a “crusting buttercream” for use in decorating cakes where such a buttercream is desired for the “Viva method” of smoothing it.
A Note About Sugar
As mentioned above, we will be using confectioners’ sugar, also known as powdered sugar. For this recipe for Best Ever American Buttercream, I only recommend 100% pure cane sugar such as by C&H® or Domino® and I use half the standard amount to make it less sweet. If the package does not state “pure cane sugar” then the confectioners’ sugar is made from beets. In my opinion, 100% pure cane sugar dissolves and caramelizes better than beet sugar. Therefore, Classic American Buttercream will be markedly less gritty when using 100% pure cane confectioners’ sugar.
Anatomy and Types of Buttercreams
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 or 140º to 160ºF, and the sugar granules are dissolved (they dissolve at 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.
All right. Here’s a little food science for you…
What is an emulsion?
In culinary arts, an emulsion is a mixture of two or more liquids that normally do not mix well such as oil and vinegar. However, emulsions are part of a more general class of two-phase systems of matter called colloids. Although the terms colloid and emulsion are sometimes used interchangeably, emulsion should be used when both the dispersed and the continuous phase are liquids. In an emulsion, one liquid (the dispersed phase) is dispersed in the other (the continuous phase). The word “emulsion” comes from the Latin word for “to milk”, as milk is an emulsion of fat and water, among other components.
A good example of an emulsion is salad dressing. However, there are stable (permanent) and unstable (temporary) emulsions. Our Best Ever American Buttercream is considered an unstable or temporary emulsion—even though I have found it not to break, separate or weep after frosting a cake and storing it in a cake dome at room temperature for several days. For Stabilized American Buttercream, stay tuned to the blog for a future recipe in the buttercream series.
Here’s a quick Q & A I put together from several sources to quickly answer your questions.
Q: What is an emulsifier or emulsifying agent called when used to stabilize food?
Q: What is a surfactant?
A: Surfactant is short for surface active agent.
Q: What’s the deal with “surface” and “surfactants”?
A: Surface tension, that’s what. 😉
Q: What’s surface tension?
A: Surface tension is actually a theory. According to this theory, emulsification takes place by reduction of interfacial tension between two phases.
Q: What is a stable emulsion?
A: An appropriate “surface active agent” or surfactant can increase the kinetic stability of an emulsion so that the size of the droplets does not change significantly over time. It is then said to be stable.
Q: What in an unstable emulsion?
A: Since emulsion stability refers to the ability of an emulsion to resist change in its properties over time, an emulsion is deemed unstable when the ingredients change over time as in breaking apart or separating.
Now that you know a bit about emulsions and emulsifiers, check out common ingredients used to emulsify European buttercreams.
Emulsifiers and Stabilizers Used in European Buttercreams:
Albumen (egg whites)
Casein (dairy milk, cream, cheeses or nonfat milk powders)
Invert Sugar (cooked sugars, sucrose or glucose, in the form of syrup or corn syrup)
Glycerol (glycerin or glycerine)
Gums (guar, xanthan, etc.)
High-Ratio Shortening (containing mono and diglycerides)
Lecithin (egg yolks or derived from plant sources such as soybean or sunflower)
Good examples of common everyday food emulsions, both water-in-oil (less common in food) and oil-in-water:
Butter – an emulsion of water in butterfat
Margarine – an emulsion of water in fats
Homogenized Milk – an emulsion of milk fat in water and milk proteins
Mayonnaise – an emulsion stabilized with egg yolk lecithin
Hollandaise Sauce – an emulsion stabilized with egg yolk lecithin
Vinaigrette – an unstable emulsion of vegetable oil in vinegar
Esteemed cookbook author and food chemist extraordinaire, Shirley Corriher, employs both corn syrup (invert sugar) and Crisco® with emulsifiers in her recipe for Basic Confectioners’ Sugar Buttercream, a type of an American Buttercream, in her cookbook, BakeWise, on page 148. Essentially, Shirley was using these ingredients to create an effective emulsion. She goes on to explain quite a bit about emulsions on page 210 in her book as well. I will leave some excerpts from Shirley for my next tutorial on buttercreams because this one is already kind of out of control! 😉
Well, that is a wrap to an impromptu Buttercream 101!
Is it all starting to make sense as you remember making European buttercreams? If you’ve never made a European buttercream, does this information help and make sense as to how they are prepared and emulsified?
It was important to include descriptions of all the types of buttercreams in this post so those who are new to them can make a comparison when making our Best Ever American Buttercream and the European buttercreams. For those who are not new to them, you truly will not believe how good this buttercream is and how well it stacks up with European buttercreams!
Meanwhile, I cannot wait to share yet another extraordinary buttercream recipe with you soon which was given to me by a close friend of the family when I graduated from high school. Linda was a friend of my Mom’s and my sister and I were lucky enough to have her bake our cakes for our graduation parties. Her family once owned a bakery and it was their signature icing for cakes. When I post this recipe, I will definitely share a photo of me cutting into the graduation cake that Linda baked for me.
Until then, here is a photo of me (scanned) that The Big Lug took when I was decorating a tiered baby shower cake for my best friend who was expecting a baby girl in 1994. The cake was a special chocolate cake and the buttercream recipe was Linda’s recipe.
Do take note, however. See those burst air bubbles in the buttercream? Let it be a lesson to not overbeat your buttercream and incorporate too much air! Also, notice my slightly bulging tiers? I will show you in a future post how to prevent this.
My friend specified that she wanted a simply decorated cake with no pink flowers, only coral, peach or ballet pink, with ivory satin ribbons streaming down onto the table. I’m not sure where she got the idea from, but I simply asked the florist to make them and fashion them onto the nosegay at the top. If you look closely, you will see the silver barbell-shaped baby rattle I had inscribed and nestled securely into the top.
What makes our Best Ever American Buttercream wicked good? It just is. Trust us here at Wicked Good Kitchen! Why would we lie? Whip up a batch and find out yourself. You will not regret it. I promise.
This recipe is dedicated to my friend, Terri. She loves American Buttercream and white cake. Admittedly, she craves good frostings made from the very best of ingredients like I do. I just know she’s going to love this recipe!
You will love this recipe, too. Don’t forget to scroll down past the recipe for the tutorial complete with step-by-step photos and directions.
Sources: LiveStrong.com, Sur la Table (Ask Dr. Gourmet) and Wikipedia.org.
Below are Pinterest-friendly sized images to pin at Pinterest!
- 4 cups (480 grams) 100% pure cane confectioners’ sugar, such as C&H® or Domino®, spooned into cup and leveled off, sifting not necessary
- ½ cup (120 ml) boiling water
- 1 tablespoon (15 ml) pure vanilla extract, such as Nielsen-Massey®
- ½ teaspoon (2.5 ml) pure almond extract, such as Nielsen-Massey®
- ½ cup (1 stick/113 grams) salted butter, at room temperature
- ½ cup (1 stick/113 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 cup (192 grams) organic palm shortening, such as Spectrum®, at room temperature
All-Natural Variations:To Make Dairy and Soy Free American Buttercream: Omit butter and use natural butter-flavored palm shortening by Spectrum Organics® by measuring 192 grams or 1 cup to replace the butter. Add a few pinches of salt to water and sugar mixture before adding extracts to compensate for the salt in the omitted salted butter. To Make Ultra White American Buttercream: Omit butter and use all palm shortening (2 cups or 384 grams) and add a few pinches of salt to water and sugar mixture before adding extracts to compensate for the salt in the omitted salted butter. Add clear butter flavoring and clear vanilla flavoring of your choice. (This, however, will not make an all-natural buttercream.) To Make Rich Vanilla Bean American Buttercream: Reduce pure vanilla extract to 2 teaspoons and add the pulp of one large, plump, split vanilla bean. To Make Natural “Crème Bouquet” Flavored American Buttercream: If desired, omit almond extract. Add ¼ teaspoon Fiori di Sicilia ("Flowers of Sicily" vanilla and citrus flavoring extract) by King Arthur Flour. Alternatively, add fine-quality pure lemon and/or orange extracts, about ¼ teaspoon total, or to taste. To Make Natural Tinted American Buttercream: Use favorite colors of all-natural, organic and kosher food coloring pastes such as ChefMaster®. I purchase mine from The Baker’s Kitchen. Tips: If not using immediately, keep bowl covered tightly to keep buttercream from drying before frosting cake or cupcakes. Buttercream can be refrigerated for up to 1 week in an airtight container. Storing longer than this is not recommended due to the dairy content. Before using, bring to room temperature before beating smooth again. If using the buttercream to pipe details, be sure to use chilled hands when handling pastry bag as warm hands can easily melt the buttercream. This buttercream will last for up to 3 days at room temperature when on a frosted cake, covered. Original Recipe Source: WickedGoodKitchen.com Copyright © Wicked Good Kitchen. All content and images are copyright protected. Please do not use my images without prior permission. If you want to republish this recipe, please re-write the recipe in your own words. Alternatively, link back to this post for the recipe.
Step-by-Step Tutorial for Best Ever American Buttercream
Including Recommended Brands
This shortening is phenomenal. I highly recommend Spectrum® Organic Palm Shortening.
Fiori di Sicilia extract by King Arthur Flour, also known as the “flowers of Sicily”, adds a splash of citrus and vanilla to brighten the flavor profile of any buttercream. A little goes a long way so stay within the recommended guidelines in measuring for recipes. It is an all natural way to create the popular flavor of Crème Bouquet favored by cake decorators and their clients. Keep this extract refrigerated after opening to keep the oils from going rancid.
ChefMaster® Natural Paste Food Colorings are an excellent way to tint your buttercreams naturally without adding a tremendous amount of liquid. I like to use toothpicks to transfer the coloring to the buttercream in the work bowl. It keeps mess to a minimum.
The first step is to weigh or measure the confectioners’ sugar and place it into the work bowl. The bonus of this recipe is there is no need to sift the confectioners’ sugar. This really cuts down on the usual *poof* of white sugar creating a layer of dust in the kitchen!
This is the magical step…adding boiling water to the confectioners’ sugar. This creates a “sugar slurry” wherein the boiling water helps to dissolve the sugar before adding the fats and extracts to effectively create an emulsion which ensures an especially creamy texture. It’s magic because this step prevents a gritty buttercream for an exceptional mouth feel similar to European buttercreams.
In this photo, you get a good glimpse of what the “sugar slurry” looks like.
This photo was included to show you just how runny the “sugar slurry” actually is. But, do not fear! Once the fats are beaten into the buttercream, it magically turns into a creamy, rich and silky frosting. You will love it!
This photo shows the weighing of the palm shortening in grams for exacting accuracy. When we were first married, The Big Lug gave me this highly accurate scale used in labs. It came with two weights to calibrate it. I rely on it immensely when developing recipes. Once you get past the initial fear or unfamiliarity in using a scale to weigh ingredients for baking, you will soon learn to rely on your scale, appreciate the ease of use and will be extremely happy with successful baking results.
As you can see here, our butter is softened to room temperature and cut into cubes. It is important to have the butter at room temperature, but not be too soft, to effectively create an emulsion. Notice that the butter doesn’t look melty at all. On the other hand, if the butter is too cold, your buttercream mixture will stay curdled after beating. Because the fats (both the butter and shortening) are at room temperature, they can liquify and merge in with the water and sugar mixture once mechanically assisted to do so with the mixer. I like to set my butter out the night before by unwrapping the sticks, sitting them on a small plate and covering it. This way, I am ready to make buttercream in the morning without delay.
As you can see here, the buttercream mixture will look a bit rough at the start. It is very important to resist the temptation to hurry the buttercream along by cranking up your mixer’s speed. Don’t do it! If so, you will incorporate too much air creating undesirable air bubbles.
And, here is our finished creamy Best Ever American Buttercream! You did it. Wasn’t it incredibly easy with minimal effort? Ready in just 25 minutes and the taste and silky texture are truly extraordinary!