A few weeks ago I mentioned to a friend that I had been enlisted to make a cake and cupcakes for a birthday party, which resulted in a longer discussion about my my penchant for baking. He asked if I ever made whipped cream frosting, and I told him that I have, but that I generally prefer to use an Italian meringue buttercream. The rest of the conversation went something like this:
“I don’t like buttercream.”
“Yes you do.”
“No I don’t.”
“Yes you do.”
“No I don’t.”
“Yes you do. You’ve just only had American buttercream. And American buttercream doesn’t count.”
So the following week I brought him a chocolate cupcake with Italian meringue buttercream, along with a small tub of extra frosting just in case. Then I watched as he not only ate the cupcake, but continued to scoop extra frosting out of the tub with each bite. He was amazed. Not only does he not hate buttercream, but this buttercream warranted joyous exclamations and enthusiastic comparisons to more…carnal pleasures.
Years ago, before I knew about the various types of buttercream frosting, I still got complements on cupcakes with homemade American buttercream. Because anything is better than frosting from the grocery store shelf, or the grocery store bakery. But after making my first batch of meringue buttercream, I can never go back.
You have probably made American buttercream. It’s simply butter creamed with confectioners sugar and milk, plus some flavoring – usually vanilla. It’s an extremely sweet frosting, and has a slight grain to it from the undissolved sugar. Most grocery story type bakeries use this, except with shortening instead of butter.
It forms a slight crust, and it’s easy to adjust the consistency. It’s a perfectly good frosting for certain applications, but I often find it overwhelmingly sweet.
Swiss and Italian buttercreams are very similar. Swiss meringue is created by heating egg whites and sugar over a double boiler, whisking until they reach a safe temperature (140°F if you listen to the FDA), and then whipping them at high speed until they form a meringue and cool to room temperature. Then add butter to the meringue to create the frosting, and flavor as desired.
Swiss meringue buttercream is a light and smooth frosting that’s not too sweet. I find it to be a little more buttery and less sweet than the Italian version, but that could just be the recipes I use. Many people prefer Swiss simply because it’s easier to make.
Italian meringue buttercream also uses a meringue as a base, but instead of heating the eggs and sugar together, the eggs are whipped until stiff, and then a hot sugar syrup is added to bring the eggs to a safe temperature. You continue whipping until you get a nice meringue and the mixture cools, and then add butter and flavoring.
Italian meringue is my favorite buttercream. It’s light and fluffy, slightly sweet, and very smooth. It’s also more stable than the Swiss version.
There is a French buttercream, but I haven’t actually made it myself. It uses whole eggs or egg yolks instead of just the whites, and is made with a method similar to the Italian version.
I think people avoid making the more complicated buttercream frostings because they are intimidating. And things can definitely go wrong. But the majority of problems can be easily fixed with a little patience and less panicking.
Most of the time, the answer is to just keep whipping.
For Swiss meringue buttercream, I find this troubleshooting guide from Confections of a Foodie Bride to be useful, especially when looking at a soupy mess.
With Italian meringue buttercream, the only problem I haven’t been able to fix is completely killing the meringue by overheating the syrup or adding it too quickly. Once the syrup is in and you have a nice, shiny meringue, any problems – curdling, soupiness – can be fixed by more mixing. It’s actually kind of amazing.
The recipes generally call for adding vanilla extract, but you can substitute or add other flavorings or liqueurs. To make the chocolate, add 4-8 ounces of melted and cooled chocolate when you add the vanilla.
As with all meringues, you need to make sure your implements are impeccably clean before starting. Even the tiniest amount of residual fat will keep your egg whites and sugar from whipping up properly. Use a glass or metal bowl, and make sure all your utensils are free of any residue from previous mixing.
Also, try not to make meringue on a humid day. Any of these frostings can be successfully frozen, so I like to make extra frosting when the weather is good so I can – literally – save some for a rainy day.
Italian Meringue Buttercream
You will need a candy thermometer and a stand mixer with a whisk attachment. This will be more than enough to cover a 9″ layer cake, or 24 cupcakes.
2 cups sugar
2/3 cup water
6 egg whites*
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 1/4 lbs (5 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Combine sugar and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Insert a candy thermometer so you can monitor the temperature.
While the sugar syrup cooks, place the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer, and using the whisk attachment, beat on low speed until foamy. Add the cream of tartar and increase the mixer speed to medium-high. Beat until egg whites are fluffy and stiff, but not dry.
When the syrup reaches 240°F (soft-ball stage on your candy thermometer), add it in a slow, steady stream to the egg whites with the mixer running. Pour between the whisk attachment and the edge of the bowl, so that hot syrup doesn’t splash onto the sides of the bowl and harden.
Let the mixer run until you have a nice, shiny meringue and the bowl is no longer warm to the touch. I will often put an ice pack behind the bowl to help it cool more quickly, and while some recipes mention 10-15 minutes, I find this usually takes more like a half an hour.
Once the mixture has cooled, begin adding the butter bit by bit. At this point the meringue will fall because of the fat, and may even look soupy. Keep adding butter and beating. Then it may look curdled. Keep adding butter. And keep beating. Generally, right around the time you add that last piece of butter, the curdled mess in the bowl will magically become frosting.
If it doesn’t, just keep mixing and it will come together. Once it does, add the vanilla and mix to incorporate. At this point you can also switch to a paddle attachment to help remove some of the air bubbles if you want smoother frosting.
*Egg whites from a carton won’t work for this, so you’re going to have to actually separate eggs.