It sounds so easy, butter, sugar and some vanilla extract. That’s classic American Buttercream. It’s the only buttercream I was aware of when I began baking. Now I know, there’s a lot more to it. All the youtube videos out there will make you believe that buttercream can be made with your eyes closed. What they don’t take into account is personal taste, frosting purpose and the ingredients that are locally available to you. Each recipe has different proportions. Some use shortening, some use butter, some use both. Then you’ll discover there are continent specific Buttercreams like the European Swiss Meringue Buttercream, Italian Meringue Buttercream and French Buttercream. Don’t be intimidated, it’s just the Europeans being snooty and adding raw egg to their frosting. According to me, that definitely poses health risks. American Buttercream requires a lot, almost a pound per batch, of icing sugar. That makes for really really sweet frosting. I prefer to use salted butter to cut the sweetness but it really depends on the recipe. If your frosting is too stiff you can use milk or cream to make it smoother. However you have to be careful to add the liquids one tablespoon at a time because you don’t want your frosting to be too runny either. The most important step according to me when making buttercream is beating the butter. It should be a pale yellow color and nice and fluffy before adding the sugar. For piping flowers the buttercream needs to be stiff, for swirls creamy and for a fondant topper or sprinkles runny buttercream is fine. Make sure there are no air pockets in your piping bag or there will be holes in your swirls. After decorating cupcakes, buttercream can be kept in the fridge for 20-30 minutes to set. Then make sure you keep them outside, covered, in a cool place. Buttercream tastes best at room temperature. If you like it crusty, chill it a few minutes before serving. Shortening is used when you want the frosting to last longer or when you need a white frosting but it doesn’t taste as good.
I tried experimenting with some Italian Meringue Buttercream; which essentially begins by using whisked egg whites to add lightness. I made an eggless version with egg replacer and it turned out smooth, silky and very subtle in flavor. The primary taste was of the butter so I’m glad the kind I used was unsalted and organic. You can adjust the sweetness easily and I added some rose water. I loved it. I’m going to be using this frosting a lot more when I bake.
Buttercream, american or otherwise can be manipulated really well, that’s why it’s the frosting of choice for most bakers. You can make flavored buttercream by adding a teaspoon of lemon, almond extract, rose water, maple syrup, cinnamon etc. You can also pipe it into different shapes, flowers, swirls and pretty patterns. I made a little flower garden with Vanilla Buttercream on my Vanilla, Vanilla, Vanilla Cupcakes.
Just so you know, buttercream is the most popular choice of frosting, but it isn’t the only one. Cream cheese, chocolate ganache and whipped cream frostings are used often as well and they come with their own unique flavors and textures.