Buttercream: The word alone can induce shivers of sugary joy. But sometimes working with the sweet stuff can be tricky. This FAQ will smooth the way to the buttercream experience every cake deserves.
What is buttercream?
When you get right down to it, buttercream is a simple combination of fat and sugar. There are several variations: Some contain egg yolks or whites; others are boiled with flour.
I'm focusing here on American-style buttercream , made with butter or shortening, confectioner's sugar, vanilla and flavorings.
Can you make buttercream ahead of time?
The answer is a qualified yes. Buttercream has the best taste and consistency on the day it's mixed. If you need to prep it several hours ahead of time, cover it with plastic wrap and leave it out at cool room temperature. Give it a stir to fluff it up a bit right before you use it.
If you need to make buttercream even earlier, you'll want to refrigerate or freeze it.
Can you really refrigerate buttercream?
Sometimes. Don't refrigerate buttercream if you're going to be using it for an involved cake decorating project; the fresh stuff always seems to handle easier and taste best. But go ahead and refrigerate any leftover buttercream to use later for detailing or filling cakes.
Cover it well with plastic wrap, place it on a shelf in the fridge away from any smelly foods, and leave it for up to one week. When you're ready to use it, let it come to cool room temperature and mix it with a spoon or electric mixer. You may need to add some extra liquid to make it spreadable again.
What's this about freezing buttercream icing?!
Yes you can, for up to 2 months. Let it thaw gradually: First, transfer it to the refrigerator overnight, then follow the instructions for working with refrigerated buttercream as noted above.
Can you use granulated sugar instead of confectioner's sugar?
Not so much. Confectioner's sugar has a powdery consistency that helps it dissolve into butter, creating the creamy consistency you want. The granules in granulated sugar are too big to completely dissolve, and they will leave you with a grainy and slightly crunchy buttercream. No one wants that.
Exception: some buttercream recipes call for granulated sugar, typically dissolved in some kind of liquid. But unless your recipe specifically calls for granulated sugar, do not — I repeat, do not — use it. If you don't have confectioner's sugar on hand, you can make your own by grinding granulated sugar.
Unsalted or salted butter?
Many bakers prefer unsalted butter for both baking and buttercream. The reason is that the amount of salt in salted butter varies from brand to brand, so you can't be quite sure how much you'll be adding. By opting for unsalted butter and adding salt yourself, you have more control.
That said, salted butter probably will not ruin your buttercream. If you go this route, omit any salt called for in the recipe; taste the buttercream toward the end of the mixing process, and only add extra salt if you feel like you need it.
Can you "save" buttercream if it starts to separate?
Uh oh. Your buttercream is looking grainy and sort of separated, like curds and whey. While that's good if you're making cheese, it's a real problem for buttercream. Luckily there are a few fixes.
Fix one: Adjust the temperature.
When butter is too warm, its liquids can separate from its solids. If you've already started mixing, pause and put the bowl in the refrigerator or an ice bath for a few minutes.
Although less likely, too-cold butter may also be the culprit. Stop mixing and let the butter warm slightly; this may be enough to smooth out any lumps.
Fix two: Add a flavor.
Flavorings can help emulsify butter and sugar. Stirring in ganache, melted white or dark chocolate, nut butter or homemade Nutella may bring your buttercream back to life.
Fix three: Add a stabilizer.
Instant vanilla pudding mix to the rescue! Believe it or not, adding 2 tablespoons can help buttercream solidify.
Is it better to use shortening or butter?
There isn't a right or wrong answer. Many people like butter for its rich flavor but shortening is a little sturdier, especially in the heat. Using part or all shortening in a buttercream that will be served outdoors on a warm day can be a smart move.
When should I add food coloring to my buttercream?
You'd typically do this toward the end of the mixing process, after you've stirred in the sugar. Adding it earlier won't ruin the buttercream, but it's hard to judge color early in the mixing process, so chances are you'll have to add more later anyway.
What kind of buttercream is best for piping?
A slightly firmer buttercream will help your shapes hold once piped. A crusting buttercream that sets firm can really get the job done.
What if my buttercream is too thick or thin?
If the former, add a small amount of cream or milk. If the latter, mix in confectioner's sugar until you get the consistency you want.
Learn More Now
Get more tips for flavoring buttercream and decking out cakes and cupcakes in our free guide, Not-So-Basic Buttercream Decorating Ideas.