I receive A LOT of emails and comments about buttercream. I try to respond to them as thoroughly and promptly as I can, but sometimes I just don’t have the time to do so, and that makes me feel bad.
Like, really really bad.
So, what I decided to do was start a bit of a “how to” series on making different kinds of buttercream. I want to be able to address any questions that you guys may have, and be able to offer guidance with step-by-step photos just so you’ll feel a little bit more confident about trying out the recipes. I know that stepping away from the classic powdered sugar and butter frosting might seem a little scary, but it’s really not that difficult. European buttercreams may take a little longer to whip up and may make a little bit more of a mess, but trust me – it’s worth it. Swiss and Italian Meringue buttercream are less cloyingly sweet than traditional buttercream and, in my opinion, both have a more pleasant mouth feel.
Also, when you present a cake to someone and tell them that it’s frosted and filled with Swiss or Italian Meringue Buttercream, it makes you sound really fancy, and that’s always good, right? Especially since they never have to know that it’s not that hard to make!
So, let’s jump in, shall we?
A step-by-step guide penned by Kaitlin and photographed by P.
Swiss Meringue buttercream was the first European-style buttercream I ever made. It’s a little easier than Italian Meringue buttercream and it uses nearly the same exact proportions of ingredients. The taste is identical, but the difference is evident in the texture; Swiss Meringue Buttercream is a little less light than its Italian cousin, and feels a little heavier (but not oily!) on the tongue. Because it is thicker, I chose to use it for the Super Epic Rainbow Cake for structural stability.
The first thing you should do when starting any recipe is to gather your ingredients and hardware. Measure out everything before you start to be sure that you have enough and also to expedite the process. This is called mise en place, which is just a fancy French way to say, roughly, “everything in its place,” and it is very, very important.
Here we have…
- 5 egg whites
- You must be sure that you are using LARGE eggs or the proportions will be off. Your frosting will not set correctly if you use larger or smaller eggs (unless you compensate for the difference, but most people, myself included, are too lazy to bother). The egg whites do not have to be room temperature for this recipe, but it will speed things up if they are.
- 1 c (200 g) sugar
- This is granulated sugar. Do not use powdered sugar!
- 2 sticks (226 g) butter
- This butter is room temperature and should be chopped into tablespoon-sized slices before continuing. You must allow your butter to set on the counter for at least 30 minutes before using or it will not incorporate correctly. If, however, you would like a shortcut, simply slice your butter into tablespoon-sized pieces and arrange them in one layer on a plate. Microwave for 5 seconds, flip over each slice, and microwave for 5 seconds longer if needed.
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- Well, this is more than a teaspoon’s worth, isn’t it? No matter; just know that you can use almost any kind of flavoring you like for buttercream. I will touch on this point later in the post…
- An arbitrary amount of water
- This is more hardware than ingredient, so… My bad. This water will be poured into the pan of your double boiler.
Alright, now that you have your ingredients ready, let’s move onto hardware.
We will be using…
- A small pan and an accompanying bowl (not pictured – oops!).
- If you have a double boiler, use it! I don’t, so I suffice by doing it this way. Be sure that the bowl fits well on top of the pan and doesn’t set too low in it.
- A whisk
- A rubber spatula
- An electric mixer
- You can use a hand-held model or a standing model. Or just a whisk if you’re crazy like P.
Begin by pouring an inch or two of water into the pan of your double boiler. If you are simply using a pan and a bowl, make sure that the bottom of your bowl does not touch the water. If this happens, your eggs will scramble and you will have to start again! After an appropriate amount of water has been added, bring it to a simmer.
Meanwhile, combine the sugar and egg whites in the bowl of the double boiler with a whisk. You are not trying to whip the whites at this point, so don’t worry about creating volume. Just be sure that they are evenly combined.
When the water is simmering, place the bowl over the pan. Whisking constantly, heat until the sugar is completely dissolved and the mixture is quite hot to the touch (160F on a candy thermometer), about five minutes. Be sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl every once and awhile with the rubber spatula to get all of the sugar off the sides of the pan. If all of the sugar doesn’t dissolve, your frosting will taste fine, but it will be grainy and won’t look smooth.
Heating the eggs and sugar has a few purposes. The first of which is that it melts the sugar, resulting in a very smooth meringue. And have you ever heard that room-temperature egg white whip better than cold ones? That’s because room-temp egg whites have a more relaxed protein structure in comparison to cold ones, and heating them further only loosens that structure more. This means that heating the eggs allows them to whip to a higher volume.
Also, cooking the egg whites can serve as a method of pasteurization if you have concerns about salmonella. Just use a candy thermometer to ensure that the egg whites reach 160F before continuing, and then continue as directed.
Anyway, the whole process should take about five minutes. To test if the sugar is dissolved, just dip your fingers into the mix (don’t worry – it’s not going to hurt you!) and rub some between your fingertips. If it’s gritty, keep cooking! If not, move on (after washing your hands, of course).
Pour the mix into a larger bowl (you may use the one from the double boiler, if you like, or a stand mixer if you have one), scraping the pan with the rubber spatula to get as much out as possible.
Begin whipping the egg whites on high speed. They will foam initially…
Then thicken slightly…
Then thicken some more…
And eventually you will have a lovely, glossy, light and wonderful meringue! It’s a lot like marshmallow, at this point, and quite stiff. The bottom of the bowl should be room temperature and the egg whites themselves should have cooled. The whipping will take ten to fifteen minutes.
At this point you can begin adding butter, but only after chopping it into tablespoon-sized slices (thanks, P!)
With the mixer on high speed, add the sliced butter, piece by piece, to the meringue. Be sure to add the butter SLOWLY and make sure that each pat is completely incorporated before adding the next (counting to 15 usually works for me). Don’t panic when the meringue deflates. That’s supposed to happen, and it’s totally fine!
Sometimes the buttercream becomes soupy after all of the butter is incorporated, and I have not been able to discern if that is due to adding the butter too quickly (which we did intentionally here) or if it is due to the butter being too warm. However, the cause is not terribly important, because I will show you how to fix it!
So, if your buttercream looks like this, don’t be sad, scared, angry or frustrated. It may look more like soup than frosting at this point, but it’s totally fine. All you have to do is…
Put it in the fridge. Seriously. Just let it cool for 5-10 minutes before you whip it again. You might also try adding a few more tablespoons of butter.
Of course, if your buttercream is not soupy, just keep whipping it.
But after whipping a little bit, the next “problem” may rear its ugly head. I know that that looks disgusting and curdled and just… Wrong, but it’s ok. Just keep your mixer and your spirits on high…
… And keep whipping! I promise that it will smooth out.
And when it does, it is time to add the flavoring of your choice. We chose 1 teaspoon of vanilla for today, just to keep things basic.
Then we whipped it in…
And wound up with a little over 2 cups of wonderful, luscious, smooth Swiss Meringue Buttercream!
Now, to address the topic of flavorings.
You may use any kind of extract you like in place of the vanilla. Almond, lemon, peppermint – you name it. It’s all to taste, so add more or less to your preferences. Oils are an option as well, but they are much stronger in flavor so only add a drop or two at a time. Melted chocolate can be used to make chocolate buttercream, but be sure that is has cooled sufficiently before adding it or it will make your frosting melt.
I like to use jams to flavor buttercream, but be sure that they are quite thick as too much liquid will cause the buttercream to break (meaning the fats and liquids to separate). I don’t know of any way to fix it when this happens, so be careful when adding jams and drop in about a tablespoon at a time.
Using jam as a flavoring will lend color to the buttercream, but that can also be done by using food coloring. Gel and liquid colors work well (I imagine that powdered food coloring would too, but I’ve never used it) and are best added just a bit at a time until the desired color is achieved.
Leftover buttercream may be kept in the refrigerator for a week or two or frozen, well wrapped, until needed. Just be sure to bring it to room temperature and whip well with a beater before using.
I think I have exhausted my knowledge of this subject for the time being, so I would love to open this post up to anyone who has any questions about Swiss Meringue Buttercream. If you’ve want to ask something, please feel free to do so in a comment, or e-mail me if you prefer! I’ll try to work the answers to your questions into the post if I’m able, or maybe I’ll just add a small FAQ.
At any rate, thanks for reading! I hope I’ve been able to make at least someone feel a little better about this whole process. Keep an eye out for the next “how to” which will focus on Italian Meringue!
Oh, and before I go – I would like to thank P’s family (Happy birthday to P’s mom!) for allowing P and me the opportunity to use their kitchen for this project, and I would also like to thank P for all of his help!