There are so many types of buttercream that many bakers ask me which is the right one. I will help you answer that question in this guide, covering eight buttercreams and their flavors, textures, and stabilities for piping and frosting.
First, let me briefly define buttercream. In general, frostings (or icings) are a sweetened component for topping and filling cakes and various desserts. When casually used, "frosting" can mean many things, from whipped creams to chocolate ganaches.
Using the relationship tree below, I'll show you how I think about frostings.
I've identified four main categories of frostings:
(This tree will grow more branches as I continue to study more frostings.)
Within that category, I've identified two types of buttercreams based on how we mix the ingredients together:
You may be familiar with one - American Buttercream. You add sifted powdered sugar into softened butter and a bit of liquid to thin it out.
I categorize this as a simple buttercream because no emulsifying is taking place. We're just adding bulk to the butter as solid sugar granules. I will typically refer to this buttercream as "Traditional American Buttercream" to differentiate it from my version of American Buttercream, which I'll cover in the emulsion section.
Another popular variation is Cream Cheese Buttercream, whereby a portion of the butter in American Buttercream is substituted with cream cheese but relies on the same method: adding solid sugar into fat.
I won't cover those in this guide, but my blog has both recipes.
The other category of buttercreams is emulsion-based buttercreams, which opens many doors for flavors, textures, and stability. All these buttercreams have in common is that they contain around 50% butter and some other water-based component. That component can be meringue, condensed milk, corn syrup, or a mixture of fat, starches, and water-based ingredients, such as pastry cream.
Those two main components mix to create an emulsion or a mixture of oil and water that don't want to mix with each other. But they do because of the butter and the molecules within. (One, in particular, is named casein.)
Below is a flow chart of how you can decide which buttercream you want to try. It categorizes the eight buttercreams on texture vs. difficulty. If you start at the very bottom where to pink arrow is, you can follow the various questions that may give you an idea of which buttercream you may want to try.
This is just one way to categorize buttercreams, so I will now summarize each buttercream specifically below by giving details on sugar and fat content, for example.
You'll also see a star rating (1 being the worst, 5 being the best) on how the frostings perform in piping and stability.
For piping work, I tested the frostings on cupcakes, and for stability testing, I filled and frosted 6-inch cakes and placed weights on top. I then recorded the frosting's bulging over time, which you can view in the video all the way down at the bottom of the post. In that video, you can also view how I tested the frostings for heat stability.
We'll start from the easiest and work our way up to the most difficult.
In this guide, Russian buttercream (condensed milk frosting) is one of the easiest buttercreams to make. It comes together in less than 10 minutes and has a rich buttery taste followed by a caramelized milky flavor. Texture-wise, it's on the denser side but pipes and frosts smooth on the outside of cakes.
The main ingredients for this frosting are butter and condensed milk, although vanilla and salt can be added for flavor. Even though it only requires a few ingredients, it still is considered an emulsion-based frosting because the milk has to emulsify into the butter. The frosting is an emulsion between butter and sweetened condensed milk, which adds sugar, milk proteins, and a caramelized cooked milk flavor to the final buttercream.
American Dreamy Buttercream is another great buttercream that comes together in less than 10 minutes. This is a less sweet and smoother alternative to traditional American buttercream, which uses a high ratio of powdered sugar mixed into butter. (See my "Simple Buttercream" explanation above.)
I prefer not to use so much powdered sugar in my American buttercreams because it tends to have a grainy feel, which I don't like in my frostings, so my buttercream instead uses a high amount of dissolved sugar in the buttercream, which gives it a smooth and creamy, yet buttery flavor.
The main ingredients for this buttercream are butter, corn syrup, powdered sugar, whipping cream, and vanilla and salt for flavor. It's an emulsion in that you have to whip the butter up until it's light and fluffy, and then add the corn syrup in little by little until everything is mixed in. Then the powdered sugar is added, and the buttercream is flavored and smoothed out.
Ermine buttercream goes by many names, including boiled milk, cooked flour, or heritage frosting. The texture and flavor are light and fluffy, with a mild sweetness and buttery flavor.
Interestingly, although it seems more lightweight, it is also one of the strongest in temperature and pressure stability out of all the buttercreams I tested in this article. It also has the lightest texture and sweetness.
This buttercream is of moderate difficulty because you have to cook a flour paste before adding it to the softened butter. When I first made this buttercream, I was puzzled by the textures during the emulsion step because it is unlike any others on this list. You may see lots of aeration, and loose curdles, but it will come together if you keep mixing.
French buttercream is a beautiful frosting of eggs, sugar, butter, and vanilla. Texture-wise, it has a bit more body than the meringue buttercreams (Swiss and Italian) with a bit of creaminess similar to Russian and American buttercreams.
It has a slight flavor from egg yolks. Still, it's not overly eggy - the sugar and vanilla balance it out, so it feels like you're eating a more aerated pastry cream.
Most recipes use only egg yolks, but I prefer whole eggs, which are more efficient for ingredient usage. (No more searching for recipes with lots of leftover egg whites.) I also like to cook my eggs over a water bath. In this way, the buttercream method resembles Swiss meringue buttercream (which I prefer since it is 100% cooked). I heat the whole eggs with sugar, then whip it on the mixer until it's nice and foamed.
Swiss meringue buttercream is a favorite among many cake decorators because of its smooth finish on the outside cakes and its ability to hold piping detail. If I'm not using one of my custom Sugarologie frostings, this is my favorite for cake decorating.
Swiss meringue buttercream is made with egg whites, sugar, and butter. The egg whites and sugar are cooked over a bath and whipped into a meringue. The butter is then added in, creating a light yet stable buttercream. This gets a difficult rating because cooking typically requires cooking the egg whites with sugar before mixing it into the butter.
Italian meringue is very similar to Swiss, but instead of being cooked with sugar, a sugar syrup is made separately and added to whipped egg whites. Italian meringue is slightly more stable than Swiss, which I'll explain under the Italian meringue buttercream heading.
German buttercream is a rich and decadent frosting that includes making a traditional pastry cream (made of egg yolks, cream, cornstarch, sugar, and vanilla) and allowing that to cool before adding it to whipped butter. Powdered sugar is often added at the end of the frosting process to enhance sweetness, but the end frosting is not grainy.
Due to this, the frosting gets a difficult rating because you must make a pastry cream successfully before adding it to the butter.
The texture is really like eating a very aerated custard or pastry cream. It tastes like a buttery, vanilla-flavored pastry cream with a mild milk and egg flavor.
Italian meringue is the base of this buttercream, which is made by drizzling hot sugar syrup into whipped egg whites. This gives a super stable meringue because the sugar syrup is cooked to such a high temperature that it causes the sugar syrup to solidify slightly within the whipped meringue. After the meringue is made, butter is added to form the buttercream.
This is considered one of the very difficult methods for making buttercream because the sugar syrup must be cooked to a specific temperature and then, while piping hot, poured into the whipped egg whites.
The payoff is excellent because it is one of the most stable buttercreams you can use for cakes. It performed very well in my heat and humidity tests, which, if you'd like to see, is listed in the video below.
These are buttercreams that I've developed after studying all the buttercreams above. It uses what I call the "Sugarologie method," which entails making a sugar syrup that is either highly flavored or colored and then emulsifying the syrup into cold (sometimes) frozen butter. The resulting buttercreams are unique in their flavor, glossy, and ready to pipe and frost onto cakes.
I come up with these frostings because I usually try to solve problems. One example is my Cream Cheese Buttercream, which I developed because I couldn't find a cream cheese buttercream that offered the same stability as a Swiss meringue. Another is my black buttercream, which solves the problem of achieving a super black and delicious buttercream without using artificial dyes. (Mine uses black cocoa syrup to create a dark, rich black frosting.)