A Comparison of 8 Buttercreams (and how to choose the right one)

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.

What classifies a frosting as buttercream?

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:

  • whipped creams,
  • ganaches,
  • meringues, and
  • buttercreams.

(This tree will grow more branches as I continue to study more frostings.)

Visually defining these relationships, as you see here, allows me to identify gaps and create new recipes.

In this guide, I will focus on Buttercreams (labeled pink).

Within that category, I've identified two types of buttercreams based on how we mix the ingredients together: 

  • non-emulsion based (I call these "Simple Buttercreams")
  • emulsion-based (I call these "True buttercreams")

Non-emulsion-based, or "Simple Buttercreams," are just sweetened butter and are not covered in this guide.

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 American Buttercream is named "Vanilla American Buttercream," and can be found in my Cakeculator. The cream cheese frosting is called "Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting" and can be found here.

Emulsion-based, or "True Buttercreams," require precise mixing of two components to make an emulsion.

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.)

How do you know which emulsion-based buttercream to use?

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.

Russian Buttercream

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.

Choose Russian buttercream if you:

  • need a frosting very quickly.
  • enjoy the "butter" in buttercreams or eat condensed milk by the spoonful. This is a rich and sweet frosting, so make sure to balance that with the rest of your cake/dessert (e.g., introduce some acidity/fruit to cut the richness) unless you like to eat very rich frostings.
  • are getting into advanced buttercreams further down this list. Because condensed milk is ready-made, it's easy for beginners to succeed.

Don't choose Russian buttercream if you:

  • prefer a lighter style of buttercream - this one is on the denser side.
  • prefer a less sweet buttercream; this one is one of the sweetest listed here.
  • don't enjoy the flavor of condensed milk.

Check out my recipe here on Russian buttercream.

American Dreamy 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.

Chose American Dreamy Buttercream if you:

  • like the simple method of American buttercreams but prefer to avoid how sweet and sandy the texture can be with traditional recipes. 
  • are just starting in cake decorating; this is great for beginners so that you can practice making emulsion-based buttercreams without having to cook anything (which is a requirement for the rest of the buttercreams down this list.)

Don't choose American Dreamy Buttercream if you:

  • prefer a lighter buttercream style - this one is denser.
  • prefer a less sweet buttercream. Although this is much less sweet than traditional American Buttercream, it is one of the relatively sweeter ones in this guide.

Check out my American Dreamy recipe here.

Ermine Buttercream

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.

Choose Ermine Buttercream if you:

  • enjoy whipped cream frostings but want something more substantial and long-lasting for your cakes.
  • want to try the original frosting for red velvet or an older traditional type of frosting used on American cakes. (Many people have told me that this is what their Grandmothers made, and they had no idea what it was called.)
  • need a super stable frosting; this one outperformed all my other frostings in my layer cake and heat tests (see the video at the bottom of the post to watch it in action.)

Don't choose Ermine Buttercream if you:

  • like a more buttery or dense frosting.
  • are just starting out with cake decorating and need something to look polished; this one takes a little practice to get smooth - though it can be done.

Check out my Ermine Buttercream recipe here.

French Buttercream

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.

Choose French Buttercream if you:

  • want a rich, luscious buttercream for your desserts. This buttercream is famous for filling macarons because it offers a richness to counterbalance the crispy dried shells surrounding it. I love this buttercream on many other desserts, too, though.
  • want a denser but not too sweet buttercream. This one has less sweetness than the Russian and American dreamy buttercreams but also has a bit of the same density than they do.

Don't choose French Buttercream if:

  • need white buttercream. Due to the egg yolks, this one is naturally more yellow than the others on this list.
  • need a buttercream that is lighter on the palate.

Check out my French Buttercream recipe here.

Swiss meringue Buttercream

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.

Choose Swiss meringue Buttercream if you:

  • want to level up your cake decorating from traditional American buttercreams (the ones that use just butter/powdered sugar.) Most pro-decorators will likely use this for sharp, clean sides and detailed designs. I can usually tell if cakes are decorated using one of these emulsion-based buttercreams because there is a seamless, sometimes glossy finish, which is hard to achieve with American buttercream.  
  • don't like overly sweet buttercream.

Don't choose Swiss meringue Buttercream if you:

  • don't like the taste of butter; the meringue itself offers minimal flavor, so some people comment that the meringue buttercreams taste butter primarily. There are ways around this (such as adding flavored powders, jams, and syrups), but you must be careful with the portioning as it can break the emulsion.
  • need something that withstands very high heat and humidity (again, you can work around this, but it involves using a fat with a higher melting temperature, such as vegetable shortening.)

I've studied this buttercream and know it backward and forwards, so I have lots of resources for you on this one.

Go here to see my recipe for Swiss meringue buttercream.

Go here if you are having trouble with your buttercream curdling (this will work for any emulsion-based buttercreams curdling, too.)

Go to this video here to get brighter, more saturated colors in your Swiss meringue buttercream.

German Buttercream

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.

Choose German Buttercream if you:

  • adore the texture and flavor of pastry cream or custards.
  • want a more decadent frosting for your dessert (probably would be delicious for filling a Boston cream pie type of cake…)

Don't choose German Buttercream if you:

  • need a white buttercream; this one is more cream/light yellow colored due to the pastry cream.
  • prefer a non-eggy flavor in your buttercream; this one is not overpowering, but there is a slight flavor from the pastry cream.

My recipe for German buttercream is coming shortly.

Italian Meringue Buttercream

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.

Choose Italian meringue  Buttercream if you:

  • need the stability to hold up very large layer cakes or intricate designs. This one performed very well in my heat and humidity tests.
  • want a melt-in-your-mouth buttercream that is sweet with a lingering butter flavor.
  • need a pure white buttercream.

Don't choose Italian meringue Buttercream if:

  • you don't own a stand mixer. Though I've never tried, some of these buttercreams may be possible with a hand mixer (such as Russian, American Dreamy, and Ermine). Still, this one will be the hardest to achieve without one because of the sugar syrup that needs to be poured in while the mixer is going.
  • you need a buttercream that has egg whites that are 100% cooked. Although you use hot syrup, ambient air temperatures likely lower the egg mixture's final temperature. It happens so quickly that the residual heat is not adequately distributed throughout the raw egg whites during whipping.

My recipe for Italian meringue buttercream is coming shortly.

Sugarologie Buttercream

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.) 

Choose Sugarologie Buttercreams if you:

  • want a unique flavor or color combo that can't be found with other buttercreams. (In other words, if you're looking for chocolate and vanilla buttercreams, there are probably at least 10 versions of each I suggest in the options above.)
  • want to try something new. This is a relatively new style of buttercream, even for me. I'm constantly experimenting with my formulas and will always post them here for us. 

Don't choose Sugarologie Buttercream if you:

  • are new to emulsion-based buttercreams. These are the most advanced frosting recipes I have on my site. I will always guide you through every step. Still, starting with either Swiss or Italian meringue is a good idea to understand general buttercream textures and procedures. 
Recipes of Sugarologie buttercreams:

Black Buttercream (a no-dye black frosting that tastes like Oreos)

Buttercream Cheese Frosting (a super stable, non-drippy cream cheese buttercream for decorating cakes)

Red Buttercream (a no artificial dye magenta-red frosting)

If you want to learn more, you can watch this video with all my buttercream experiments:

I also have this newer video that goes into my newer category of buttercreams, which I'm currently developing:


Hi! I'm Adriana.

I built this site for the curious home baker. I'm a huge science + tech nerd; you'll feel right at home if you like exploring and experimenting in the kitchen too.

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