Classic Vanilla Buttercream Frosting

by Alice Currah on March 12, 2010. Updated March 20, 2014

When I used to bake and decorate wedding and birthday cakes, I would use different types of frosting depending on who was eating the cake.  Most wedding cakes were frosted in egg based recipes such as Italian or French meringue but for children’s cakes or cupcakes I usually frost cakes in American buttercream frosting.  Made with powdered sugar, butter, vanilla, and milk, this is a basic, easy recipe for classic vanilla buttercream frosting.  This frosting works great for spreading on cakes, cupcakes, and/or for decorating.   Some frosting recipes will call for shortening.  Although you could easily substitute some of the butter for shortening, your frosting will taste greasy.  But if you must have a true bright white frosting or need to stabilize it, shortening and clear vanilla extract flavoring would work fine.  I prefer using all butter and occasionally substituting the vanilla extract for other flavors such as almond, coconut, milk, or lemon.  The color of the buttercream is slightly off white but the taste of whipped buttery frosting makes it entirely worth it.  Also, the frosting can be easily tinted with food paste gel or food coloring.

It’s important to note that when preparing a batch of frosting you  adjust the consistency of the buttercream for what you plan on using it for.  The easiest way to do this is by adjusting the amount of milk you use.  The less milk you pour in, the more stiff your frosting will be.  And if you pour in too much milk, you can always add more sifted powdered sugar to stiffen it right back up.  I for one prefer a medium (somewhat soft but slightly stiff) consistency when spreading on a cake.  But for piping and decorative work, I prefer a stiffer consistency so the different edges of my piping tips will show clearly.  The tip I used in the picture above is a #32.  As you can see, I piped it in 3 different styles using the same tip.

This recipe is very forgiving.  The amounts of milk and powdered sugar you use can be adjusted for what you need.  The only important suggestion I would recommend is to make sure you sift your powdered sugar before adding it to the butter.  This will insure your frosting is smooth and without small sugar clumps.

If you’re looking for a classic vanilla buttercream recipe, look no further. Enjoy!

**I am also soliciting cake tutorial requests – just leave them in the comment section below**

* Many of you have asked about how much frosting you need to make for cakes and cupcakes. Here’s an informative link from Baking 911 with a useful chart giving approximate frosting amounts depending the cake size.  Also, as far as cupcakes are concerned there is no standard answer.  Some people like to decorate with very little frosting on the cupcakes and others like to pipe them skyscraper high which would require way more frosting per cupcake.  For decorating cupcakes, the amount of frosting you need is according to how much frosting you would like to use.

**Someone emailed me wanting to know what tool I use to sift the powdered sugar.  I just buy a round metal mesh strainer available at any grocery store and use a spoon to stir the sugar against the metal mesh.  Hope this helps.**

*** Tips for success:  Use unsalted butter.  Different brands of butter have varied levels of salt content in salted butter.  Some people have commented that their buttercream was too salty.  This is due to the brand of butter you use.  Some brands will be vary salty and others not so much.  Therefore I have changed the recipe to reflect unsalted butter.

The texture of the butter makes a BIG difference.  If your buttercream is runny or thin, this is due to the texture of the butter which I’m assuming some of you may have microwaved to get it softened.  When you microwave butter like this, you run the risk of melting the butter which will make your frosting runny and grainy.  Ideally you want your butter to be soft enough to whip with a mixer or beater but not so soft it will melt.  The texture should be similar to ice cream, soft enough to scoop but firm enough to hold it’s shape.

Since many of you have asked about the chocolate version, here’s my Chocolate Buttercream recipe!

Related Savory Sweet Life post:  How to Frost a Cake



Classic Vanilla Buttercream Frosting
Recipe type: Dessert
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 2.5 cups
Classic American Buttercream frosting. This recipe uses powdered sugar, butter, vanilla and milk. This is a great recipe for decorating and piping on cupcakes and cake.
  • 1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks or ½ pound), softened (but not melted!) Ideal texture should be like ice cream.
  • 3-4 cups confectioners (powdered) sugar, SIFTED
  • ¼ teaspoon table salt
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • up to 4 tablespoons milk or heavy cream
  1. Beat butter for a few minutes with a mixer with the paddle attachment on medium speed. Add 3 cups of powdered sugar and turn your mixer on the lowest speed (so the sugar doesn’t blow everywhere) until the sugar has been incorporated with the butter. Increase mixer speed to medium and add vanilla extract, salt, and 2 tablespoons of milk/cream and beat for 3 minutes. If your frosting needs a more stiff consistency, add remaining sugar. If your frosting needs to be thinned out, add remaining milk 1 tablespoons at a time.

Here’s a great short video tutorial I did for PBS on how to pipe these beautiful frosting flowers using this buttercream on cupcakes. If you enjoy the video, please like it so I’ll be able to do more!

My standard chocolate cupcake recipe, slightly adapted from the popular Hershey’s version.  In this PBS video tutorial you’ll see how I make my own chocolate cake mix too.  Just add water, oil, eggs, vanilla, and milk. That simple!

And here’s another short PBS video tutorial I did on how to make Cookie Monster Cupcakes.

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{ 1336 comments… read them below or add one }

Maureen April 13, 2014 at 3:06 pm

Have you used coconut flakes in this recipe? Do you have another recipe for coconut frosting?


Marissa Floiran April 14, 2014 at 11:33 pm

Does this icing need to be refrigerated? If I make cupcakes with this buttercream can they sit out for 4 hours?


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