EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT HOW TO MAKE BUTTERCREAM FROSTING
As a former wedding cake decorator, I know all the stresses involved in baking and decorating a cake. Finding the right buttercream frosting recipe is a big deal. In fact, you wouldn’t be here unless you wanted to learn how to make buttercream frosting using the very best buttercream frosting recipe on the internet.
But have no fear, Alice is here! I’m going to show you with detailed photos how to make the best tasting classic vanilla buttercream frosting that is light, fluffy, creamy, and spreads on a cake like a dream and is perfect as a pipable frosting for all your decorative needs.
Most wedding cake frostings are egg-based frostings such as Italian, Swiss, or French. However, for everyday occasion cakes including especially for birthdays, the classic vanilla buttercream frosting is the gold standard. Most boutique cupcake shops use buttercream frostings like this one.
What is buttercream made of?
Made with powdered sugar, butter, vanilla, heavy cream (half and half or milk will do, too), this essential, easy recipe for vanilla buttercream frosting is the only frosting you need to decorate your cakes and cupcakes!
Some buttercream frosting recipes call for shortening or a mixture of shortening and butter. Although you could easily substitute some of the butter for shortening, your frosting will have a greasy mouthfeel and taste to it. There are times when using shortening is appropriate. For instance, if you need to stabilize the cake frosting because your cake will be sitting outdoors in sweltering weather (like for a wedding) or you have to have a true bright white frosting, shortening can be used as well as clear vanilla extract flavoring.
My personal preference is using only butter and occasionally substituting the vanilla extract for other flavors such as almond, coconut, milk, or lemon. The color of the buttercream frosting 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 worth noting 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 cream you use. The less cream you pour in, the stiffer your frosting will be. And if you pour in too much cream, you can always add more sifted powdered sugar to stiffen it right back up.
For frosting and spreading on a cake, I prefer a medium (somewhat soft but slightly stiff) consistency. For piping and decorative work, I always go with a stiffer consistency, so the detailed edges of my piping tips 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 buttercream frosting recipe is very forgiving. The amounts of heavy cream and powdered sugar you use can be adjusted for what you need. The only important suggestion I recommend is to make sure you sift your powdered sugar before adding it to the butter. This will ensure your frosting is smooth without small sugar clumps.
NOTES FROM ALICE & FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
How much frosting do I need for cake? For cupcakes?
Many of you have asked about how much frosting you need to for layered cakes and cupcakes. The truth is, there is no straight standard answer because how much you need entirely depends on how you plan on using it. Will you need just enough frosting for the exterior of the cake? Or cake plus layers? Do you plan on doing any decorative piping? For cupcakes, do you only plan on a light, thin layer or do you plan on piping a swirl skyscraper high?
Here’s an informative chart from Wilton giving approximate frosting amounts depending on the cake size. Personally, I suggest using this guide and plan to make more accordingly if necessary.
What you need to know about butter!
Use unsalted butter because different brands of salted butter have varying levels of salt concentration. Some people have commented their buttercream was too salty. This is due to the brand of butter you use. Some brands are very 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 soften. When you microwave butter like this, you run the risk of partially melting the butter which will make your frosting runny and grainy… imagine making buttercream with vegetable oil. Ideally, you want your butter to be soft enough to whip with a mixer but not liquidy, even partially. The texture should be similar to soft serve ice cream, soft enough to scoop but firm enough to hold its shape.
What you need to know about sifting sugar!
Do not, under any circumstances, use unsifted powdered sugar. Sifting the powdered sugar breaks up any larger clumps of sugar that will otherwise not break down in the whipping process. In fact, you’ll have varying degrees of tiny clumps which are unpleasant to look at when spreading this frosting on a cake and also can contribute to a grainy mouthfeel.
-Tools of the trade-
A few people have asked in the comments section which tool I use to sift powdered sugar. I use a rounded kitchen mesh strainer found in nearly all grocery stores’ baking aisle. These Cuisinart CTG-00-3MS Set of 3 Fine Mesh Stainless Steel Strainersare a great deal. Nearly half-off the retail listed price, having a set of three in various sizes will serve you well, especially the small mini one. I use that one to dust small plated desserts or a pan of brownies.
This recipe requires you to beat it with a mixer for until the texture of the butter and sugar turns light and fluffy-just like the picture. This step is crucial as it whips air into the frosting. If you own a Kitchenaid stand mixer and bake regularly, I HIGHLY recommend purchasing the beater attachment with the silicon edge scraper. I’ve owned two of these beaters because it saves me a step from having to stop the mixer to scrape the bowl down. Truth moment – scraping the bowl down is a pain in the butt. I haven’t used the medal attachment for years since discovering the scraper attachment. I hate having to scrape the bowl down when making frosting or mixing batter. This attachment makes for a better workflow for me. At nearly half off the listed price, I recommend this KitchenAid KFE5T Flex Edge Beater for Tilt-Head Stand Mixers
HERE’S A SHORT VIDEO ON HOW TO MAKE THIS CAKE FROSTING.
THE ONLY BUTTERCREAM FROSTING YOU’LL EVER NEED
- 1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks or ½ pound), softened (but not melted!) Ideal texture should be like soft serve ice cream.
- 3-4 cups confectioners (powdered) sugar, SIFTED
- ¼ teaspoon table salt
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- Up to 4 tablespoons heavy cream, half and
half, or milk **heavy cream is best
- Beat the softened butter for
a minuteswith a mixer using the paddle attachment on medium speed.
- Turn off the mixer and add the 3 cups of sifted 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. The mixture will look clumpy – don’t worry,
- Increase mixer speed to medium and add the vanilla extract, salt, and 2 tablespoons of cream and beat for 2-3 minutes until it is whipped, fluffy, and creamy in appearance.
- If your frosting needs a more stiff consistency, add remaining sugar. If your frosting needs to be thinned out, add remaining cream 1 tablespoons at a time.
FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION
Since many of you have asked about the chocolate version, here’s my Chocolate Buttercream recipe!
Here’s a great straightforward photo tutorial on How to Frost a Cake .
And for you visual learners, here’s my PBS video on how to make this buttercream frosting. Don’t let the video title “How to Ice Cupcakes“ fool you. The first part of the video shows you exactly how to make this buttercream and the second half shows you how to pipe these beautiful buttercream flowers using this recipe I’ve posted below. Can I just add, piping these frosting flowers is super super easy! Once you see how easy it is you’ll feel so accomplished!