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The Basics of Buttercream

Updated: Feb 13

Buttercream icing is a staple for many new cake decorators and when prepared correctly will save you much frustration and allow you to focus on the techniques you are learning. If your buttercream is made incorrectly you will spend a lot of time fighting with your icing rather than being able to focus on piping beautiful art!

Types

There are a number of types of buttercream out there but for this article we will be focusing on Regular Icing and Decorator Icing. These two are the most common for new decorators.

Regular icing is the overall covering for the cake. You will create your "canvas" so to speak with this type of icing. Decorating icing is what you will use to make designs and decorations on your canvas. Decorating icing is usually stiffer than regular icing, yet dries to the same smooth finish. 



Sugar

Each ingredient plays an important role in successful icing. Pure Cane Confectioners' Sugar (aka powdered sugar or icing sugar) is a sweetener. Sifting it will help make the icing smoother and prevent any clumps of sugar from collecting in your icing tube tips and clogging them. Some recipes such as Swiss Meringue Buttercream call for granulated sugar. We will cover this icing and more in a later article and tutorial.


Butter & Shortening

Butter and shortening create the texture. The more you use, the creamier it will be; the less you use, the drier. 


Shortening usually can be purchased in your local supermarket two ways. White shortening, which is unflavored shortening or yellow shortening which has been flavored to taste like butter. If you are making white icing you will want to make sure that you do not use butter flavored shortening otherwise your icing will not be white.

I will tell you that since Crisco changed their recipe in an effort to cut out trans-fats it has effected the way the buttercream icing tastes and feels. The trans-fat found in the original Crisco is what made your buttercreams tasty and didn't leave a greasy film on the roof of your mouth.

There is also another type of shortening that will make your buttercream tasty; High Ratio Shortening.. It's a little harder to find (and its not allowed in all states) but whips up smoother, creamier and is less greasy than traditional shortening. What's the difference you ask? High ratio shortening contains emulsifiers that allow your buttercream to hold more sugar and liquids before breaking down.

I will tell you that High Ratio Shortening is very expensive compared to Crisco but you will use less in your recipe and once you've tried it you'll have a hard time going back to Crisco. Use 2/3 cup of high ratio shortening for every 1 cup called for in the icing recipe.

Where can you buy it? Well that can be a little tricky. It's not readily available at the grocery store and if by chance your store does carry it, it will be packaged as just "High Ratio Shortening". It can be found online at CK products (packaged as High Ratio Shortening) or through a bakery supply as Sweetex. You will need to make sure you check the Sweetex label before purchasing to ensure it is the "High Ratio Shortening" as Sweetex also carries one with out trans-fats. So be sure to double check the label! Also check your local cake decorating supply shop as they often will carry it.

A less expensive route is to purchase the store brand of shortening. Just check the label and if it contains trans-fats then that shortening will be like the old Crisco before they changed the recipe. However, keep in mind this route will not have the same flavor as a Sweetex, but it will be easier on the pocket book and give you some of the other qualities that the new Crisco recipe no longer has.

Now butter is tastier to some, but it will not produce pure white icing. When making your buttercream icing you do not have to use 100% shortening in your recipe. If you want to make it a little tastier, you can take the shortening amount called for in the recipe and split it in half using real unsalted butter for the other half. 

If you are new to piping you may want to try a recipe that contains meringue powder in addition to shortening. Why? Because it is a good stabilizer and helps your buttercream hold  its shape. The combo of the meringue powder and the shortening keep it from breaking down quickly since you typically re-use the buttercream when practicing. 

Additionally if you have hot hands the high ratio shortening has a higher melt point than say butter, so it will typically stand up to hot hands better. Two other things to consider for those of you that have "hot hands"; use a parchment bag instead of a plastic bag and make your icing a little stiffer as the heat of your hands will change the consistency of your icing making it softer. If you are worried about over working your hand muscle with a stiffer icing you could make up two bags and alternate them in and out of the fridge to keep them cool.

Liquid

Liquid is used to achieve proper consistency. Water, milk, cream, coffee creamers, fruit juice and even light corn syrup can be used. The amount of the liquid controls consistency and workability of the icing. The more you add, the thinner it will be.

Liquid flavors such as extracts or bakery emulsions add rich flavor to the icing. If you use a large amount of liquid flavor, cut back on your other liquid ingredients proportionately.

I love LorAnn Oils bakery emulsions. Most are white and you can use them for icing as well as for baking, fondant and fillings. When used in baking the flavor doesn't bake out. This is due to the fact that the emulsions are not alcohol based but water based.

Their Red Velvet bakery emulsion is one of my favorites. Its not one of the white ones, but is a deep red. I find that when I make Red Velvet cake I use less emulsion because of its richness than I would a red food dye. An added bonus, all of their emulsions are Kosher Certified and Gluten-Free.


Great works of art await you

If you were about to paint your first work of art, you would need to know how to prepare your canvas, the colors, how to use your brushes and palate and what techniques create the best results. It's no different with cake decorating. The materials are the cake, the icing, the decorating supplies and you-your technique. 

Once you have mastered the basics with a shortening based buttercream, you can then move on to an all butter recipe or even a Swiss Meringue Buttercream (aka. SMBC). Look for my video tutorial on making SMBC.. Until then I hope this article starts you on the path to decorating success!


Practice Buttercream Recipe  Makes approx: 2 to 2.5 cups of stiff icing

This recipe is ideal for frosting and filling cakes as well as creating borders, leaves and some flowers. *Note: For icing your cake you will need to thin the recipe out.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup solid high ratio shortening (Sweetex) or Crisco

  • 1/2 tsp - 1 tsp Clear Vanilla (Either an extract or a Bakery Emulsion such as LorAnn's)

  • 1 lbs sifted confectioners sugar (10x powered sugar is great if you can find it)

  • 2 Tbsp of water, milk, or cream your choice (if practice icing just use water)

Directions: Mix shortening, flavoring and water together. Carefully add in powdered sugar a little at a time until incorporated. If you add it all at once, it will cover your kitchen in powdered sugar! Blend until creamy but do not over beat or you will have air bubbles in your icing.

Consistency: You will want to adjust the consistency of your buttercream depending on the use. 

Stiff Consistency: Leave recipe as is. Ideal for creating flowers and leaves with upright petals.

Medium Consistency: Add one additional tablespoon of liquid to the recipe. Ideal for borders, and flowers with petals that lie flat.

Thin Consistency: Add two additional tablespoons of liquid to the recipe. Ideal for icing your entire cake and for writing and making stems.

Storage: This icing can be stored for two weeks in an airtight container in the fridge. To reuse, let the icing come to room temp. Then reheat it for 1 min on med speed in your kitchen aid to restore its original consistency.

Modifications:

  • For a better taste; replace half of the shortening with butter.

  • For different flavors, sub out the Vanilla for any other flavor.

  • Flavored Coffee Creamers can also be used for the liquid portion of the recipe.