Confused About Buttercreams? Here's the Who, What, Where & Why of Buttercream Frosting! by Chef Gigi Gaggero

Confused About Buttercreams? Here's the Who, What, Where & Why of Buttercream Frosting!

Swiss buttercream, Italian buttercream, French buttercream, German buttercream, American buttercream… What? Don’t let these different types of cake frostings confuse you. Here’s the lowdown…

Swiss meringue buttercream refers to a specific type of frosting made from egg whites, sugar and butter. The egg whites and sugar are whisked together and heated up in a bain-marie, then whipped into a stiff meringue. Once the meringue cools, butter is added to make this luxurious buttercream. Really simple.

  • Pros: Smooth as silk and melt-on-your-tongue delicious. Works beautifully as a cake finish and when creating details like flowers or borders. Very stable frosting and is commonly used to fill and finish fine wedding cakes. Perfect under fondant.
  • Cons: Requires some time and patience, as well as a double boiler and candy thermometer, which can be intimidating. Melts in warm temps fast.

Italian meringue is similar to Swiss, however, instead of heating the egg whites and sugar together, the sugar is combined with water or other liquid and cooked to soft-ball stage. Then the hot sugar syrup is streamed steadily and slowly into the egg whites while beating, and then the butter and flavoring are added. Italian meringue is actually the most stable of the meringue buttercreams, and it’s my go-to. But it’s a little more finicky. It needs to cool some before the addition of butter. 

  • Pros: Very smooth and creamy with all of the same attributes of Swiss and French, but much more stable in warm temperatures since the sugar is cooked to a higher temperature. 
  • Cons: Pouring hot sugar while whipping egg whites is not for the faint of heart. This can take a lot of trial and error to master. Meringue must be whipped to cool before the addition of butter, which can take some time. 

French meringue is prepared with egg yolks instead of egg whites. As a result, it is really rich and luscious. It’s often a little too rich for my taste, but when it’s combined with the right components, it can be so sexy! 

  • Pros: This frosting is every butter lover’s dream – silky and smooth with a rich flavor. French buttercream works well as a cake filling or as a soft buttercream finish. 
  • Cons: French buttercream is a very soft frosting, so it doesn’t work well if you’re looking to achieve sharp corners and piping. Does not work well under fondant. 

German buttercream is a bit of a hybrid. It’s made with a pastry cream base, meaning it has egg yolks, milk and corn starch in addition to the sugar and butter. It makes a great cake filling, but doesn’t hold up as well as the others when decorating or piping.

  • Pros: Very smooth and flavorful. It works well as a cake filling or cupcake frosting.
  • Cons: German buttercream is soft, with similar drawbacks as the other softer buttercreams. It also has a yellowish tint, which can make it difficult to color. 

American buttercream is what I grew up eating on birthday cakes in the 1960s and 70s. A sticky paste made of powdered sugar, whipped butter or whipped shortening and a touch of milk. It’s very sweet, and it does form a crust as it dries, which can be good or bad depending on your goals. 

  • Pros: The easiest and quickest to make. It’s a hit with kids and those who swear by canned frosting. It’s also great to use as a cake finish and when piping details like buttercream flowers or borders. It holds up well in warmer weather when it’s made with at least 50 percent shortening. 
  • Cons: Very, very sweet. A gritty mouth-feel when compared to other frostings. If made with shortening it can also leave a greasy feel on the lips.

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Donna John
I had not idea there were so many buttercreams! I grew up eating the American buttercream, too, so know that greasy, gritty mouth-feel. I like the more whipped icings now. So informative, Chef Gigi Gaggero ! May have to try my hand at another type of buttercream. Can you add cocoa to make it chocolate?
Chef Gigi Gaggero
Yes, absolutely add sifted, high quality cocoa to any of your recipes but watch the amount and cheat to adjust the consistency w cream or nut milk if needed. I’d start w 1/4-1/2cup sifted after flavorings are added. Depending on the recipes weights and measures. Play with it! Donna John

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